50 Favorite Places #6
Suppose, just hypothetically, that this blog’s account of Bush Terminal Piers Park (Favorite Place #3) piqued your interest. You go there, you look around, and as so often happens, you find yourself craving a bite to eat. The immediate area is unpromising.
What to do?
You could, of course, head to Industry City, where a few of Bush Terminal’s industrial lofts have been tastefully renovated to attract tech firms as tenants. But why not go somewhere that’s truly of the neighborhood, not a developer’s fever dream or a curated-to-death food hall disconnected from the surrounding streets? Poke around a bit, and you’ll find some gems – including several that merit “50 Favorite” status.
Panadería Don Paco López is one of them. I’ve written about this place in my annual pre-marathon round-ups, but I’ve never devoted an entire post to it, and it definitely deserves one. The business has two sections, connected by a narrow passage at the back. One section is the bakery proper. Here you’ll find sugar-crusted conchas and other Mexican sweet breads in different colors and shapes, all of them best enjoyed after dunking in coffee or chocolate, because they are all, let’s face it, a little on the dry side. (Dry baked goods are something Mexicans and Jews have in common, and I say that with much love and respect for Eric’s people.)
The bakery is self-service, but it’s a particular kind of self-service. If you’re unfamiliar with the protocol in Mexican bakeries, here’s a primer. Look around when you enter, find the stack of silver trays and the rack of tongs next to them, and take one one of each. Use the tongs to place your selections on the tray. You, your tray, your tongs, and your conchas/cuernos/marranitos/whatever then go to the cashier to pay. It’s not hard.
“But what if I only want one little thing?” you’re thinking, like an ignorant gringo (don’t deny it, I can hear your thoughts through the interwebs). Doesn’t matter. One concha, a dozen assorted conchas: baked goods go on a tray. Don’t embarrass yourself and those around you by waving a loose item at the cashier like it’s, what? what the hell is she supposed to do with that thing in your hand?
In early January, as the Epiphany holiday approaches, Don Paco’s shelves and counters gradually empty of their regular wares to make way for roscas de reyes and folded stacks of the special boxes, depicting camels and wise men and stars of Bethlehem, that the roscas de reyes will eventually go in. Though I’m neither Mexican nor Christian, I’ve begun to celebrate Epiphany on the strength of these ring-shaped treats: aromatic with orange blossom water, crunchy with sugar paste, colorfully decorated with candied cherries, citrus and figs, and only a little dry. Small plastic dolls representing the infant Jesus are baked into the interior, so you need to eat your slice of rosca cautiously, but finding the dolls is fun. They look cute collected and piled in a decorative saucer.
At Don Paco López, roscas de reyes come in three sizes. A “small” will serve a basic family (parents, children, grandparents). A “medium” will serve the above, plus in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins, and neighbors. A “large” will serve a block party.
If Epiphany is kind of a big deal at Don Paco López, Día de los Muertos is even bigger. The bakery decks itself out with cut-paper decorations, skeletons and sugar skulls, and sets up an elaborate ofrenda in the front of the store. It goes without saying that pan de muertos will be on offer.
One Mexican tradition I’ve never quite understood, gringa that I am, is elaborate gelatin desserts. Gelatin desserts themselves, I understand very well (how could I not, having grown up in Ohio in the 1960s?), and I love the fact that multi-colored Jello cups are a standard offering at bakeries, bodegas and even street stands all over Sunset Park. No, the tradition I’m referring to is that of “gelatinas artísticas,” and as far as I know, Panadería Don Paco López stands alone in the neighborhood in its offerings (available by advance order only). The options are displayed on laminated pages in a spiral-bound notebook, and they are indeed works of art. Many-petaled flowers, somehow constructed from gelatin, hang suspended in still more gelatin; what appear to be stained glass mosaics catch the light and sparkle within their gelatin casings. They remind me of the paperweights my grandparents collected, and I admire them without having the least desire to taste them. (The creamy, fruit-filled “gelatina sorpresa,” on the other hand, is something I could definitely see myself going for.)
Having made our way to the back of the bakery, it’s time to walk past the refrigerator case (grab a green juice, they’re delicious) and into Don Paco’s other section. During the week, you can get various tacos and tortas and quesadillas and breakfast egg dishes there, and they’re fine. Delicious, even. But you really want to go on the weekend, ideally by noon, before the good stuff starts to run out. You’ll find tamales steaming away in a giant pot, goat tripe in spicy broth, and goat barbacoa, available by the pound to take home, or as a topping for Don Paco’s huaraches.
About those huaraches . . . many places around Brooklyn supersize oblong pieces of masa and turn them into a platform for great, gloppy heaps of toppings. Not just the meat of your choice (though there’s that, too, piled high), but also a mountain of shredded lettuce and indifferent tomatoes, rivers of sour cream, an avalanche of avocado.
That’s not what you’ll find here. The huarache itself is the star of the show, obviously made in house. It’s tender in the middle, delicately crisp around the edges, encasing a thin layer of hand-ground beans. A smear of sauce goes on top – smoky red, tart green, or for the indecisive, half and half. A sprinkle of finely-diced onions, a dusting of cheese.
You could stop there, and your huarache would be delicious, but I love barbacoa de chivo and Don Paco’s is excellent, so I invariably pay a couple of bucks extra for a ladle-full of barbacoa on top. The end result looks like this:
You place your order at the register, pay, and are given a number. While you wait for your number to be called, take a look around the room. Seating is tight: a narrow counter that runs the length of the wall, a few tables up front. Posters from Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education celebrate Mexico’s indigenous languages and the diversity of its cuisine. Signs ask customers to please bring their own bags. A canister on the counter solicits donations to a free breakfast program for the families of patients at Puebla’s main trauma hospital, many of whom have traveled long distances for treatment there.
These are nice people, you’d conclude, and you’d be right: nice people who make and serve delicious food.
Panadería Don Paco López, 4703 Fourth Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn