Sweet and Low

Sweet and Low

In a town where Italian pastries are king, there’s a place on Grand Avenue where a very different dynasty of sweets can be found: the Mexican bakery Panaderia La Tapatia.

When you enter the tiny orange storefront, there are very few places you can direct your eyes without landing on baked things. Its walls are lined with pastry piled eight sheets high, and a shelved wooden wagon loaded with colorful confections fills the middle.

As is customary at Mexican bakeries, you shop for pastry at La Tapatia with a large circular platter like a pizza tray, using a pair of tongs to stock it. What you’re stocking is shockingly inexpensive: Each puffed-up pastry can be got for the low, low price of $1.25. An entire platter could run you less than $15.

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La Tapatia specializes in pan dulce—literally, “sweet bread”—an umbrella term covering Mexico’s peculiar spin on baked treats. Among the the shop’s stacks are pastries resembling French croissants, Spanish flan and even Danishes.

But there are points where the resemblances end, and the first regards size: many pan dulce versions are slightly (or excessively) bigger than their European forebears. The second regards sweetness: what this breed of breads has gained in bulk it’s (perhaps thankfully) shed in sugar. The pastries are only mildly sweet, so they’re capable of satisfying a sweet tooth without delivering the jitters.

Among La Tapatia’s staples are conchas, or “shells.” A distinctly Mexican delicacy, these plump loaves were decorated with a layer of frosting in ribbed and spiral patterns like seashells. Their soft, airy interior was only slightly sweet and relied on the frosting, available in vanilla, chocolate and strawberry varieties among others, to supply most of the sugar and flavor.

You can also find borrachos—“drunkards.” Sprinkled with grains of sugar over the top, these squat bread loaves clocked in at about nine inches long, their cross-sections beautifully marbled with swirls of red. Between the savory sweetness of the brown sugared crust, the vanilla of the white dough and the hit of strawberry in the red swirls, a mouthful was like a spoonful of Neapolitan ice cream.

Then there are the jellied treats. One of the most popular fillings in the pan dulce kingdom seems to be piña, or pineapple, which filled one of La Tapatia’s takes on the Danish—a square of high puffy pastry trying to contain a circular, bright yellow pool. Another pastry had a filling of gooey pineapple jam between the base of a muffin and a doughy latticed top. The “Danish” was light and the muffin-pie was heavy, and the jelly was superb in both.

Those familiar with the French palmier—short rolls of puff pastry laced with butter and sugar—may also know that it goes by many other names: elephant ears, palm leaves, cœurs de France (“French hearts”), shoe-soles or glasses. In Mexico they’re known as orejas, or ears, and La Tapatia has loads of the flaky, curling spirals of dough. Delicate, they’ll survive the journey from plate to mouth, but any serious jostling will have them breaking into pieces. True to pan dulce, they’re not overly sweet and—could you guess?—they’re plus-sized.

Since there are hundreds of different kinds of pan dulce in Mexico, La Tapatia has had to pick and choose which kinds it’ll serve New Haven. But that hasn’t stopped it from choosing dozens of other kinds not already mentioned, including star-shaped muffins, asterisk-shaped sticks of dough, cinnamon buns, giant three-colored flower cookies, cheese-filled horseshoe buns and Mexican-style—not as buttery, to my tongue—croissants.

At $1.25 a pop, and with so many varieties to try, La Tapatia offers the chance to explore Mexican pastry culture to a degree most of us never imagined we would, even in our sweeter dreams.

Panaderia La Tapatia
309 Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
Daily 6am-9pm
(203) 752-9501

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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