In the department of "What Took Me So Damn Long to Review This Restaurant?" your humble food critic submits Cream Pan in Tustin, a tiny Japanese bakery that has received raves from county foodies for years. Everything about this place is bueno: the smiling Japanese cuties at the counter wearing red berets, the aroma of baked goods that greets visitors even from the parking lot, the loaves of bread stacked near the entrance that get replaced as quickly as people purchase them, the Riviera review in the window faded by the sun's exposure. And then there's the actual bread.
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Japanese bakeries are always a study in contrasts: straightforward American and French favorites mixed with cheap, filling Japanese street grub. This is the best place in Central County to purchase croissants, flaky like gold leaf, worthy of an Escoffier grad, sometimes bloated due to chocolate or a strawberry-cream filling straight out of a Herb Alpert dream. Even better options are the hybrids—fried sweet rolls stuffed with warm Japanese beef curry, or a fritter-looking thing topped with pineapple and smeared with purple sweet potato, a tuber that deserves more love in the States. On a recent trip, I bought something that looked like a crater; melted Gruyère took the place of what once was the roll's middle. Oily, sharp, yummy.
Whatever you buy, each Cream Pan creation starts on a foundation of its flour: not sugary, but some other kind of sweet, a sweet you want to incorporate into your life. Cream Pan employs it in everything from ready-to-go sandwiches (stock up on the yakisoba, cold noodles sprinkled with ginger slivers) to croquettes the size of softballs. But the best thing about Cream Pan just might be the flan. Few places in Orange County make a version of this custard dish that warrants a second shot; Cream Pan is the only one that demands you return forever. The pastry chefs here understand flan's charm, the combination of firm-yet-creamy custard and a thin caramel top that teases your tongue with its potential. Cream Pan's flan doesn't overwhelm, doesn't soak your palate in sweetness: it's light, unassuming, perfect.
One warning: Call ahead for times, as they're constantly taking days off or closing early. Hey, perfection's tough.
CREAM PAN, 602 EL CAMINO REAL, TUSTIN, (714) 665-8239.