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Editor’s note: Since this story was originally published, Third Culture Bakery announced the closure of its RiNo and Aurora stores at the end of 2021, citing pandemic- and supply-chain-related issues, labor shortages, and racism. “We signed our leases with full intention to expand in Colorado, but nothing could have prepared anyone for what the pandemic did to the world and the people,” said co-owner Wenter Shyu, in an announcement on December 13. “It’s a different world now and the challenges in Colorado have been crushing. Facing racism, COVID-related prejudice, and other unsavory events have been heartbreaking.”
There’s no shortage of sweet spots in the metro area where Denverites can satisfy their cravings for pastries, from the decadent confections at the Donut House to delicate custard-and-fruit-filled beauties at Tokyo Premium Bakery. But as of last weekend, Denver’s doughnut (and muffin) lineup just got a little bit sweeter. That’s when Third Culture Bakery opened in Aurora, introducing us to a different breed of treat: mochi muffins and mochi butter doughnuts.
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Sam Butarbutar is the culinary mastermind behind the creations at Third Culture, which he founded in 2016 with his life and business partner Wenter Shyu. They started out selling their mochi muffins to coffee shops in the Bay Area, and quickly gained a cult following. The duo opened a brick-and-mortar bakery in Berkeley in 2017, and prepared to expand into another state. That’s when their close friend, Colorado native, and now-CFO Rachel Taber suggested opening a store in the Denver area; one visit to the Centennial State solidified the couple’s decision. “I don’t want to be cheesy, but I just really love Colorado,” says Shyu. “We’ll still have the Bay Area bakery, but Denver will be our base now.” To underscore the point, Shyu and Butarbutar even bought a home in Aurora, not far from their East Colfax location.
Third Culture’s baked goods are inspired by Japanese mochi and the flavors Butarbutar grew up with in Indonesia. The exquisite muffins and doughnuts—which are more expensive than your typical banana muffin or yeast-raised sweet, ranging in price from $3 to $3.95—are made from premium ingredients, including Koda Farms’ Blue Star Mochiko sweet rice flour (which gives them their signature chewy goodness), organic Indonesian coconut sugar, and French-style butter from a Bay Area dairy farm. Third Culture sources its sesame seeds from an 11th-generation Japanese family farm, and then stone-mills the seeds in-house for 72 hours; the jet black sesame paste brings deep, nutty flavor to the sesame muffin and icing on the sesame mochi doughnut.
There are six varieties of muffins and 12 flavors of doughnuts to choose from. The original mochi muffin ($3.95), is a marvel, with a crisp, caramelized exterior and, well, mochi-like chewiness inside, run through with the flavors of brown butter and coconut. There’s also a brownie-like chocolate version, an earthy matcha, and a sugar-and-cinnamon-coated churro variety. The mochi butter doughnuts ($3 to $3.25) have a squishier (in a good way) texture than the muffins and come in a rainbow of colors and flavors. Butarbutar’s use of real fruit juices in his icings give them far more complex flavor than typical doughnut glazes, as proved by first tastes of the mango-passion fruit, yuzu-lemon, and strawberry cream varieties. More unusual options include jasmine milk tea and the gorgeous, gently sweet ube (purple yam).
To complement all the carb magic, Third Culture pours a variety of coffee and tea drinks ($2.50 to $7). Try one of the stellar matcha concoctions, like a latte or plover (matcha, soda water, simple syrup, and whipped cream), prepared in the traditional Japanese style using a bamboo whisk, a tea bowl, and a strainer.
Butarbutar and Shyu plan to add more menu items to their Aurora menu soon—think: mochi brownies, waffles, and bread pudding—and have a second bakery in central Denver in the works, too. We say, the more mochi treats, the better.
9935 East Colfax Ave., Aurora