Having Your Cake and Eating it

Article By Tim King

You’re very unlikely to stumble across Hoo-oo Cake. You might stumble when trying to say the name (which I always read in my mind as an owl vocalizing while having a stroke), but you won’t just find this place randomly. First, you’d have to find a small side street in eastern Gaoxin that runs east-to-west, laid between and parallel with Keji 5 Road and Keji 6 Road. Then you’d have to find the right apartment complex, choose the correct building, take the elevator up twenty-some-odd floors, and find the right door, which is unmarked on the outside. Only then could you enter the fragrant, sea foam green environs of the Hoo-oo Cake bakery/nerve center.

I get the impression that this is by design. Hoo-oo deals in cakes, obviously, but none of that Bread Talk, Hello Kitty, frosted-to-death stuff you might have had on your birthday in China. Instead, the company is focused on creamy cheesecakes, to-die-for tiramisus, and other foreign delights. When sat with the owner, Xi, for afternoon tea, he kept asking me one question, “How about the taste?” I answered him positively, but he kept asking. It was later in the conversation that he said something that perhaps shed some light on his nervousness, “Many people here can’t accept the foreign taste. It’s not Beijing or Shanghai.”

To belabor his point, he’s right—Xi’an isn’t Beijing or Shanghai, and, if you don’t know where to look, some of the “foreign” food you find around here will confirm that with stark, disappointing clarity. As much as the foreign community would like to think that an authentic foreign restaurant would be a no-brainer, a cash-cow filled with non-Chinese diners, when compared to the locals we make but a fraction of potential business, and we’re fickle (or cash-starved) to boot. Many places we like to frequent are initially enamored with our business, but more often than not, when the laowai can’t keep a business afloat, there’s a whiplash-inducing shift to something more palatable to the locals. If you don’t believe me, or that the gap in what’s considered good exists, send one of your more traditional coworkers to Fly Elephant for a pizza; they’ll probably come back and tell you that they like Pizza Hut better.

That phenomenon notwithstanding, there’s simply the fact that foreign products have cachet here, and many Xianese people, even as the city develops into a more truly international one, still get a kick out of even the vaguely foreign. I’ve heard of people walking into Le Ban, buying a cheesecake and some espresso, taking a picture with it, and then leaving the restaurant—and their food—relatively untouched. Simply put, sometimes, if it photographs like a pizza in this afternoon’s selfie, then it’s a pizza as far as they’re concerned, no matter how much potato and corn is on it.

Xi, then, stands in defiance of that mindset. “Taste is what is most important,” he says. His concession to local tastes is a slightly less sweet, but no less delicious, version of the desserts we foreigners enjoyed back home. All his ingredients are imported, and his master baker is a seasoned veteran of his craft, who has anchored bakeries all over eastern China. Currently Xi sells cakes by delivery, and is increasing his distribution by selling whole cakes to coffee shops in the Gaoxin area.

Where some might see hipster pretension in the minimalist, not-really-open-to-the-public boutique that is Hoo-oo Cake, I see something else. I see an entrepreneur who might be flying by the seat of his pants just a bit, but is enthusiastic and earnest about his love for foreign food; someone with an open mind and an understanding that can bridge the gap between foreign and local tastes. It’s foodies like Xi that stand the best chance of expanding the local palate and making foreign cuisine a delicious and authentic part of Xi’an culture.

Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease magazine and has a body built by cake. He can be reached at tim.king@xianease.com