Much pastry sold around town is, well, ghastly. From the jaundiced bearclaws packaged in plastic at 7-Eleven to the graying heavyweight scones at Starbucks and $8 molten desserts at restaurants that simply aren't, sweets so often let us down it's a mystery we keep going back for more.

So when Criollo Bakery opened last summer and began selling some of the best pastries in Portland, you might have expected the whole city, including locals in the Beaumont-Alameda neighborhood, to stampede.

Perhaps they didn't because they were simply stunned. What had previously been a fluorescent-lit doughnut shop had become a sparkling salon with toffee-colored walls. The contents of its gleaming glass cases beguiled, all those rows of brioches and galettes, lemon teacakes and pistachio éclairs, plus the chocolate peanut-butter terrine and cream-cheese Danish.

Did all the window shoppers partake of these riches? Not necessarily. It was as if they were window-shopping at Tiffany's, wondering whether they were entitled to such beautiful objects. Some folks decided they weren't, and instead walked through the door to Java Man, the coffeeshop that adjoins Criollo, to settle for a store-bought maple bar.

Which sparks the question: Is popularity a matter of convincing people they deserve the Danish?

"I love it when people 'get it,' and overall, I think our clientele is pretty savvy, food-wise," says owner Melissa McKinney, who opened Criollo ("cocoa bean," in Spanish) in June 2004. "I get a ton of people saying, 'We love you; don't ever close.' But I do get a percentage who come in and ask, 'Why don't you have the kind of cakes they have at Costco?' And I want to say, 'You mean the ones with trans fat and food coloring?'"

On a recent lunch hour, all Criollo's tables are filled. Two women discuss movies over cups of carrot-coconut soup ($3.75) and a Ploughman's plate ($5.95) of triple cream cheese, fresh bread and salad. A foursome convenes over shortbread ($1) and chocolate peanut-butter bars ($2.50). A mom with kids in tow orders a quiche Lorraine ($4.25) to go, while another toddler in the store, covered from nose to neck in chocolate-buttermilk cake, chants a mantra: "Yummy. Yummy. Cake, yummy."

McKinney, who has been cooking since she was 14, spent several years at Ron Paul and Bluehour before teaching herself to bake, first pastry, then bread, including the baguettes ($2) and chewy polenta loaves ($3.50) that hang in baskets on the wall. And then there are her Danish ($2.65): The cream cheese oozes, the golden raisins are tumescent, the pastry supple as a baby's cheek. This is Danish you almost never find in a neighborhood bakery, except, perhaps, if your neighborhood is Montmartre.

"I can't believe I'm going to eat this at 9:30 in the morning, but I'll have that," one customer said recently, as she pointed to a softball-size creampuff drenched in bittersweet chocolate ($3.50), which she elected to eat on the Java Man side.

Where people sit doesn't matter, according to McKinney. "I'll be out here wiping a table," the baker says, "and I'll hear the customers bite into something, and go, 'Ohhhh.' If I can make a woman moan, I know I've succeeded."

Criollo Bakery

4727 NE Fremont St., 335-9331 7 am-7 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 7 am-4 pm Sunday. Credit cards accepted. No personal checks. $-Inexpensive.

Picks: Chocolate buttermilk cake; polenta bread; apple golden raisin cream cheese Danish; shortbread.

More great Portland bakeries: In three years, Ken's Artisan Bakery (338 NW 21st Ave., 248-2202) has become a Portland institution, its breads a staple at many of the city's top restaurants. Top picks: Rustic levain breads, pain au chocolate, and pain Normandie with apples.

The air in St. Honoré Boulangerie (2335 NW Thurman St., 445-4342) is so suffused with butter the actual eating of the croissants can seem redundant. Top picks: Chouquettes, almond croissants, walnut bread, onion bread.

Pix Pâtisserie (3402 SE Division St., 232-4407) wins the louche Left Bank sweepstakes, offering whimsy (and aperitifs) along with gâteau. Top picks: Royale with cheese, pear rosemary tart.