Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu want Denverites to have a local destination for real Japanese matcha and gluten-free mochi pastries.
The couple opened their first Colorado store in Aurora just before the pandemic hit. Now, they’ve debuted a second in Five Points, just behind the restaurant Uchi at 25th and Lawrence streets.
“Selfishly, I couldn’t find a good matcha in Denver that I wanted to drink all the time,” Shyu said from inside the colorful new cafe.
“We’re almost trying to reclaim matcha back from this (trendy) ‘add it to your smoothie’ thing,” Butarbutar agreed.
The pair source their own blend of matcha (green tea powder) direct from a farm in Japan. They whisk it by hand and to order, making drinks like creamy lattes and refreshing fruit sparklers, which mix in ingredients from passionfruit to lychee.
Butarbutar is behind these flavor combinations in drinks as well as mochi pastries (gluten-free donuts and muffins), which come in varieties such as Banana Dulce de Leche and Hawaiian Haupia coconut. They’re sweetened with pandan sugar, which “grows in everyone’s backyards in Southeast Asia” and adds a distinctive vanilla sweetness, he said.
The flavor profiles and recipes he’s creating come straight from childhood in Indonesia. Shyu, too, is a “third culture kid,” originally from Taiwan. Those who identify with third culture draw influences from their native country, as well as from their adopted one.
“Sam and I are both queer Asian immigrants,” Shyu said, explaining the cafe’s look and vibe — “gay as (expletive)” — and providing context for its larger mission.
Since the pandemic, the last year of racial reckonings and, specifically, the publicized hate crimes against Asian-Americans, Third Culture’s purpose has become clearer than ever before to its owners.
“We really stepped up voicing our platform,” Shyu said.
He and Butarbutar are raising money through the new shop’s opening sales and online to fulfill more than 5,000 orders for safety kits (pepper spray, alarm key chains and instructions translated into seven Asian languages) that they’ve been putting together for vulnerable Asian Americans and Pacific Islander populations and LGBTQIA+ communities.
And at home in Denver, they want customers to know everyone is welcome — and safe — in their stores.
“Why does it have to be conventional?” Shyu asked of it all as customers walked in for ube (purple yam) mochi waffles, savory seaweed muffins and caramel matcha lattes to take away.
2500 Lawrence St. (directly behind Uchi), 720-507-4830, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, thirdculturebakery.com
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