Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake opened its first "mini sweets factory" outside of Asia on Bay just north of Dundas three weeks ago, and like its counterparts in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Taipei, the line-ups haven't let up since .
The small space that was formerly a convenience store has an open kitchen format where customers can watch the Japanese-speaking staff baking away in three-quarters of the room or read the history of Uncle Tetsu in adorably written English spread amongst framed images of cows and chicken eggs hung on a brick wall while they wait inside.
One speech bubble attributed to the man himself says, "I like excitement very much! I'm of medium height and a little fat, always wearing a jersey with flip-flops."
Why was Toronto chosen as the first Uncle Tetsu location outside the Asian continent? An enterprising Japanese expat named Shuntaro Kurakake (he has also been behind the Matsuri Festival at Yonge-Dundas Square for the past two summers) suggested it to Tetsushi Mizokami (Tetsu-san's full name).
Both men are from Fukuoka, Japan, which is where the bakeshop first originated. Kurakake is now the director of Uncle Tetsu's Canadian operations.
Honey madeleines ($2.22 each, $2.50 with tax; buy 3 get 1 free) are made in the front of the shop, where a baker will cheerily wave to you if you're standing outside the window as she mixes and pours the batter into moulds.
These look more muffin-like than the shell-shaped French versions, but they taste as they should: light and sponge-cake-esque, with the distinct flavour of honey.
There are also a limited number of rusks for sale each day, packaged in plastic cups ($6.66, $7.50 with tax). These are best described as dried cheesecake cookies, and since they're probably made from rejected cheesecakes from the previous day, they are only available when the shop first opens and once they sell out, they're gone.
Five-inch, Italian-inspired dome cakes called zuccotto , which are cream cheese flavoured and dubbed "angel hats" here, can be seen as an offering on the board, but they haven't been sold in the shop yet - operations will have to expand before they make an appearance.
And operations are going to have to expand. Everyone is pretty much here to purchase the star product - the six-inch cheesecake ($8.88, $10 with tax). In Asia, there are various flavours available , but here, the currently limited production facilities and insane customer demand only allow for the original flavour to be sold.
Three ovens are staggered to churn out a dozen cakes every 15 minutes (they tell customers in line that it's 10 cakes in case some in the batch don't pass muster during inspection).
Is the cheesecake worth the long wait times? Perhaps not, if you're expecting it to taste like the sweet, creamy and dense North American version of the dessert.
Japanese cheesecake is less sweet, the cheese flavour is subtler and the texture is more like a souffle; eggs are a key ingredient - the yolks are separated from the whites, which are whipped into a foam and then folded into the cake batter before baking.
With the right expectations, Uncle Tetsu's version, with a cartoon likeness of the man stamped on top, is definitely excellent. My friend, who almost wasn't going to try it, ended up exclaiming, and I quote, "HOLY SH*T!!!! That's good cheesecake!!!" after he did.
It's delightfully light, airy, fluffy and moist, and while this is totally cliche, it's like eating a cloud when you try it fresh from the oven.
I'm told it's 50-50 on whether people prefer to eat it while it's warm, right after purchasing it or after it's chilled in the fridge for a few hours.
Some friends tell me they prefer the comfort of eating it straight from the oven, but I personally like it cold; the cream cheese flavour becomes more pronounced and the texture is slightly denser. All the ingredients are locally sourced, yet those who've also tried the cake in Asia say it still tastes the same.
Yes, 86.73% (not scientifically determined) of the line is comprised of Asians - perhaps they're looking for a familiar taste of Asia.
Regardless, while conditions remain the way they currently are (there are plans to expand the space and open up an actual store in a different location in the near future), the best strategy is to arrive at around 10:15am and wait 45 minutes before the shop opens to get access to the first batch of cakes. This guarantees one of the shortest wait times - I've heard the longest can be three hours.
Uncle Tetsu is open from 11am to 11pm daily. Cash only. Limit of one cheesecake and four madeleines per person.
Photos by Jesse Milns