There's something wonderful about the aroma of bread baking. Even Franz with its Wonder-soft loaves smells good when the ovens are on. But Mexican bakeries—panaderias—are a whole other world. They use cinnamon, anise and orange in their fragrant pastries, or pan de dulce, filling them with guava, pineapple, coconut and vanilla cream. Savory breads are often stuffed with ham. Cookies even come in the shape of a pig. While every Mexican market in PDX carries these kind of goods, a smaller number make their own breads and pastries. Of these, two are a step above the rest: Yesenia's and La Espiga Dorada. Don't be shy. Just follow the grandmother with toddlers in tow, or the day laborer picking up some quick fuel, or the professional getting a box of sweets for the office. Grab a tray and some tongs and load up from the bakery case or the racks. (Hint: Items from the rack are fresher.)

La Panaderia 101

Mexican pastries and breads, or panes, can be divided into three main kinds based on the type of dough used: savory, sweet or laminated. Savory doughs, such as the simple white dough for pan de sal, are used to create breads such as the bolillo, a football-shaped roll, and the telera, an elongated, disc-shaped bread often used for tortas (Mexican sandwiches). Bolillos also come sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with items like cheese, chiles, or ham—the over-sized Mexican version of a Hot Pocket. Pan de anis is made with a simple dough, enriched and scented with anise, giving it the light aroma of black licorice. Pan de muerto uses an egg dough similar to brioche or challah, accented with orange. The round loaves with a mahogany crust have a cross-bones design that clues you in to their name: "bread of the dead."

Pan fino is a sweet dough with a texture somewhere between white bread and a cookie, sometimes laced with spices like cinnamon. It's used to make pastries, such as elotes, a sugar-coated bread in the shape of an ear of corn, round novia or besos, two cookies that "kiss," held together by frosting. Made with wheat and corn flour, mantecada is a loaf with the texture of yellow cake. It can be used by itself or is often paired with pan fino for pastries like ojos de buey ("ox eye" or "porthole"), where a crusty ring encircles a cakey center. Sometimes the sweetness doesn't come from the dough itself, but what is placed on it before baking. The most iconic pan de dulce is the concha, a domed bread, anywhere from a few inches across to over a foot in diameter, that is coated with a sweet paste that hardens in the oven, leaving a crunchy "shell" decoration.

Most familiar to Americans are the flaky laminated doughs, such as those used for Mexican croissants, cuernos ("horns"), and tacos, cigar-shaped pastries with fruit fillings, such as pineapple or guava. Orejas ("ears") are like French palmiers, layers of crisp, delicate puff pastry cut crosswise to reveal hundreds of layers wrapped around each other. The milhojas ("1000 leaves") consists of several inches of puff pastry with a Bavarian cream or fruit center. Tasty.

Yesenia's Specialties

IMAGE: Nick Zukin

At Yesenia's Hillsboro outpost, where the breads are baked continually throughout the day, you can often watch as the bakers combine doughs of different colors, fill pastries, and pound out shapes. Specialties include the molasses-flavored puerquito, a giant animal cookie shaped like a pig. Their empanada de manzana is a tasty apple turnover and their nuez ("walnut") has a crusty outer "shell" and cakey interior "nut." Like their beso, the cacahuate ("peanut") has two cookies stuck together with frosting, though this one could feed a small family.

La Espiga Dorada's Specialties

IMAGES: Nick Zukin

A golden sheaf of wheat adorns La Espiga Dorada's sign, beckoning the carb fiends inside. They do well with sweet pastries, like the pastelito de piña, a pineapple upside-down cake, or palmas, pan de dulce made of puff pastry similar in shape to orejas, but with "fingers" dipped in chocolate. However, La Espiga excels at savory stuffed breads, such as the sesame-coated bolillos with ham, chipotles and cream cheese or their empanadas filled with spiced pumpkin ("calabaza" ). On weekends they offer empanadas filled with mole, spiced ground meat, and even tuna. Make sure to check the baker's rack in front of the window for items that never make it into the case.

Yesenia’s At Work


Contributor Nick Zukin is the co-owner of Kenny & Zuke's delicatessen and SandwichWorks. He also runs the local food sites and, and is a voracious consumer of under-the-radar ethnic cuisine.

EAT: La Espiga Dorada Bakery, 18350 SW Tualatin Valley Highway, Beaverton, 591-9859. Yesenia's Market, 1075 SE Baseline St., Hillsboro, 681-9299, and 6611 SE Powell Blvd., 774-4124.