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Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake: What’s $10, a lineup and your time worth?

The main event at Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake in Toronto on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Name
Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake
Location
598 Bay Street, Toronto, Ontario
Phone
647-941-1806
Website
uncletetsu-ca.com

The second-guessing began a full 40 minutes before Uncle Tetsu had even opened. "Are they any good?" asked a blond woman in sweats who was number 11 in the fast-growing lineup. No one offered an opinion.

"Is it as good as T & T Supermarket's?" asked another of the sweet-toothed supplicants. "I read on Yelp that T & T's is better." A few in the crowd offered theories, but nobody seemed to know for sure.

"I'm going to get two!" said number 13, before the rest of the crowd on the sidewalk at Bay and Dundas sternly corrected her – Uncle Tetsu allows just one Japanese cheesecake purchase per customer.

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Another of the queuers had come the night before but all the shop had left were madeleines. "This guy outside offered me $80 if I'd sell them," she continued, proudly. "For four madeleines!"

"I told him no way!"

It started to drizzle. I had arrived around 10:15 that morning and was glad about it. I was eighth in line. There was a rush not long after I'd got there. "Thirty minutes to go!" said the woman in the sweatpants. A passerby asked what everyone was waiting for. He considered for a minute and then took a spot at the back – a good two hours, at least, before he'd get a taste.

At 11 a.m., the door opened and the smell of melted butter and sugar flooded onto the sidewalk. The first dozen customers filed in to pay their money ($8.88 for a six-inch cake; $2.22 for a madeleine, but nobody really comes here for the madeleines). The first batch of 12 cheesecakes, still warm from the oven, had been hot-stamped with the caricature of the Japan-based cheesecake empire's founder and namesake, Tetsushi Mizokami, and carefully wrapped and placed in takeaway boxes. The little shop has just three ovens; it produces 12 cakes every 10 to 15 minutes, give or take. The company has said it underestimated the demand that would greet its Toronto location. I wouldn't be so sure.

By the time I left with my prize, around 11:15, the line was what you'd call stupid-long. It broke at an alleyway, where pylons had been set up bearing signs that read, "Do Not Block." Past the alleyway, the line picked up again.

Was it worth the wait? I walked to where I'd parked my bike and pulled a fork and knife from my bag and cut a wedge from the cake, which was balanced on the seat. The cake was light golden on top, palest yellow on its sides. It weighed almost nothing on my fork. The steam smelled subtly like sugar and eggs. I looked back across Bay Street just as I was about to take a bite. In the two minutes since I'd left, the line had grown by another 10 people.

The first Uncle Tetsu opened 25 years ago in Hakata, Japan. The company's cheesecakes have become an international phenomenon in the years since; those two-hour lineups aren't an only-in-Toronto exception, but the rule. Outside Japan, the brand has more than 70 shops across China, as well as in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Cambodia. (Some of those are franchises. In Toronto, it's owned by the company.) In a court settlement last year in China, a copycat company that had set up 30 fake Uncle Tetsu locations was ordered to pay $160,000 (U.S.) for the trademark violation. Toronto is the company's first opening outside Asia; it has been mobbed since its first day of business last month.

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Hype breeds hype: A lot of the people in the line both times I've been were in the lineup because of the lineup. They wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

The Toronto location even has an (unaffiliated) Twitter account called @tetsulineup, run by a lawyer named Alex Colangelo, who lives in the building across the street. Mr. Colangelo posts pictures of the lineup.

"People are tweeting at me, 'What's the lineup now?' " he said. The lines usually start forming just after 10 a.m. weekdays, but often far earlier on weekends. The worst time to show up is typically around 5 p.m., he said.

Mr. Colangelo has never tried Uncle Tetsu's cheesecake. "I'm not a big carb eater," he confessed.

I liked it a lot. Everything about that cheesecake was understated; it is from another order entirely than the usual North American type. There is no crust, and the cakes are baked in a water-bath, so apart from the top, their outsides don't particularly harden or brown. Their texture is somewhere between spongecake and soufflé – like soufflés, these get most of their volume from whipped egg whites.

The flavour, especially when the cakes are hot, is subtly sweet and eggy far more than all-out cream cheese.

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And $10 all in for a large, fresh, handmade soufflé-cake, pulled straight from the oven, is a good deal. (The madeleines, by contrast, are only alright. They're more like short, buttery cupcakes than proper madeleines.) If I could easily pick up a cheesecake on the way home from work, I'd do that often. Only I can't get one easily, and neither can you.

Mr. Mizokami, the founder, was in the shop when I visited last week. He said he plans to expand Uncle Tetsu in the city.

I would welcome that. Hype passes, especially absent scarcity. (Hello, Krispy Kreme!) Those cakes are worth $10 and a five-minute wait, definitely. But $10 and an hour or two on the sidewalk, feeling like a sucker?

You have better things to do with your time.

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Chris More

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