I discovered a kind of heaven while traveling in Baja California nearly 20 years ago. One morning after a surf session, my friends and I ambled into town in search of sustenance. As we wandered the main drag, our noses caught the whiff of baking bread. It led us to a bright corner storefront with broad plate glass windows where I beheld a sight that would be indelibly burned in my mind. Sweet breads, rolls, biscuits and cookies glowed like jewels in glass cases.
As a carbohydrate junkie I’m always on the hunt for my next fix, however I know that if it comes out of a plastic wrapper, it’s not going to do the trick. While most Americans are familiar with the humble tortilla which in many Mexican towns is made at a tortillarilla, they aren’t aware of the panaderia which specializes in baked goods made on the premises and packed in a paper bag to prevent them from getting soggy.
Once in the door of the panaderia we looked about hungrily, but the proprietress stood behind the cash register in the back corner and made no attempt to help us. Although I was salivating, a wave of disappointment began to wash over me since my Spanish was so meager, I didn’t know how to ask for help. Then a townie walked in the door, picked up a pair of tongs and a baking pan and began to get the pastries out of the cabinets himself. We needed no further instructions.
My Spanish hasn’t improved much since then, but now I know the names of most of the standard pastries: the white bread roll called a bolillo, the sugar dusted bun known as a concha, the flaky lengua, and the crunchy, donut-like churros. My favorite of all the pastries is a gingerbread-like creation called a puerquito. Its name translates as little piggy. I call it a creation because you never know if it will be soft and cakey, hard like biscuit, or chewy like a cookie.
I still find myself drawn to the appeal of the panaderia’s self-service cabinets here in the United States, but I could take or leave most of the treats. When I go in search of el puerquito, it’s for the variety. You never know if the molasses flavor will be strong, if the chew will be just right, or if it will crumble on the first bite. It’s no matter to me: every time I step through the door of a panaderia and grab the tongs, I am momentarily transported back to that moment of wonder in Baja. But more importantly, I know with that first bite I’m on to my next adventure.