The latest import from Japan is sweet and gooey

Move over flat-screen television sets, digital cameras, and Godzilla. There's another Japanese import that's hoping to gain fame and fortune. This one is a cream puff.

When the Beard Papa Sweets Cafe opened in New York City in March, the city experienced weekend lines out the door not seen since Krispy Kreme doughnuts expanded northward.

Beard Papa, which boasts that it serves the world's best cream puffs, may be relatively unknown in this part of the world but the company has 240 stores around the globe The chain was founded in Osaka, Japan, seven years ago.

Beard Papa? What kind of name is that for a gooey confection?

You'll find a clue in the company's funky logo - a pipe- smoking combination of Santa Claus and Popeye, who has a billowy white beard that is supposed to hint at the whipped cream and custard combination inside each cream puff.

"The character Beard Papa was designed to resemble Santa Claus," says Minoru Inagiki, president of Muginoho USA, which owns the cafe, "because when people think of Santa Claus, it makes them happy, and so Beard Papa makes people happy."

As customers who brave the often half-hour weekend lines draw closer to the shop at Broadway and 76th Street, an enticing aroma wafts through the air.

Four Japanese women who speak little English scurry behind the counter. Are they calling out the Japanese equivalent of "Fresh cream puffs ready"?

The wonderful aroma almost makes the wait worthwhile, but once patrons plunk down their $1.25, they can actually taste what the fuss is about. These aren't the cream puffs you may be familiar with - those that have a whipped-cream filling inside an overly sweet casing.

Beard Papa makes a baked two-layer shell: The inner layer is a choux pastry, and the outer is like a pie crust. The filling is a special vanilla-bean custard, made with beans imported from Madagascar. The custard, which takes two hours to make, is prepared four to six times daily and is inserted into the puff right before it's sold.

The puffs have a fervent following overseas, but the owners were surprised by how quickly New Yorkers embraced the product. "Beard Papa is extremely successful around the world," Inagiki says, "but [there] the lines didn't start on the first day as they did in New York City."

Because the Manhattan store has been so busy, the owners haven't yet had the opportunity to create the other cream fillings sold elsewhere, such as green tea, caramel, cocoa, and royal milk tea (black tea with milk flavor).

During the summer they hope to add Beard Papa's signature mango desserts - mango pudding, mango sorbet, and mango ice shower (shaved ice with a creamy mango topping). The chain is also known for its cheesecake - a light, almost soufflélike version instead of the typically heavier New York style.

But so far it's the cream puffs that have attracted New Yorkers to Beard Papa. Before handing over these delicacies, the busy Japanese women sprinkle powdered sugar on them, and voilà, customers are savoring the tasty contrast between the crispy shell and the creamy custard.

"It's better than a cannoli, and it's worth waiting on line for," said Valerie Belsky, who was tasting her first Japanese cream puff. After taking a few more bites she was ecstatic: "It's worth breaking a diet for."

Beard Papa is scouting for additional sites in New York and in other US cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Move over sushi, here comes another intriguing food import from Japan.

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