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Pan dulce primer: A tour of Tacoma-area Mexican bakeries

Zocalo Bakery and tortas shop in the Lincoln Business District on South 38th Street has a wide selection of Mexican baked sweets and treats, including concha buns, sugar-crusted turnovers and molasses puerquitos pig cookies.
Zocalo Bakery and tortas shop in the Lincoln Business District on South 38th Street has a wide selection of Mexican baked sweets and treats, including concha buns, sugar-crusted turnovers and molasses puerquitos pig cookies. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

In the South Sound Mexican bakery world, there are as many sweet breads, pastries and cookies as there are weeks in the year. I know because I spent a month touring five bakeries.

I bit into crackly-crisp campechanas, rectangular puff pastries that shatter into a flaky shower at first bite. And the cousin to the campechanas, the orejas, the ultra flaky heart-shaped pastries.

And there’s the whole realm of Mexican pastries shaped like other things: Sweet buns, decorated with brightly colored patterns in the shape of a conch shells, are called conchas. Molasses gingerbread cookies shaped like little pigs are puerquitos (also called marranitos).

Besides portable street eats such as tacos and tortas, pastries and sweet breads are Mexico’s most revered culinary import to the United States.

Locally, the newest Mexican bakery is Panaderia y Pasteleria San Rafael, which opened in early January in an unexpected area of Lakewood — right in the middle of the Korean dining district.

It’s a fine addition to the small field of South Sound panaderias.

San Rafael joins Zócalo, a long-established bakery with a following for not only its pan dulce (sweet bread), but for its torta sandwiches (the bread is baked on site, of course).

There are also three more panaderias worth a quick culinary field trip. Here’s a quick tour of what you’ll find.

PANADERIA Y PASTELERIA SAN RAFAEL BAKERY

8534 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-330-7403; facebook.com/panpastelsanrafael.

Mexican pastries are a group project for the Roque-Gaspar family, first-time bakery owners. Son David Roque-Gaspar opened the Panaderia y Pasteleria San Rafael bakery in January, smack in the middle of the Korean dining district, but in a strip mall that shares space with El Pulgarcito, a terrific pupuseria and Salvadoran restaurant.

The 2014 Wilson High School graduate said the bakery is a longtime family dream. His father, Eleazar Roque, still works his day job while his mother, Graciela Gaspar, stays home with David’s younger siblings. However, both parents and a sister, Abigail Roque-Gaspar, help at the bakery on weekends. Family friend Angelica Lazoro is head baker.

To the right, find pastry cases loaded with more than two dozen pan dulce, pastries and cookies. Look to the left for more bagged pastries. A refrigerator case holds crema, cotija and other finds.

Lazoro changes the pastry case offerings frequently. “We’re always trying to do something different to bring in more customers to try different varieties,” David Roque-Gaspar said. So far, customers have voted with their wallets for cream-filled flaky turnovers as a favorite, as well as the chocolate-coated orejas. Those go fast.

By March 2010, they moved into a space to accommodate their Mexican bakery and torta sandwich shop called Zócalo in the Lincoln neighborhood.

You’ll find: Conchas; several sweet buns; campechanas; Mexican bread filled with a sticky raisin-nut filling; cream- or fruit-filled turnovers; roll-up cake; muffins; cookies and savory bread. They also sell fresh tortillas.

Special-order cakes: Tres leches, a dense cake soaked in three kinds of milk; milhojas, a flaky layered cake; sheet cakes serving up to 80 per cake.

Don’t miss: Turnovers weighted down with a generous portion of velvety pastry cream; chocolate-dipped orejas and pineapple empanadas with a cookie-like pastry wrapper filled with pineapple jam. The sticky-filled Mexican bread is a must-buy if it’s in stock.

ZÓCALO MEXICAN BAKERY

701 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-474-9000.

The competition for Mexican bakeries in California felt suffocating to the Lopez family, operators of the San Marcos Bakery in Sacramento.

“The economy was so very bad in Sacramento,” Fernando Lopez explained.

So they headed to Tacoma.

“It was so much better moving here,” he said. “It didn’t cost as much compared to California and there’s more competition in California. It’s harder to be successful.”

