One of my favorite strip malls anywhere sits at the corner of South Saunders Street and Chapanoke Road, just as south-central Raleigh begins to become Garner.
A hub for this part of the Triangle’s sizeable Spanish-speaking community, and home to the county’s best Latino grocery store, it’s a brick-and-cinderblock complex, painted an unsettling shade of flesh-colored putty. It’s a fantastic place to kill an afternoon.
It’s easy to miss the spot closest to Chapanoke Road, or the one that houses Panaderia Pahuatlan. Even if you do spy it, the four-color-process printed window decals may make you keep moving. All you have to do, however, is stand near the door to know that’s a mistake.
Indeed, on a recent Saturday afternoon, the door was propped open to accommodate all the patrons snaking out the entrance and onto the sidewalk. The smell of Pahuatlan’s fresh-baked bolillos—a football-shaped variation on the baguette, commonly used for tortas—filled the air. Inside, a basket so large it could hold two adult humans overflowed with the loaves.
A boy of eight or nine wandered, wide-eyed, in front of glass-enclosed shelves of pan dulces while his father waited patiently with a full tray. I understood his trouble: There are cloud-shaped sugar cookies, strawberry turnovers, brown-sugar glazed marranitos, pillowy conchas with powdered sugar or sprinkles, coconut-covered caramel jelly rolls, apple raisin bread pudding wedges, and so much more.
I tried to be reasonable, and I still left with a dozen-plus kinds of pastry (research!). Also, I wondered if maybe I should have also gotten the chocolate-iced doughnut or the cocoa-dusted conchas? I should have, right?
Still, there were some absolute winners. Cuernos look like the creme horns found at grocery stores all over the South, the ones filled with greasy sugary frosting and wrapped on Styrofoam trays. The similarity ends at appearance. Pahuatlan’s cone-shaped pastries are filled with a not-so-sweet, very creamy vanilla custard.
Then there are the orejas—heart-shaped cookies that, like their French cousin in the palmier, are flakey and buttery crisp. Here, they come with a light dusting of cinnamon and sugar, making them the perfect accompaniment to dark black coffee.
And right now, try the pan de muerto, a dome-shaped, citrus-flavored sweet bread, jeweled with dough knobs and bedazzled with red, yellow, and green sugar. It’s made for traditional Day of the Dead celebrations.
Pahuatlan also offers a nice selection of flan, tres leches cakes, and special-occasion cakes, custom decorated with brightly colored frosting or edible photos. I considered a three-dimensional jelly, a neon-layered concoction that looks like the love child of a lava lamp and my grandmother’s Jell-o mold salads.
As I survey all this, I wait in the fast-moving line, my cafeteria tray piled high. The woman at the register smiles as she calls to the back for more bread to fill the giant basket. She takes my selections one by one and puts them on wax paper and folds each sheet in half. With an expert flick of the wrist, she twists each one into a neat packet. It’s a small detail, but one I find gracious and comforting.
It’s the best way I can imagine to wrap both a pastry and this visit.