Featured image: Illustrations by Charlie Marion
Most people let the feeling of fall fill them with thoughts of pumpkin spice drinks and apple-picking. For me, however, I look forward to picking something else: pan at my local panadería and attempting to recreate my mom’s te de canela.
When I visit my parents’ house, I can count on finding my mom’s purple Tupperware bowl filled with different types of breads from the local Mexican bakery. It’s always on the left side of her 30 year-old-dining faux-wood table, which wobbles slightly but is sturdy enough to have hosted hundreds of meals in my lifetime. The Tupperware bowl is like a treasure chest filled with beautifully colored pink or brown conchas or galletas with rainbow sprinkles. If I arrive at night, I know my breakfast the next morning will be one of these freshly baked treats. If I arrive early in the morning, my mom will have coffee brewing to accompany the bread.
Panaderías are bakeries, a place where bread, or pan, is sold. Pan dulce is a sweetbread, while conchas are circular with a seashell (conchas) design on top of them. In addition to bakeries, mercados or markets, also sell galletas, or cookies, and tea de canela: cinnamon tea.
My affinity for Mexican bakeries began in my early twenties. It was the first time I had left the Mexican community in the northwest suburbs of Chicago I grew up with. When I moved to St. Louis, I desperately wanted to be around people who looked like me. I arrived in early August, and by the time I was settled in, mid September had arrived in the city. That time of year is nationally recognized as Latinx Heritage Month (well, technically, it’s known as Hispanic Heritage Month, but I don’t use that word). I was new to St. Louis and with no friends, I wanted to find Latinx people to just be around.
I began searching for panaderías in St. Louis, which had plenty to choose from and I settled for one on Cherokee Street which, unbeknownst to me at the time, is a predominant Latinx neighborhood with a vibrant Mexican and Latinx history. I remember driving to Diana’s Bakery and almost missing it because of how it blended in with the businesses around it. The display cases on opposite sides of the wall were clear and well-lit, casting a soft glow on the breads inside. I’ve lived in different places since living in St. Louis and here in the Triad the panaderías proudly display their breads in similar types of display cases.
In writing this guide, I wanted to immerse myself by visiting every panadería in the Triad, which totals about 14 shops. The location I frequent the most is Carnicería El Mercadito in Greensboro off Market Street and West Spring Garden Street. In visiting these panaderías I wanted to answer a question which seems so basic, but one I hadn’t stopped to think about: What is a panadería?
For me, visiting a panadería is a vivid sensory experience. The smell of dough and sugar greets you as soon as you open the door. While many of the locations are just bakeries, some of them also act as groceries or markets or restaurants as well. On a weekend morning, a panadería within a grocery store is as lively as any train station in a major city. Many people bustle around with baskets and trays as they pick out their goods. The sounds of customers ordering breakfast in Spanish intertwines with the heavy thuds of butchers’ knives cutting meat or cashiers swiftly opening paper bags to serve growing lines of patrons.
As I drove 171 miles across the Triad and visited 14 Mexican bakeries, I began to understand panaderías as microcommunities. The word “micro” gets used in many ways from describing breweries to weddings and even to a new type of eyebrow treatment (see: microblading), but in this instance, it’s used as a way to describe the store’s care not only for its customers, but also its awareness of a community beyond the individual stores. When you go to a panadería you might see various flyers or a plastic container collecting money for a particular cause or for someone in the community who needs financial support. The doors become a bulletin board as flyers advertising or seeking services are taped on the glass. A panadería in a market also crosses borders as customers will use money-transferring services to send cash back to their families in their home countries.
Walking into a panadería for me, is an experience of familiarity wrapped up in relief. A relief in knowing that whether I’m in St. Louis or in the Triad, there are other Mexican and Latinx people around. A relief that comes from hearing Spanish and maybe hearing regional Spanish similar to your family’s own tongue. A relief in finding a grocery store with Carlos X chocolate bars or cripsy chicharrones (fried pork belly).
I have depended on panaderías as a lifeline. Like any microcommunity, panaderías are like a second or third home, a place that is familiar and safe. As fall continues and winter beckons on the horizon, panaderías provide me a warmth, not unlike the dough that rises in the ovens nearby.
Type of breads at a pandería
Depending on which corner of the internet you find yourself in, you will see a range of numbers for how many different types of breads you will find in panderías — anywhere from 500-2,000.
Before this journey I would have side-eyed those numbers, but after visiting 14 locations, I believe that range. Like there are an infinite number of stars in the known universe, maybe too there are infinite types of panes which can be baked.
For starters, I’ve distilled it down to the five most common types of panes you can expect to find when you visit these bakeries. And remember: variations exist across different locations. Bakers have their own way of making these panes based on where they or their family are from in their native country. As such, this list is not every single type of bread found in bakeries. If you are unsure of what type of pan you are looking at, go ahead and ask. Many of the panaderías I visited did not label their panes in their display case.
Note: The types of breads may have different types of names (bolillos are also known as pan francés or birote) across different regions in Mexico and across Latin America. The names here are what is commonly used.
