Sweet nirvana! I want to clap my hands with childlike glee when I walk into Panaderia Latina Bakery. Oh, how to choose from all these treats?
I’m greeted by a display case of pillowy cakes, cloud-like meringues, and pastries layered with vanilla cream. Dulce de leche is everywhere. The milk-based caramel sticks together two meringues, solders layers of puff pastry, and oozes, lavalike, over stacks of crispy pastry discs the size of hubcaps.
But I’ve come for lunch, and my sensible adult side kicks in: eat something before diving into the sweets. Aw, man!
A block north of Joyce SkyTrain Station, Panaderia doesn’t look like much from the outside. Its windows are covered in steel grillwork and laced with posters for long-distance calling cards. But inside, Aida Ordenes is as welcoming as can be, patiently describing each pastry and translating the Spanish lunch board.
Ordenes grew up in the bakery business. She owns Panaderia with her husband, Jose Riquelme, and runs it with her family. Daughter Leslie Riquelme has been baking since she was seven years old, and just completed the pastry course at Vancouver Community College.
The family hails from Chile. When they bought Panaderia five years ago, they kept the name from the previous owners but expanded the selection of Mexican and Central American baking to include South American specialties. The pastries, empanadas (turnovers), and pan dulce (sweet bread) attract a regular clientele. “We bake because we love it,” Leslie tells me in a phone interview. “And we love seeing people enjoy it.”
The shop also carries Latin American groceries. Cans of beans and chipotle sauce line the shelves, along with sacks of maize, and litre-sized tins of tomatillos. Packages of dried chilies stud one wall; the freezer reveals yucca (a starchy tuber); and pork rinds sit next to the potato chips. In the fridge, there are Mexican and Guatemalan tamales and a neon rainbow of bottled soft drinks. In the midst of it all are a few tables for patrons to enjoy a coffee or light lunch.
At the counter, Ordenes describes the savoury options: three kinds of Chilean hot beef sandwiches, and Chilean-style empanadas. I order a chacarero sandwich ($6.98), not knowing quite what to expect.
Ordenes disappears as I take a seat and watch a Spanish soap opera that’s playing on the TV in the corner. She emerges 10 minutes later with what appears to be a cross between a hamburger and a Sloppy Joe. The soft white bun is spread with mayonnaise and holds folds of thinly sliced beef topped with ripe tomatoes and a layer of French-cut green beans.
Green beans? Really?
“A lot of people are skeptical about the green beans,” Leslie says later on the phone. “But when they try it, they love it.”
I take a bite and am instantly enamoured: the sandwich is wrist-lickingly juicy and delicious. Yet I can’t quite figure out why it’s so good. Leslie reveals later that the meat is sautéed to order, and that the only seasoning is the “right amount” of salt. “What makes the sandwich is the bun,” she claims. It’s super fresh, and is also used in the churrasco sandwich (the same sans green beans) and a barros luco, which is beef with melted mozzarella.
The empanadas, which I take to go, are also tasty. Ranging from $3.50 to $4.25, each is as big as Mario Batali’s hand. The cheese version tastes similar to a croissant, and is made of puff pastry and filled with mozzarella. The beef one is really special. The pastry is sturdier, and it’s stuffed with a rich stewlike mixture of onion, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, and beef, and is seasoned with paprika, cumin, garlic, and oregano. Panaderia also sells sweet empanadas ($1.65) filled with homemade pineapple jam or dulce de leche.
The dulce de leche is made from scratch on the premises, like all the baking. According to Leslie, almost everything in the display case was made that day. (Pastry prices range from $1.50 to $3.75.) Panaderia also does a brisk business in wedding cakes and Quinceañera cakes for celebrating girls’ 15th birthdays.
I also buy some pastries to go, and as soon as I get home I intend to have just a taste of the tres leches cake but end up devouring the whole huge piece. There are actually four kinds of milk in this “three milk” cake: condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream, and coconut milk (if that counts as milk). It’s as moist as pudding, with flaked coconut clinging to the fresh whipped cream frosting. I could conquer the world on this sugar high.
The other pastries, including a wedge of the hubcap-sized hojaldra and a napoleon-like mil hoja (thousand layers) are all dangerously delicious. I wish, though, that I’d brought home a Maria Luisa, a soft custard-layered vanilla cake topped with sugar that’s coloured an Elle Woods pink. It would be a no-brainer pick for anyone who plays with Barbies. Note to self: always heed those childish impulses.