By March 2010, they moved into a space in the Lincoln neighborhood to accommodate their bakery and tortas sandwich shop called Zócalo. “My dad (Ambrosio Fernando Lopez) is the one who does all the baking, I take care of the kitchen,” Fernando said.

His father believes in offering a wide selection of pan dulce, pastries and cookies. The selection also changes frequently.

And cakes? “He’s been doing those for so long. He’s been decorating cakes since he was 18 or 19 years old,” Fernando said.

In addition to the sweet items, Zócalo produces the bread for its torta sandwiches, which are modeled after the breaded cutlet sandwiches found in Mexico City, the hometown of Ambrosio Lopez. The sandwich selection is wide and finely executed. And here’s something to like: Sandwiches are served with a small bag of potato chips made at the bakery.

Holidays are the best time to visit the bakery, which is in an adjoining space. In January, during the Epiphany celebration, the bakery specializes in Rosca de Reyes cakes, a type of king cake (traditionally served for Mardi Gras). In November, to commemorate Dia de los Muertos, the bakery produces the sweet roll called pan de muerto.

You’ll find: Orejas, campechanas, concha buns, at least a dozen cookies big and small (the smaller ones are stocked at the register), turnovers, empanadas, sliced cake, sticky cinnamon rolls, sandwich buns, savory pastries. I found the broadest selection of any bakery toured for this series.

Special-order cakes: Five styles of wedding and celebration cakes can be custom ordered here, but the bakery always has pretty decorated cakes available for immediate purchase.

Don’t miss: The best puerquitos in the area, the Mexican-style gingerbread tasting heavily of molasses; sticky cinnamon rolls with a house-made syrup soaked into the top layer; snappy Neapolitan and chocolate-vanilla checkerboard cookies; mini orejas, the size of cookies, and concha buns in four flavors.

PANADERIA LA PLACITA

2510 84th St. S., Lakewood; 253-589-5026.

Find a small selection of pastries at this store featuring canned goods, all kinds of tortillas and a small refrigerated selection with cheeses and crema.

You’ll find: A small selection of pan dulce, sliced pieces of sheet cake, muffins, churros, cookies and sandwich buns.

Don’t miss: Sweet pineapple cake and the flattened, cone-shaped turnovers filled with pastry cream.

Skip: Stale-tasting churros.

PANADERIA EL TRIGAL

6301 E. McKinley, Tacoma; 253-475-0552.

The stock looked nearly identical on two visits. Zip-up plastic covers didn’t do an adequate job of keeping the pastry fresh on baking racks, so go there knowing to ask what’s fresh that day.

You’ll find: Concha, sweet buns, cookies, churros, puerquitos, orejas.

Don’t miss: Coconut-and-frosting topped cornmeal cake that was mildly sweet; triangle-shaped Neapolitan cookies with a crunchy snap.

Skip: Stale puerquitos.

PLAZA GUERRERO

826 72nd St. E., Tacoma; 253-476-2394.

Tucked into the back of this grocery store and carniceria, find a small pastry selection right next to the butcher counter. Tongs and trays are at the front of the store.

You’ll find: Churros, sweet buns, cake wedges, cookies, cream-filled cones, orejas and bread.

Don’t miss: The cream-filled flaky pastry cones and chocolate-cream filled churros.

Navigating the bakeries

Self-serve: All the bakeries visited are self-serve, with tongs and trays for easy transport of pastries to the register.

Pricing: Most bakeries don’t list prices, but I found pastries from 50 cents to around $1; cookies usually start at 25 cents each. Larger pan dulce (sweet buns) typically were $1-$1.50.

Weekends: Selections are more robust Fridays-Sundays. Expect supplies to dwindle mid-week.

Mexican bakery glossary

Churros: Long, chewy pastries dusted with cinnamon sugar, sometimes filled with pastry cream or fruit.

Cuerno: Translates to horn, and is in that exact shape with a croissant texture, sometimes filled with pastry cream.

Empanadas: Sweet-filled turnovers, usually in a triangle or half-moon shape.

Orejas: Heart-shaped flaky pastries, called palmiers in a French bakery.

Pan dulce: A catch-all term for sweet breads covering a gamut of flavors and varieties.

Polvorones: Mexican wedding cake cookies dusted in powdered sugar.

Tres leches cake: A sweet cake soaked in milk.

Yoyo: Round cookies or buns glued together with a frosting in the middle.

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