Sampling the Valley’s Ethnic Bakeries : Cultural delicacies rich in exotic ingredients abound, from Filipino cakes to Cuban pastries and luscious Viennese desserts.
Man cannot live by bread alone. Especially in one of our colorful ethnic bakeries.
Most of us have a favorite neighborhood bakery, where we treat ourselves to a cookie or slice of pie when we need an emotional lift. But the San Fernando Valley fairly abounds with exotic ethnic bakeries, places where it is possible to experience a totally different culture while satisfying that sudden craving.
Expect anything from mom and pop storefronts to larger commercial outlets in this genre, with a few surprises thrown in. The majority of our ethnic bakeries emphasize breads, but a host of others bake up specialty fare, pastries and novelties from countries as diverse as Armenia, the Philippines and Cuba as well as various points on the European compass.
The following short list should get you started on the bakery trail, with apologies to the many fine places not mentioned.
The delightful Dates and Nuts belongs to Leah Gonzales, a former nurse who hails from Cavite City on Luzon. The bakery is part of a franchise in the Philippines, but Gonzales and her special passion for baking make this store extra special. Talagang naiiba-- that’s the bakery chain’s Tagalog-language slogan. Translation: “It’s really different.”
That it is. In the Philippines, tropical ingredients such as yam, coconut and mango abound, so don’t be surprised to find pastries and cakes using these flavors to the fullest. The round cassava cake ($5.50, serves six to eight) is made from the starchy root staple that produces tapioca. This one is sweet, heavy and eaten hot, with a custard-like topping.
How about these tiny, rich macaroons, little pastry cups filled with a sugary suspension that is almost pure coconut? A scrumptious-looking mango cheesecake or mango cream cake, both with a yellowish tinge and an ultra-creamy taste, is $7.50.
Ube cake is purple, thanks to the purple yam for which it is named. (Filipinos also make a delicious, purple ice cream from the ube.) Bubo pie is a standard on the islands, a coconut pie with a flaky outer crust and a light crumb topping. And Gonzales is especially proud of her sans rival, a wafer cake with butter cream icing and a cashew nut filling, sold in sheet form.
It’s not all sweet stuff in here. The Spanish influence on the islands is responsible for breads such as pan de sal and ensaymaditas. The first is a salted roll for snacks and sandwiches. The second is a buttery breakfast bread. Snacks include lumpia Shanghai, little cylinders of meat filling inside a fresh egg roll skin, and crusty adobo pie, a chicken-stuffed short pastry that is pure Filipino. Gonzales will make you lunch too, mostly home-style noodle dishes.
Dates and Nuts, 13556 Roscoe Blvd., Panorama City, (818) 786-5100. Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Solley’s Woodland Hills is the newest Jewish bakery in the area, open three weeks. Now that the redoubtable Weby’s of Studio City has closed its doors after a 27-year run, Solley’s--with a main branch in Sherman Oaks--is poised to become the preeminent Jewish bakery in the Valley.
This newly remodeled Solley’s is big and bright with lots of windows and a full-service deli counter and restaurant. The pastry carousel is right by the front door, so you can’t walk in without passing an array of tortes, cheesecakes and other cardiological nightmares.
I’ve long been a fan of the hearty, swirly black and white (pumpernickel and rye) bread--chewy, seeded bread sold at $1.20 a pound. One sliced bread usually weighs in at nearly two pounds. The bakery section sells 13 varieties of bagels at 42 cents each, plus a variety of other breads.
Pastry lovers should try the terrific hamentash , a triangular short pastry filled with prune, poppy or apricot paste; rugalach , bite-sized cookies made from a rich cream-cheese dough; any of the mini-Bundt cakes at $1.95 each; or the delicious, moon-shaped black and white cookies, smeared with chocolate- and vanilla-flavored frosting. If you’re really in the mood to do the town, try the cylindrical, individual-sized strawberry shortcake, wrapped in wax paper and dense with thick whipped cream, a bargain at $2.25.
Solley’s, 21857 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 340-0810, and 4578 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-5774. The Woodland Hills bakery is open 7 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; in Sherman Oaks, the bakery opens at 6 a.m.
Glendale’s wonderful Porto’s is bound to overwhelm anyone unfamiliar with a Cuban bake shop. Cubans like their pastries sweet and tropical, arrays of cakes made with ingredients such as mango and coconut, and rum-drenched pastries clotted with creams and custards.
This is a big, bright place with several tables, a huge open space in the center, a hot-food section for meat pies, sandwiches and snacks, and a long, colorful pastry counter.
Begin at the hot section, where house specialties such as pastel de carne and croquetas de jamon are on display. The first is a puff pastry filled with seasoned ground beef, which sells for an incredible 35 cents. The second is all of 50 cents, a breaded, deep-fried cylinder fashioned from ground ham, bread crumbs and spices. Both terrific snacks washed down with a Cuban pineapple soda, available at the cashier.
