It’s 8:30 on a Thursday morning, and a father and his two young sons are on a mission. They walk in the door of Tienda Los Nenes, turn right and head directly to the six glass-fronted cases that line one wall designated as the panaderia [pan-ah-de-REE-ah], or bread bakery. Each section inside the cases has four shelves, and every shelf is devoted to an impressive variety of baked goods.
The father takes a round aluminum tray and set of tongs, and while his boys open each case’s door, he selects an assortment of muffins and breads, puts them on the tray, grabs a dozen bananas from the produce area then two bags of corn tortillas and goes to the counter, where store manager America Vera counts the number of baked goods on the tray and multiplies that by 89 cents. The muffins? Eighty-nine cents. The conchas? Eighty-nine cents. The cuernitos? Eighty-nine cents.
Vera says the trio comes to Los Nenes twice a week, always at the same time, always starting at the panaderia. “It is traditional in Mexico to eat a lot of bread,” she says. “People normally eat breads for breakfast and at night. Sometimes a snack in the afternoon. Actually, people from Mexico eat bread all day.”
Adriana Chavela, a native of Mexico City and the founder of Hola Carolina magazine, echoes the assessment. “Bread for us is breakfast and dinner,” she says. “My first memories are breakfast with my grandma, pan dulce and café con leche. Later, you might have your eggs and beans and, of course, tortillas. And after dinner, another pan dulce and café con leche. We eat a lot of bread!”
In Mexico City, there is a lot of bread to eat; by some estimates, there are over 1,000 varieties of Mexican sweet breads — pan dulce — alone. “Here the bakeries are inside the markets, but in Mexico City, they are just bakeries, and you find a panaderia on every corner,” says Chavela. Panaderias, writes My Sweet Mexico author Fany Gerson, represent one of the main pillars of Mexican cuisine, and even the smallest villages have at least one source for their daily breads.
Neither Los Nenes in West Asheville nor Los Reyes Bakery in Hendersonville bakes 1,000 types of sweet breads, but Vera says the two bakers in the Los Nenes kitchen produce well over 1,000 baked goods weekly.
Weekday midafternoon is downtime for customer traffic at Los Reyes, but inside the bakery/market/butcher/restaurant, the staff is busy wiping tables post-lunch, scrubbing the grills behind the counter and reorganizing and stocking the panaderia cases. Three 6-foot-tall rolling racks, fully stacked with baking sheets crowded with baked goods just out of the ovens, stand by. “We bake all day,” says Sarah Guardarrama, whose family owns and operates Los Reyes and whose husband, Gerardo Bustos, is the baker. “We make about 150 different items.”
The most popular item in every panaderia is the concha, which like so many of the sweet breads is named for something it resembles, in this case, a seashell. Conchas are brightly colored and claim center stage in the cases. Conchas combine two of the greatest hits in any culture of baked goods — sweet bread and cookies — and like many of the items found in panaderias, involve time and multiple steps to create.
The heart of the concha is a sweet bread roll made from wheat flour, water, sugar, butter (sometimes shortening or lard), eggs, yeast and salt. After the dough is mixed, it is kneaded, then allowed to rise for several hours or overnight. After the first rise, the dough is cut into individual round rolls, then left to rise again.
The color of the cookie-dough topping indicates the flavor: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and banana. After the second rise, the rolls are covered with a thin, flattened layer of cookie dough, which is scored in a spiral to mimic a seashell and baked. They are at their best warm from the oven, but Vera says they will stay fresh in the bakery bag as long as four days and can be reheated at home. Diana Kennedy, cookbook author and noted authority on Mexican cuisine, recommends putting thick slices of days-old conchas onto baking sheets and toasting them until crisp.
