Whether they serve a small neighborhood community or an urban crowd, panaderias offer aromatic and colorful comfort food
By Charles Lohrmann
The modest, unobtrusive, single-story building housing the Don Jose Panaderia alongside FM 170 (aka O’Reilly Street) in Presidio does not immediately make a strong visual impression on me as I drive by with TH Photography Editor Griff Smith. But a couple of hours later, after an enjoyable lunch at The Enlightened Bean restaurant nearby, we decide to stop in and check out the bakery for a quick dessert.
In the early afternoon, the display case is sparsely populated, and the collection of baked goods, although colorful, seems a little lacking. Even though the immediate supply is dwindling, we ask about taking a few photographs, and owner Miguel Hernandez responds with the answer, “No, not now, wait until after three o’clock.”
Why is three o’clock the magic hour? we wonder.
“That’s when everything comes out of the oven,” Hernandez explains.
We have other work to undertake that afternoon, so we decide to wait until the next day. Sure enough, when we stroll through the front door mid-afternoon, some of the brightly sugared pan dulce awaits us in the old-fashioned, wood-and-glass case and in a row of metal trays lined up side-by-side on top. Even though the aromas, colors, and textures distract us, we notice that Hernandez slips a few more multi-colored galletas and golden pan de huevo into the display case every few minutes. And the regular customers, knowing their timing is perfect, arrive and start filling paper bags with warm pan dulce. They share a quick conversation with the staff, then leave to make way for newcomers. This panaderia clearly is the warm heart of a community bound together by cinnamony aromas and a sweet tooth.
The names of the individual creations amuse us as well: marranitos are thick gingerbread cookies shaped like little pigs; the payasitos or little clowns, are three-colored, triangular cookies; esponjas or sponges—are sweet, arched breads topped by colored sugars, which compare to their namesake (with requisite jokes about SpongeBob). Even though I’m tempted to seek out recipes for some of these delights, the thought of missing the sensory experience of the panaderia, as well as the extremely reasonable prices, leads me to conclude that a visit to the bakery is worth the time.
For many bakeries of any heritage—urban or small-town—the prevailing assumption notes that the early morning hours offer the freshest baked goods and pastries. In this Presidio panaderia, it turns out, the community is up early anyway, but they’re mostly going to work. So they stop in after work and on the way home to pick up treats for either an afternoon snack or the next morning’s breakfast.
Don Jose Panaderia’s offerings are not all baked goods. The candy also invites indulgence. One choice is a tray of bright orange pumpkin sections that have been simmered in a syrupy concoction until completely transformed into sugary wedges.
On weekend mornings, the hand-lettered signs tacked to the bakery’s wall explain that customers can expect fresh tamales, barbacoa, menudo, and carne asada. I wish we were going to be in town, because fresh barbacoa borders on miraculously good. In fact, back in Austin, a Saturday morn-ing barbacoa taco draws me to the popular Mi Victoria panaderia on Burnet Road where I wait in a long line with excited customers anticipating both fresh pan dulce and breakfast tacos.
As I ask around about favorite panaderias in Texas, I find
strong opinions and clear-cut preferences, either for a specific bakery’s
speciality or simply the establishment’s aura. I know I can’t visit them all,
so for a quick and convenient visual refresher course on pan dulce,
I stop in to La Mexicana on South First in Austin, where more than 40 varieties of pan dulce and another two dozen types of cookies greet me. I resist major temptation and settle on a “crispy,” a tortilla-size crunchy baked pastry made from dough spiraled with cinnamon and dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
One of the state’s landmark sources of pan dulce is San
Antonio’s legendary Mi Tierra, a circus of a restaurant and panaderia that can
satisfy your sweet tooth, or your craving for machacado, 24 hours a day.
In fact, let me warn you against even looking at their Web site unless you want the photos to fire up your taste buds. (In other words, DO NOT go to www.mitierracafe.com.)
Admittedly, Don Jose Panaderia is out of the way, but it’s a good place to end your drive on FM 170 from Lajitas. After all, you’ll need some pan de huevo for the drive back. And more for breakfast in the morning.
Panaderia Hot List
For her popular feature on tres leches cake in the May 2010issue, TH Web Editor Lois Rodriguez assembled this list of the most popular items at panaderias along with a few recommendations of sources around the state.
Pan de huevo (egg bread): A rounded, mildly sweet yeast bread with stenciled patterns of puffy white, yellow, pink, or chocolate sugar topping.
Empanadas: Traditional favorites are empanadas de calabaza (pumpkin turnovers) and camote (sweet potato.) There also is an array of fruit-filled empanadas in a flakier (pan fino) pastry.
Marranitos (little pigs): Soft pig-shaped gingerbread molasses cookies.
Polvorones: Bite-sized cinnamon shortbread cookies dusted in sugar.
Galletas: Yellow, pink, or chocolate sugar cookies. Some come with multicolored sugar sprinkles, others with cherry centers. A popular one comes with cornflakes baked into the cookie and a cherry center.
Semita de anis: A fragrant and delicious anise-flavored bread. Just sweet enough to enjoy alone or with a cup of coffee.
Other panaderia offerings include bolillos (white bread rolls), French-influenced cuernos (croissants), bread pudding, flan, and candies like pralines and banderilla de coco, a popular coconut candy in the red, white, and green colors of the Mexican flag.
Lois’ pandaderia favorites include: Aranadas Bakery in Houston at 912 Fosbak, 713/694-1813; 8331-C Beechnut St., 713/771-3616; 9803 Gulf Fwy., 713/941-0100; and 11919 Eastex Fwy., 281/227-3600; www.arandasbakery.com. Mi Victoria Bakery, 5245 Burnet Road, Austin, 512/458-1898. Casa Maria Restaurant and Bakery, 4327 South 1st St. (at St. Elmo), Austin, 512/444-8861; www.casamariarestaurant.com. Mi Tierra Cafe Y Panaderia, 218 Produce Row, San Antonio, 210/225-1262; www.mitierracafe.com.