Portland loves a boutique bakery. In fact, the craft of baking in Portland is as respected and exalted as the crafts of beer brewing, chocolate making, and cannabis growing. Patisseries and cake shops pepper nearly every neighborhood in this city, so many of them with exemplary ratings from their communities.
And yet, as my birthday approached this year, I was compelled to eschew the boutique cake for something a bit more down to earth: a ready-made chocolate cake slice from a grocery store bakery.
Why a grocery store bakery? Well, as much as I appreciate boutique vibes, it’s the simple sheet cakes or ready-made round cakes that my inner child consistently desires come b-day season.
When I was growing up, my grandmother worked in a grocery store, so every birthday of my youth was marked by a cake directly from her store’s bakery. This year, I was inspired by that “Grandma Energy™” and, rather than giving in to extravagant Instagram cake trends, I opted to indulge my very specific childhood memories with a genuine grocery store bakery cake (or six).
The criteria were simple: I wanted cake for myself, a single slice if possible. I wanted it to have been baked in-house, or at least packaged in a way that was convincingly in-house. I wanted to spend less than five bucks per cake slice or 10 bucks for something fancier. I wanted chocolate, and I wanted to buy it from the grocery store.
While not every grocery I visited could meet my cake needs, each bakery counter delivered in its own unique, grocery store way, and I ended up with something simple, and something a bit extra, from each bakery counter. Here’s how my grocery store cake quest of 2023 shook out.
Basic: Chocolate Sheet Cake Slice, $3.99
This is a super-simple, single-layer, dense fudge cake with a gooey fudge icing. It’s hypersweet, mega-moist, and intensely chocolaty. These cuts are a frequent indulgence of mine, and typically a slice takes me three days to consume, which says a lot (I ain’t no slouch when it comes to cake munching). For a birthday fantasy, however, this cake was just a tad too basic. This is everyday cake—delicious but lacking the necessary fireworks to make it celebratory.
Extra: Triple Layer Fudge Cake Slice, $5.99
Not unlike its basic sheet slices, Safeway’s triple-layer cake slices are borderline scary-sweet, but the texture of these slices differs quite a bit. The icing is a firmer buttercream, the cake crumb is tighter in structure and a bit more crumbly, and the overall mouthfeel is lighter and airier than the sheet slices. This is an acceptable birthday slice, especially with a hearty helping of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream to moisten up those cake layers.
Bottom Line: You could do worse. I mean, you could do better, but you could also do worse.
Basic: Iced Fudge Layer Cake Slice, $3.00
The Freddy’s bakery experience was the most robust, with no less than a half-dozen layer cake slices to choose from, as well as all manner of novelty grab-and -go celebration cakes (my favorite being the one with a burger-and-fries motif). The simple chocolate cake slices, however, had a bargain sale-day energy that was a little less appealing. These slices were fudgy and rich, with a slight dark chocolate undertone that resulted in a slice that was less maniacally sweet than other fudge slices I auditioned, but they were also wobbly, with layers as moist as cake pops. A candle in this cake slice would look sad.
Extra: Chantilly Cupcake. $3.99
The bakery case at the Northeast Broadway Freddy’s is a magical roundabout serving most, if not all, of a customer’s basic patisserie needs. For a more extravagant birthday treat that is more devour-immediately and less savor-over-a-three-day-period, the best option is the oversized cupcakes. The white chantilly variety matched my outfit too well to choose chocolate, and for white cake aficionados, it’s top tier: buttery and silky up top with loose, moist, vanilla-flecked crumb, plus glazed berries as a garnish. Put a candle in her and you’d have something on par with a personal boutique b-day cake.
Bottom Line: Freddy’s really is that bitch when it comes to grocery store baked goods. Don’t sleep on her.
Basic: Triple Chocolate Cake Slice, $5.99
What at first blush seemed like another straightforward layer cake was easily the fluffiest, most luscious, and easiest-to-inhale cake of the bunch. This was the cake that melted in my mouth, a glorious cacophony of dark chocolate notes with bitter lows, nutty mids and euphorically sweet highs. Plus, there was a clear textural complement between the frosting and cake, both of which had a complexity that made me feel pretentious for noticing (a very cute way to feel on a birthday).
Extra: Mini Two-Tier Chocolate Cake, $8.99
On a banner birthday, this would be my top choice: an adorably decorated mini chocolate cake, blanketed in dark chocolate ganache, accentuated by vanilla creme flourishes. Swoon. This cake was super dense, with zero crumb. It’s an enticing black hole of fudge that made me feel undeserving—I wanted to feel like I’d earned such an undeniably outrageous indulgence. It felt like I needed a bigger, better birthday to celebrate with, so I don’t think I’ll get another until I turn 50.
Bottom Line: Chocolate cake snobs, rejoice. Both of these were relatively affordable and celebratory.
Basic: Tres Leches Cake Slice, $4.99
Sometimes the grocery bakery counter doesn’t have chocolate cake slices, even on your birthday. Or the day after. But the WF grab-and-go pastry case at least was stocked with a couple of varieties of slices, including tiramisu and tres leches. These slices were clearly more lunch-break dessert than solo dolo birthday mini-extravaganza, but also, cake is cake. The tres leches was milky and sublime, spongy and delicate, and frankly a welcome reprieve from chocolate. A wishy-washy HBD, but an HBD nonetheless.
Extra: Chocolate Eruption Cupcake, $3.99
The absence of chocolate cake slices made it clear that a WF cupcake was my destiny. Unlike the grab-and-go desserts, which were not without their charm, the cupcakes were here to celebrate with me. Particularly the Chocolate Eruption Cupcake. This b-day-ready beauty resembled a DQ ice cream cone dipped in chocolate, with whipped frosting piled high and enrobed in dark chocolate atop a moist, spongy dark chocolate cake. It’s certainly more of an undertaking than a cake slice would have been, but that’s what birthday cakes are about, right? Especially if you’re buying them for yourself.
Bottom Line: A slim setup does not negate a b-day-worthy payoff.