Most cookies and pastries sell for the same, unbelievably low prices. One of the most delicious is guava roll, short pastry shaped into a small horn that is filled with guava paste. The huge masareal (70 cents) is a giant cornmeal square big enough for three, a soft pastry cut in half, lengthwise, with strawberry jam in the center. Tres leche is a rich, meringue-topped milk pudding, served in a foil cup. And for those with a real sweet tooth, there is coquito en almiba, a golf ball-sized confection of shredded coconut, wrapped in crackly, caramelized sugar.
Porto’s Bakery, 315 N. Brand Ave., Glendale. (818) 956-5996. Monday to Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Don’t be intimidated by the giant, four-tiered wedding cakes in the window at Skandia, a Swedish-American bakery in Burbank. Most people stop in here for a cup of coffee and a slice of Swedish Princess cake, the house specialty.
Only in Los Angeles could a Swedish bakery be Israeli-owned and operated, as this one is. Nonetheless, many breads, cakes and cookies here look and taste exactly as they would in a small Swedish village. That Princess cake, for instance, sold by the slice at $1.75, is composed of yellow sponge cake layered with raspberry puree and whipped cream, enrobed by a Kermit-green marzipan paste. The slices, incidentally, are loaf-shaped.
The bakery also sells loaves of dense limpa, a Swedish brown bread that gets much of its taste, color and density from such ingredients as molasses and orange peel. Among the array of cookies and cupcakes typically found in any suburban bakery, there are a dozen or so different types of Swedish petit fours--elaborately designed, frosted affairs made with almonds, bananas, jams, chocolate and colored marzipans.
A new wrinkle here, as in most Valley bakeries, is the fine selection of fat-free muffins the chefs have just added. But one of my favorite pastries here is the chocolate-dipped almond horseshoe, a rich pastry studded with shaved almonds. No points from the aerobics instructor for that one.
Skandia Swedish-American Bakery, 347 N. Pass Ave., Burbank. (818) 761-2233. Open 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Walk into the wonderful Avo’s Bakery at any time, and you’ll see a team of busy workers rolling dough, mixing meat and spices and manning an enormous, rotating oven. They are assembling lahmajune, a crusty Armenian snack that some people compare to pizza.
It’s not pizza, of course. Lahmajune is a razor-thin, baked bread topped with tomato, minced meat, bell peppers, garlic and secret Armenian spices; and it is one of the world’s truly addictive snacks. Armenians fold it up, then eat it like a burrito.
I ate mine hot out of the bakery’s huge oven on my last visit, and it was sheer perfection. Avo’s Bakery is the king of lahmajune in these parts, which is why the bakery has five delivery trucks moving the product to Fresno, Oakland and other points all over the state.
The business belongs to the Kabadayan family, and it doesn’t stop with lahmajune. Many products are baked here; most of them sold in bulk and trucked out to retail businesses and Armenian groceries.
They are happy to sell to the public, though, as the sometimes long lines here attest. Try one of the enormous, triangular boregs, puffy, yeasty breads about a foot long. Fillings might be spinach, cheese or spicy cheese, and they make great impromptu lunches when eaten warm. The bakery sells slightly sweet sesame bread sticks for $1.99 a bag, also soft date cookies called khorma for $3 (about 18 cookies.) You’ll find breads such as chorag, a sweet raisin roll, and several other breads with long Armenian names.
But don’t forget that lahmajune is the bakery’s real drawing card, perhaps the Valley’s best bargain snack. It sells for 75 cents apiece, $3.25 for a bag of eight. Wow.
Avo’s Bakery, 6740 Reseda Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-1032. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Viktor Benes Continental Bakery was founded by a Viennese immigrant, a fact that is noteworthy because of that city’s long, unrivaled pastry-making tradition. The original bakery was and is on Third Street in Los Angeles, sandwiched between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
It’s easy to miss the Valley branch, located as it is inside the sprawling Gelson’s Market in Encino. The outlet is on the west side of the store, fronted by a long counter. Breads and pastries are made fresh in a kitchen just behind the counter, and quality control is high. You’ll be waited on by a team of women in burgundy-colored aprons and visored hats. Feel free to ask them to describe some of the fancier pastries, many of which are Central European in origin, and may be unfamiliar to first-time visitors.
Take, for instance, the luscious Vienna torte, a round, crusty latticed pie/cake made from thickly cut cookie dough. The filling is either apricot or peach, serves eight to 10, and is perfect for that mid-afternoon coffee klatsch. Vanilla-flavored Hungarian biscuits are hearty and dense; I slice them in half to make a Hapsburgian version of strawberry shortcake. Walnut squares are another Hungarian favorite, a top and a bottom layer of crusty dough, a rich, walnut puree in the center.
The variety is impressive here, and almost everything is delicious. Great, heavily seeded corn rye bread sells for about $2.55 a loaf; small gugelhoffs, a puffy bread from France’s Alsace region that is really more like a cake, $5.40. For fancier gatherings, how about a gorgeous, eight-inch lemon tart dotted with willowy clumps of meringue, or a gateau St. Honore, a puff-pastry base with custard and rum, topped with custard-filled pastry puffs and chocolate-flavored whipped cream. St. Honore is French, not Viennese. I don’t hear anyone complaining.
Viktor Benes Continental Pastry, 16450 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 783-4844. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.