At 7:55 a.m. on a recent Friday, I found myself furiously updating the website for Ginza Nishikawa, a Japanese bakery in Los Angeles. The reason? A limited quantity of the bakery’s famous Japanese milk bread was on sale at 8 am sharp.
At $18 a loaf, the bread, known as shokupan, isn’t cheap. But that hasn’t stopped it from selling out in seconds.
Ginza Nishikawa’s bread is flying off the shelves. Photography: Ginza Nishikawa
On review sites, Los Angeles foodies have proclaimed Ginza Nishikawa’s shokupan “spectacular,” “sublime,” even “a gastronomical orgasm,” while others say the effort it took to get a loaf bordered on the absurd.
It’s like “trying to get tickets to highly sought-after concerts,” said Noriko Okubo, co-owner of Ginza Nishikawa, the first US outpost of a Japanese bread company. “Yesterday, it disappeared in a minute.”
Shokupan, famous for its dense yet fluffy texture, is a familiar comfort food in Japan. But its international popularity has increased in recent years, spawning new bakeries as well as restaurants serving perfect shokupan sandwiches across the United States.
I heard buying bread at this place was as hard as getting Taylor Swift concert tickets.
Ginza Nishikawa opened in Santa Monica this summer. He offers just one item, his $18 loaf, and customers have told Okubo they’ve driven from as far away as San Francisco and San Diego to get it. The milk bread is so popular that scalpers have been reselling the loaves on Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu for $22 to $33, Eater Los Angeles reported, prompting complaints from other customers, who say paying $18 should be enough.
Okubu said his decision to bring Ginza Nishikawa to California was inspired by seeing a gap in white bread in the US market. Offerings have long been dominated by cheap supermarket brands, even as Americans have embraced homemade sourdough and other artisan breads. “Having eaten Wonder Bread as a kid, I knew that the standard for white bread is not very high in the US,” Okubu said.
Ginza Nishikawa bakers. Photography: Ginza NishikawaShokupan is a familiar comfort food in Japan. Photography: Ginza Nishikawa
‘We are on the verge of a sando boom’
Eighteen dollars may seem like a lot for bread, but in Los Angeles, where vegan sourdough regularly sells for $18 and a loaf of gluten-free brioche can go for $24, Okubo says the cost of Ginza Nishikawa’s bread is justified by the price. of his luxury. ingredients.
The flour is made from Canadian wheat that is milled in Japan and then re-imported to North America. The water is alkaline. Local workers receive remote guidance from the company’s expert bakers in Japan and produce just 200 loaves a day. Each loaf is carefully packed in its own sturdy gift bag, to prevent the loaf from getting squashed.
Annie Sheng, an anthropologist whose research focuses on Asian bread, said that what sets shokupan apart is “the texture and the mouthfeel when you first bite into it, and the sweetness.”
In Japan, he said, bread connoisseurs use the onomatopoeic term “fuwa fuwa” to talk about a texture that is “fluffy and cloud-like.”
Appreciation of bread with “that really fluffy, chewy mouthfeel is something people say comes from rice-eating habits,” Sheng said, and bread in Japan is also seen as a “speech canvas,” with enthusiasts embracing trends like making beautiful and meticulously constructed fruit sandwiches.
In Japan, bread can be a “canvas of expression,” says Annie Sheng. Photography: Ginza Nishikawa
While bread was once considered a Western food in Japan, bread-making has now become part of Japan’s national identity, Sheng discovered, to such an extent that it’s not surprising to see shokupan marketed to consumers by Japanese companies. Americans as a distinctive Japanese food. The researchers found that families in Japan began spending more of their food budget on bread than rice in 2011.
In the US, Japanese milk bread is appearing on menus all over the West Coast, from Portland to the Bay Area to Los Angeles, where in 2019 Bon Appétit named Konbi, a Sando shop famous for its egg salad sandwiches, as one of the best new restaurants of the year. Okubo believes it’s Japanese sandwiches made with milk bread, not just bread, that are a rising trend in the US.
“We had the sushi boom, the ramen boom, and now it looks like we’re on the brink of the sando boom,” he said.
More dedicated pan con leche outlets may be coming soon in the US and Europe. Ginza Nishikawa will open its first bakery in China in December, and Okubo said he had an eye on the European market.
We put the $18 bread to the test
My first attempt at buying Ginza Nishikawa’s bread left me high and dry. Despite entering my credit card details in a frenzy, I was informed, at 8:01am, that the bread had run out for the day.
This scarcity has only added to the appeal of the bread. “I heard buying bread at this place was as hard as getting Taylor Swift concert tickets,” wrote one reviewer on Yelp. “Challenge accepted.”
Each loaf is carefully packed in its own sturdy gift bag. Photography: Ginza Nishikawa
A few weeks later I finally got my hands on three loaves and decided to enlist the help of friends and fellow journalists to see if the long wait and two hour round trip to Santa Monica had been worth it.
The first friend I tried shokupan with was a dedicated home baker who has her own carefully tended sourdough starter. She was impressed. “[Tastes] like challah and angel food cake had a passionate but very high class relationship in a five star hotel,” he texted me. “With champagne. Nothing tacky.
But I had told my friend that the loaf was $18 and I was concerned that this might be influencing her review. The only way to know for sure if the bread was worth the money was a rigorous taste test that pitted the Ginza Nishikawa bar against four cheaper varieties of shokupan, as well as a Wonder Bread bar.
A meticulous blindfolded taste test by three Guardian journalists grudgingly concluded that the $18 pan de leche was simply better than the rest. Here, an editor poses with the competitors. Photograph: Lois Beckett/The Guardian
I got some blindfolds, recruited two fellow Guardian journalists, and the three of us sampled all six loaves, rating each one on a scale of one to 10.
I’ll be honest – we wanted to fall in love with a $6 local bakery loaf. We wanted Wonder Bread to be delicious. But when we add up the scores and reveal the winner, the $18 loaf dominated, receiving an average score of 8.3 out of 10.
The runner-up was Pasco, a supermarket bread imported from Japan. Wonder Bread, I’m sorry to say, scored 3.3.
The taste test done, we continued to devour more slices of the $18 bread, struggling to articulate what made it so appealing. There was something reminiscent of the starched whiteness of luxury hotel sheets. “Moist”, “wow” and “tastes like cake” were some of the words of the testers. “I have ascended to the sweet pillow hereafter,” my baker friend wrote.
I continued to enjoy the bread throughout the week, sprinkling a slice each morning with condensed milk or brushing it delicately with butter. However, when the bread ran out, I did not buy another. One of the taste testers put it best: “It’s worth $18, but it’s not worth the drive through LA.”
Matt Cantor and Dani Anguiano contributed reporting.