Tokyo Cupcake Showdown: Mai’s vs. Bellas
Tokyo isn’t really a cupcake town–the fad never really materialized here the way it did in the US–but there are a few places where one can obtain these delicious little treats. Just for fun, I decided to travel out to Azabu-juban, where two cupcake purveyors are (sometimes) located, to do a little side by side taste test!
The first stop of the day was Mai’s. Tucked along a side street, this cute little shop has an unassuming and simple aesthetic. Outside, there’s just a simple white sheet of paper explaining the shop’s approach and menu, and a display with packaging mirroring the bow logo outside the shop.
As their sign outside reads,
NY style but less sugar, Mai’s cupcakes are all handmade. Using simple ingredients and made with 100% butter, transfat-free cupcakes. Taste of flour and heavy cake is compatible with smooth butter cream. Well whipped smooth Mai’s original less sugar cream might change your image of buttercream!? Our vanilla cream is made with Tahitian vanilla beans boiled with fresh milk. And rich chocolate cream is made with 70% cacao chocolate. Fresh strawberry aroma cream is made with handmade sour strawberry jam. We also have brownies, tofu spreads, seasoned nuts and beverages. Please come in and take a look!
Basically, Mai’s makes one kind of cupcake, a light vanilla. The variations come from the different flavors of buttercream frosting and other toppings. The staff is nice and friendly and completely unassuming–they seemed somewhat baffled that I had read about their shop online in Tokyo Time Out. I chose classic vanilla and received a complimentary brownie in one of those adorable little to-go boxes. (I wanted to wait until I got home to to the taste test.)
Then I walked over to Bellas cupcake truck, which is often parked outside the National Azabu supermarket on weekends. Bellas doesn’t have a physical retail store, so much of its business is done either by ordering via their website or going to meet the cupcake truck as it moves through various locations (mostly in southwest Tokyo). It was founded in 2010 as an “English-style bakery” by Farah Bashir, who started the business in response to the lack of authentic cupcakes in Tokyo.
Bellas offers a wider selection of cupcake and frosting flavors:
I purchased a vanilla and a red velvet to go. The packaging wasn’t nearly as nice as at Mai’s, but it did the trick, and they sent me home with a little packet of ice to help keep my cupcakes cool. Next stop: home for the big taste test!
I’m a bit of a purist–I tend to think that the best test of an establishment is how it performs on the simple things. That’s why I chose to compare Mai’s vanilla with Bellas vanilla for the taste test. And although they were both certainly vanilla, they were totally different.
I started with the vanilla cupcake from Mai’s. The cake itself was really interesting. It was buttery rather than sweet and had a texture a little more akin to a nice English scone–a little more firm than squishy, if that makes sense. This was in contrast to the frosting, which was really light and airy, and really tasted like true vanilla. It was tasty, but it was a little dry for my taste–again, sort of like putting really nice buttercream frosting on a particularly light scone, which is probably a bit different than what most of us think of when we think “cupcake.”
The vanilla cupcake from Bellas was next up. I think you can see the difference in texture in the photos. The Bellas cupcake was much more moist and sweet–much more like what I generally think of cupcakes being. And it was absolutely delicious. The cake was absolutely lovely, and the frosting was still light but with a little more structure to it than the Mai’s cupcake. I had my winner.
Luckily, I had picked up a second cupcake from Bellas, so the fun wasn’t over yet. I absolutely adore red velvet cakes and cupcakes. If cupcakes are hard to find in Japan, red velvet cupcakes are nearly impossible. And the lack of ovens inhibits the baking-prone from creating some of these concoctions themselves. The red velvet cupcake lived up to the promise of the vanilla, with an absolutely perfect level of moistness and sweetness in the cake and a lovely cream cheese frosting on top. It was perfectly true to its Western counterparts–and I would even venture to say that it was tastier than many cupcakes I’ve had in the US.
So, with that, I declared Bellas the winner of the great cupcake showdown, at least in terms of taste. Bellas Cupcakes does really good work, even when held up to the standard of specialty cupcake shops in the US. The moistness and flavor are just divine. Mai’s was also good, but a little different from the norm–I could see it being especially appealing to those who don’t like their cupcakes too sweet and prefer something a little lighter. In that sense, I could see them being really appealing to Japanese people. But I have a tremendous sweet tooth, so that’s my bias. :)
In terms of accessibility, I would actually say that Mai’s has the edge over Bellas. Mai’s store in Azabu-juban is really cute–and it’s always there. Bellas cupcake truck can be a little tricky to find and seems to periodically go on hiatus. Of course, you can have cupcakes directly delivered to you, but I think you need to place a minimum order of 3,500 yen (about $35), which is generally too many cupcakes for me (though it would be great for an event or party). So, if you need your 1-2 cupcake fix and the Bellas truck is nowhere to be found, Mai’s is definitely a great substitute.
To sum up:
Either establishment is a great cure for foreigners in cupcake withdrawals or Japanese folks looking to try some senseless Western sweets. The Azabu-juban/Hiroo area is tremendously lucky to have two such tasty options to choose from.
Have you found other dessert gems in the Tokyo area? Tell me about them in the comments!
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