Other standards found daily in local panaderias are Mexican doughnuts, usually topped with chocolate or sprinkles — or both — larger and more cakelike than those found in American chain stores; a variety of muffins; cuernitos, horn-shaped and filled with sweetened cream cheese or marmalade; roles de canela, fat, frosting-glazed cinnamon rolls; ojo de buey, which translates to eye of the bull and is a round of pastry with a center — bull’s eye — of cookie dough or sugar paste; the flaky, sugary oreja, elephant’s ear; besos — two half-spheres of pastry rolled in powdered sugar or flaked coconut and locked in a kiss with a layer of strawberry jam; peach-, guava- or pineapple-filled empanadas; sweet, dense bisquets with an egg white glaze; and puerquitos, bread flavored with molasses and piloncillo (or dark brown sugar) and cut out in the shape of a pig. The most common shortbread cookie is the bandera, a tricolored cookie often in red/green/white to honor the Mexican flag.
Not all the breads in panaderias are sweet. Guardarrama at Los Reyes points out trays of cemitas — sesame-seed-topped soft rolls that are the basis for many sandwiches. Bolillas are oblong rolls with a crusty exterior and doughy interior. Mamacita’s Taco Temple, Bomba and Grey Eagle buy bolillas in bulk from Los Nenes for the tortas on their menus.
Refrigerated cases at both Los Nenes and Los Reyes display elaborately decorated tres leches layer cakes in various sizes, and Los Reyes also has a large assortment of cupcakes, flan and cheese tarts. Both stores sell hot churros on weekends only.
Special occasions call for special breads. Rosca de reyes is a circular sweet bread (rosca means wreath, and reyes means kings) decorated with figs, cherries and candied fruits and baked for Three Kings Day, celebrated 12 days after Christmas on Jan. 6 in Mexico. “On Dia de Reyes, family and friends get together and everyone gets a slice of the cake,” Chavela explains. “Whoever gets the little baby Jesus hidden in the cake has to provide the tamales for Dia de la Candelaria on Feb. 2.”
Pan de muerto — bread of the dead — is baked for Dia de Los Muertos, which is celebrated Oct. 31 to Nov. 2; the ghoulish name is not reflective of the taste of the sweet roll scored with crosses. Chavela’s father bakes the pan de muerto for the Dia de Los Muerto celebration Hola Carolina hosts in downtown Hendersonville on Oct. 31, one of four festivals the magazine presents annually.
Sharing the culture
Chavela’s parents moved to Hendersonville in 1996 after her pilot father retired from Aero Mexico. “They had visited friends here when he was still flying and loved it, so they bought property and retired here,” she says. “I was back and forth from Mexico City and came here permanently in 2003. Back then, there was just one Mexican store in the area, and to get the things she needed to cook, my mother went to Greenville about once a week to shop. The Hispanic community has grown tremendously since I moved here, and now there are tiendas with panaderias and carnicerias everywhere.”
Los Nenes has a second store with a panaderia and carniceria in Hendersonville (though the baking is done in Asheville). Less than a half-mile from the Asheville Los Nenes are Azteca #2 Tienda y Panaderia and El Torito Bakery, both on Patton Avenue. Miguel Montoya — who is from Peru — left his banking career in July to take over the lease of El Torito from the owners of Los Reyes, which still supplies the small store with fresh-baked goods.
He intends to change the name to reflect a larger selection of products, add specialties from Peru and market in Spanish and English. “We don’t want to isolate. We want to engage everyone. Asheville is kind of a brand-new city as far as Latin immigrants go,” he says. “Bigger cities are on their third and fourth generations; this area is first-generation American-born. They are more bilingual and educated than their parents.”
Chavela concurs. “When my parents came here in 1996, the Hispanic population was mostly migrants coming to work the apple season, and then they would go somewhere else to work another crop. But some people stayed, settled and had kids, who were the first ones to grow up here, graduate high school and go to college here,” she says.
“It is also a more diverse Latinx community,” she adds. “It used to be primarily Mexican, but now it is also Central America and South America. It is young and eager to share our culture with the larger community.”
Tienda Los Nenes is at 1341 Parkwood Road, Suite 110, Asheville, and 1945 Spartanburg Highway, Hendersonville. Los Reyes Bakery is at 810 S. Grove St., Hendersonville. El Torito Bakery is at 112 Patton Ave.