This is for my sister, who can happily spend a day looking in bakery windows and display cases, maybe tasting a mouthful or two, but really just happy to see rows and rows of sweet things.
Mexican sweets and breads are a mystery to me. There are so many varieties, each with their own name, and I have yet to find a source that will give me all the information I crave. In the markets, a stall may specialize only in pan de yema, an eggy bread with a light anise flavor, or in a chewy, flat roll with a hard crust and pink sugar sprinkled on top. Then there are sweet sellers, with little stacks of honeyed, sticky cookies and cones filled with white cream. By the doors of Mercado Juarez and on corners around Oaxaca, there are several women selling alegrias, “joy” bars made of amaranth and piloncillo, the brown sugar sold in little cone-shaped cakes, and similar bars made with peanuts or pumpkin seeds, as well as round flats of pecans embedded in a crumbly brown sugar. I’ve seen several street vendors sitting around with cases filled with bright gelatins and little flans, clearly specializing in anything that can quiver. Then there are those women with the huge glass jars of stewed fruits in syrup. I haven’t even begun to describe the more modern bakeries and their enormous range of offerings. And apparently, if I go to Puebla or San Cristobal de las Casas, I will find sweets that can’t be found here in Oaxaca, trays of caramels and candies and things I cannot even dream of. The only thing I have really grasped so far are “nieves” and “paletas,” the sorbet-like ice creams and popsicles that taste proudly and intensely of fruit.
To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to really try and taste, as I will generally pick eggs over pancakes, a slice of pizza over a cookie, a piece of levain bread over a tart. And if I do have something sweet, I want it to be small and perfect, like a piece of very dark chocolate or a scoop of ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I hadn’t gone out of my way to try more than the few desserts that had come my way, as there was so much mole to be eaten and I feared wasting time eating things that were sugary and sub-par. But considering that I’ve been going around saying I don’t like Mexican desserts and breads, without trying more of them, I realized was being quite unfair. I’ve been missing my sister so much, I wanted to do what she would do, if she were in Oaxaca.
So I decided to spend Saturday afternoon perusing 3 different bakeries in a 2-block radius around the zocalo. I found two more bakeries in this area on my way home, but decided to save them for another day, as my hands were full of bread. I had also started frequenting the enormous bakery, Pan Bamby, on Porfirio Diaz at the corner of Independencia, and so I’m adding that to this post, too. I only bought one pastry or bread at each bakery, so I can’t really speak with authority, but at least I am starting to get a sense of what is out there.
Pan Bamby is the largest bakery I’ve seen in Oaxaca. In the evenings, it’s full of people piling their trays high with bread, buying 10 or 20 rolls, loaves, and pastries. It sells what is expected, the same stuff I see at the giant supermarkets and the smaller weekend markets, but in greater varieties and quantities. So they sell bolillos, the torpedo-shaped white crusty rolls, for a peso a piece; conchas with their swirl of crumble on top, numerous kinds of flaky pastries filled with chocolate or jam or just dusted with sugar.
Their bolillo was terrible, even though it was fresh and warm and the crust crackled promisingly. It just didn’t have any flavor.
But then I had a sweet, soft croissant-shaped roll, with a very tender crumb and such an appealing, lovable flavor, like Hawaiian bread or Portuguese sweet bread. I also had a very good bandilla, a long, rectangular pastry of flaky layers, topped with sugar, a perfect light cena with tea. My neighbor had left me a bag of their garlicky breadsticks when she went back to Iowa, and they were strangely addictive, as well as scarily durable.
Fidel Integral, which specializes in whole-wheat breads, is on the same street further south, except that at that point, Porfirio Diaz has become 20 de Noviembre. Located between Hidalgo and Trujano, just north of Mercado Juarez, Fidel isn’t as large but I could get a sense of what breads must be available by seeing what Fidel chose to make in whole wheat form. Fidel also sells bolillos and conchas and bandillas. They also make a fantastic whole wheat roll, just a simple dinner roll that has great flavor, so great that it’s oddly addictive for something so plain. I also tried something a hard, crumbly sweet bread, shaped like a long, oblong stick, because it looked so much like these “butter sticks” in Korean bakeries I used to love. It tasted just as I had imagined it would, sweet but with a real wheaty flavor, and very good with a cup of coffee in the afternoon.
Walking south from Fidel, if you turn a left at the next corner, you will find yourself in front of Tartamiel. It definitely has the cutest logo, a smiling yellow bee with the tip of its tongue sticking amiably out of its mouth.
It calls itself a “pasteleria frances,” and it did seem to be aiming for a different tone. The English language is poor in only having one word, “bakery,” to describe a place that sells baked goods, when Spanish and French both distinguish between places that sell breads, panaderias or boulangeries, and places that sell cakes, pastelerias or patisseries. There was no way I could buy a cake to taste, but I did buy a little “tartaleta de queso,” and it was really quite good. The crust wasn’t so noteworthy, though it was sturdy and correct, but the cheese part I liked a lot. It was firm, like NY-style cheesecake, and it clearly wasn’t relying just on sugar to make itself appealing.
The last bakery, at least for this post, is Vasconia on Independencia, between 5 de Mayo and Reforma. This place is a little different, selling slices of creamy cake in a window swarming with bees, as well as empanadas with various savory fillings, bread rolls filled with chorizo and cheese, and your usual conchas and donas or donuts. I bought a little empanada filled with champinones, which weirdly is the Mexican way of describing basic button mushrooms, calling them by their French name to signify their high-class ways. “Hongos” describe the gorgeous wild mushrooms you can find in the Sierra Norte during the rainy season. I got excited when I took it out of its bag when I got home, because the top almost caved in as I pressed it, it was so delicately flaky, but overall, I liked it the least of everything I ate today. It felt right and looked right, but the flavor was a little off, probably because Mexican butter just isn’t great, and this was probably made with margarine anyway. I think it must be easier to get away without high-quality butter if the pastry is sweet rather than savory. The mushroom filling was pretty good, though, mixed with tomato sauce.
So it was a very good day! But I miss my sister more than ever.