Salted egg custard, mango jasmine tea, butter mochi sundae, and pandan soy milk are not flavors you’ll ever find at your local Baskin-Robbins. But at mom-and-pop shop Big Softee, those are just some of the eclectic flavors that bring in a legion of fans from the community each week. Big Softee, which opened in July of 2018, has gained a reputation in San Gabriel Valley for being a business that creates soft serve from scratch using local ingredients with an Asian twist. Big Softee’s owners, who are originally from Hong Kong and have lived in San Gabriel Valley for over 30 years, tapped chef Angelino Baltazar to create the constantly rotating flavors. Every two weeks, Baltazar switches in fresh, seasonal soft serve flavors into the mix. He creates the recipes in collaboration with the feedback he gets from the owners. Baltazar, who grew up in kitchens and worked in the restaurant industry his whole life (including a stint at the famed Bottega Louie), traveled to Hong Kong to learn about Hong Kong-style desserts and milk tea.
Big Softee has a 1970s Hong Kong ice cream parlor vibe that is a nod to Hong Kong’s East-meets-West culture. The menu is in Chinese and English, and Big Softee has many references to traditional Chinese culture, such as the red and gold colors inside the shop. There are no frills. There’s a simple counter, a few chairs and a soft serve machine. There’s one neon sign of their logo, but that’s it. It’s a far cry from today’s shops that are built completely around Instagram—and it’s done so on purpose.
"A lot of flavors may not be so identifiable to others, besides from people that live around here, and it’s really what I prefer. We just don’t want to be something we’re not."
“The San Gabriel Valley is a really interesting place. We spent a full year researching and developing recipes to try to figure out what would work for the neighborhood. A lot of flavors may not be so identifiable to others, besides from people that live around here, and it’s really what I prefer. We just don’t want to be something we’re not,” says Baltazar.
Think of it as dishes or items prepared with Chinese accents. Take the butter mochi sundae. It is like an Asian version of a brownie sundae, but with pineapple, butter mochi, and toasted coconut flakes instead of your typical brownie and vanilla ice cream.
Baltazar is the magic maker, the Willy Wonka behind the operation. On any given day, he can be found creating different desserts, flavors and textures. If you catch him while he’s experimenting, he’ll most likely invite you to sit down and try his creations. His burnt tofu is a favorite off-menu item. Baltazar chars the tofu until it turns into a crème brulee-like texture. He’s also tested Singaporean kaya jam before, as well as double-skin milk pudding, a labor-intensive Cantonese dessert made of milk, egg whites, and sugar that was first invented in Guangdong. Baltazar has successfully recreated the dessert, which resembles silky milk custard with two-layered skins, at Big Softee from time to time. Baltazar tries to keep his ingredients as local as possible. “We want to give back and bring attention to local businesses in the San Gabriel Valley,” he explains.
“We want to give back and bring attention to local businesses in the San Gabriel Valley.”
He buys Big Softee’s tofu and soy milk from their neighbors, such as VK Foods, a business well known in the community for their high-quality tofu products. One of the toppings available at Big Softee is almond cookie. Baltazar got the idea for the topping after noticing that a local almond cookie factory tossed out cookies that weren’t perfectly circular. Instead of letting them go to waste, he now buys the cookies that “don’t make the cut" and crushes them as a topping for the soft serve. The Tahitian vanilla soft serve is made with three-fold Tahitian vanilla bean paste from a local vanilla bean maker. Their butter mochi cakes are made from mochiko rice flour from Koda Farms, a local third-generation Japanese-American owned business.
The soft serve flavors at Big Softee constantly rotate. The easiest way to find out what the weekly specials are is to check their Instagram. They have vegan and dairy-free options, as well. The most recent seasonal flavor is the Japanese pumpkin soft serve. The flavor is made using roasted kabocha quash. Baltazar roasts the squash until it’s charred to the point where all the starches turn to sugar. The resulting purée is added to the vanilla base to create the soft serve. Baltazar uses a whole kilo of Japanese pumpkin for every batch he makes. The cured egg yolk soft serve is made using actual duck egg yolk as the base for the custard. The mix is blended, and little bits of yolk are purposely left in for texture.
The tofu flower soft serve has been another fan favorite. It tastes like Cantonese tofu pudding dessert in soft serve form. Not only does the tofu flower require high-quality soy milk for the recipe, but it is also difficult to do because soft serve needs to be frozen at specific temperatures and requires more work than ice cream. Adding the ginger juice finish to the mix too early will cause the mixture to curdle.
One of the items on the menu that Baltazar spent the most time on is the Hong Kong milk tea, which is both a soft serve flavor and a drink. The Hong Kong-style milk tea went through more than 30 incarnations before Baltazar settled on its current state, which is available at Big Softee.
“The Ceylon tea they use for the milk tea is imported directly from Ceylon, Sri Lanka. We had to look for someone to give us a specific cut of the Ceylon tea. We really want it to taste like a real Hong Kong milk tea. True Hong Kong milk tea is extremely strong, almost to the point of being chocolate milk. Most places use an instant mix,” he says. Baltazar then “pulls” the milk tea through the tea socks in the kitchen.
"We had to look for someone to give us a specific cut of the Ceylon tea. We really want it to taste like a real Hong Kong milk tea."
Big Softee’s cones are all made fresh in-house, and there’s even a sweet and savory furikake cone (furikake is a Japanese seasoning). Baltazar seasons the caramel cone with soy sauce instead of salt, which in turn rounds out the caramel taste. Other innovative cone flavors that have been on the menu include chocolate Horlicks, taro coconut, lychee Calpico (a brand of Japanese soft drink), and black sesame soy, among others.
Big Softee is located at 128 S. Atlantic Blvd. Monterey Park, California.