Conchas: Let’s start with the most popular pan dulce (sweetbread). The word concha is Spanish for seashell. These brightly colored circular breads resemble conch shells with straight and angular lines that decorate the top of the pastry. A sweetbread is often covered in a cookie crust. The most common flavors are vanilla (white conchas) and chocolate (brown conchas).
Empanadas: If you’ve eaten empanadas (in English, turnovers), you most likely have eaten savory ones filled with meat or vegetables. But empanadas can be sweet, filled with fruit like guava, strawberry or apple and often served for breakfast. Enciso Bakery in Greensboro had a guava and cream cheese combination while the location in High Point had a pumpkin-filled empanada. Move over, McDonald’s apple pies, I’m grabbing an empanada!
Bolillo: A torta is a sandwich and a common food at Mexican restaurants, and the bread of it is called a bolillo. If you want a new way of making a sandwich, ditch the store-bought sandwich bread and grab one of these. The crunchy crust on the outside and softness inside will level up your sandwich game. The bolillo is most similar to a french baguette though much shorter.
Puerquitos: If you find a coffee-colored bread in the shape of a pig, you have found a puerquito (Spanish for little pigs)! Though at first glance, the pan might look like gingerbread, it isn’t. The bread is often flavored with molasses and made with unrefined whole cane sugar, anise and cinnamon. The flavor has a hint of sweetness. When it comes to texture, it varies: they can be hard and dry or soft.
Galletas: Pronounced “ga·ie·ta,” galletas is the Spanish word for cookies. Many bakeries will have different types of galletas. My personal favorites are the ones with chocolate chips and the M&M-like candy on the cookies. But these cookies aren’t like your favorite aunt’s chocolate-chip cookies, with a gooey and soft center. The galletas here are with a soft crunch. Royal Bakery in Winston-Salem has a wide variety.
Honorable Mention – Sweetened Biscuit: When I visited La Mejor Bakery in Kernersville, a particular bread caught my eye. It had the shape of the biscuit but with a ring on the top of it. Curiously, I grabbed two to take home. What I unearthed is the sweetness of many pan dulces in the shape of the biscuit. It wasn’t crumbly like biscuits can sometimes be, but soft and fluffy. I KNOW the flavor of it would be enhanced with honey or a strawberry jam.
A guide to visiting your first panadería
You’ve been reading this guide and are ready to visit your first panadería. You might be ecstatic but a little comprehensive. Is it like other bakeries where there is a counter to order? Will I need to speak Spanish when I go into a bakery? What are the social norms? For those new to panaderias, I got you. For frequent visitors, this might be old news to you. Either way, here is a step-by-step guide on visiting your first panadería.
- Before you leave, grab some cash. Some of the bakeries I visited only accepted cash. Each bread will typically cost you $1 to $2.50 per item.
- Drive to your local panadería down the street or venture to one in a different part of the Triad for you based on our list. If you are going on a weekend, expect the bakeries to be busy. The best times to visit are early in the morning, when the bread is freshest.
- When you walk in, say hello. Culturally, I grew up learning you say “Buenos días” when you see someone or enter a business.
- Near the entrance, you’ll see a pile of circular, gray metallic trays and tongs. Grab one of each.
- Depending on the size of the panadería, you’ll see several display cases filled with breads and sheet pan racks out with more bread. It can be overwhelming. But don’t worry, just take your time. I like to take a second to peruse and look for my favorites while also finding one or two breads I haven’t tried before. Maybe I’ll grab a sweeter bread for dessert later that day.
- Grab your first piece of bread and put it on your tray. The panadería you are in might have labels for each type of bread or they might not. Either way, let your curiosity take over. Grab the pan which intrigues you the most based on the shape or color or because it sparks joy.
- Find the cashier and head over with your tray and tongs in hand. The cashier will place the breads in paper bags and occasionally wrap some of them in wax paper. They’ll then place your bread-filled paper bags in a plastic bag. They put away the tray and tongs so you do not have to worry about these.
- Pay the cashier and head to your car or back to your house to consume your delicious finds. A warning: breads like the conchas can leave crumbs so grab your handheld cordless car vacuum if like me, you can’t wait to eat until you get home. Sharing is optional but encouraged.
A list of panaderías in the Triad
- Panaderia Enciso (Enciso Bakery #3) 3932 W. Market St. Suite E
- Carnicería El Mercadito 103 Muirs Chapel Rd
- Carniceria El Rey 3927 W Gate City Blvd
- El Mercadito 3833 W Gate City Blvd
- San Miguel Market 3101 Yanceyville St
- Latino’s II 1601 E Bessemer Ave K
- Enciso Bakery (HP) 2801 W English Rd
- Panaderías Los Tres Hermanos (HP) 800 S Main St
- La Mejor Bakery Inc (KV) 428 N Main St #D
- Arroyo Bakery (Panaderia Arroyo) 636 E Monmouth St
- Panaderia – Pastelería y Tortilleria Gayosso 5057 University Pkwy
- Panaderia Begneis 5387 Shattalon Dr
- Royal Bakery 1810 Silas Creek Pkwy
- La Tili Supermarket 827 E Sprague St
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