Central Avenue Checklist: Bakery Edition
Is there anything more disappointing than standing outside a closed bakery and peering into a darkened window with your hands cupped around your face wondering what fresh, warm, baked, sweet, flaky, doughy goodness you may have missed out on? We think not.
Such was the flaw in our Central Avenue Checklist plan. Our mostly nighttime excursions meant passing by all too many darkened bakeries.
So we set out on a Saturday morning to rectify this lapse. And Central Avenue did not disappoint us. In a single visit, Central threw at us a cultural diversity of baked goods (American, Mexican, German, and Iraqi) that you’d rarely find on a single stretch of road anywhere, thus reaffirming just how compelling an avenue “she” is.
And yes, we have started calling Central Avenue “she.” When you spend this much time together, it gets personal.
Read the other installments of the Central Avenue Checklist here: Paradise Biryani Pointe to Flameburger, Dong Yang to Big Marina, New York Gyro to Jimmy’s Pro Billiards, El Tequila to The Heights Theater, The Chilean Corner to El Taco Riendo, the Bakery Edition, Hill Valley Cafe to Ideal Diner, Al Amir Bakery to Fair State, Pico de Gallo to Arcana Lodge, Karta Thai to Tattersall Distilling, Little India to 612 Brew, and Narobi to the End of the Line.
4925 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 4.3 miles to Broadway Street
On a shelf behind the counter sits a ceramic urn that reads “Ashes of problem customers.” Aside from this and a few other knickknacks, the most prominent decoration in the place is a giant red sign with one word on it: bakery.
Yep. Nailed it.
Heights Bakery is beautiful in its simplicity. The bakery case runs the length of the shop. Behind its glass are trays and trays of baked goods topped with glazes and sprinkles and coconut shavings and chocolate and nuts and cinnamon sugar and something pink and sparkly.
There are doughnuts made from dough and doughnuts made from batter. There are good-old-fashioned “old-fashioneds” and new-fashioned croissant-doughnuts. There are fritters and crullers and Bismarcks and braids. There’s stuff stuffed with vanilla cream and fruit jelly. And of course, there’s bread.
Heights Bakery isn’t just old-school, it’s the school that old-school was modeled after. It’s the kind of shop that still has bells dangling from the front door to alert the bakers in back that there’s a customer up front.
Behind the bakery case and through a door, you can catch a glimpse into the kitchen. This is where the magic happens. Rolling racks filled with trays of baked goods stand ready to be called into service. Bakers with flour-dusted aprons bustle about.
In the doughnut business, getting a raised glazed right is akin to a lawyer’s passing the state bar. When you prove that you can reach a certain standard with your raised glazed, you can officially conduct business as a doughnut shop. The Heights version doesn’t just pass the bar, it raises it.
Heights Bakery has been churning out baked goods since 1953. Our guess is that they’ve been doing it very much the same way — give or take a croissant-doughnut experiment or two — for 60-some years. And barring a change to their raised glazed recipe, we imagine they’ll be doing it for the next 60. — M.C. Cronin
In terms of value, little approaches the bag of doughnuts and loaf of cinnamon bread that we scored at the Heights Bakery for $10.50. We’d say that we got our money’s worth if these doughnuts were grocery-store quality. But they weren’t — they were good-to-ravishing, overall.
The raised glazed doughnut was intensely chewy, light and delicate, and — cue the sound of angelic harps — not too sweet. Sweet enough, but not that Krispy Kreme nail-through-the-head flavor that is nice for a bite or two, but no more. This is drive-across-town good.
Our blueberry cake doughnut was nothing fancy (witness the dyed blue streaks of industrial blueberry in the doughnut’s interior), but truly hit the spot. Like its raised compadre, it was properly sweet, but not overly so, and the flavor of blueberry was carried successfully through the icing.
Our cinnamon-sugar cake doughnut was also good, but once you’ve been to A Baker’s Wife, it’s hard to rally behind anyone else’s version.
The only less-than-stellar item we got from this splendid old place was the Bacon Cro-Nut, a needless attempt to surf the croissant-meets-doughnut wave that crashed at least a year ago. We found the pastry too sweet by half and the bacon that topped it closer to jerky than the breakfast favorite. — James Norton
4351 Central Ave NE, Columbia Heights | 4.1 miles to Broadway Street
If Heights is an old-school American bakery, Adelita’s is its south-of-the-border counterpart. An old-school panaderia.
As such, there’s no one picking pastries out of the case for you with little squares of tissue paper while you hunch over, pointing through the glass. It’s pure self-service. You grab a metal tray and a set of tongs near the front door. Then you set out on your own tweezing pastries out of cases running along the perimeter of the room.
Adelita’s offers a daunting variety of sweet breads and pastries in endless shapes and sizes. Some are rolled up into crescent moons. Others are imprinted to look like shells. Some are twisted and dusted with sugar. Others are dyed unnaturally bright shades of yellow, blue, or pink. We plucked out a few likely suspects. Including a churro, a hefty cream-cheese wedge-shaped thing, and a cone-shaped pastry with a custard filling.
But perhaps the strangest thing we got was a clear plastic cup filled with multicolored cubes of Jell-O suspended in a cream substance. When we asked the woman at the register about it, she told us it was Jell-O — which somehow managed to explain it perfectly, while not explaining it at all.
They do a good birthday business at Adelita’s. There was a surprising number of cakes in the case ready to be personalized, and they offer a decent selection of cake toppers and numbered candles. They also offer a decent selection of international calling cards with interesting sounding brand names like The Tomato, Mega Call, and My Africa, leaving no question that their clientele is as global as it gets.
The interior of Adelita’s has a high ceiling, exposed joists and plenty of room to wander around. But in keeping with bakery tradition, there is no seating. So we took our bag of goodies to the parking lot and pinched them apart with our bare hands, eating them piece by piece, the way pastries have been enjoyed since the days of the Neanderthal.
We plucked a pile of baked goods from the cases that line the interior of Adelita’s, wielding our tongs like weapons and toppling foe after foe. After we were done filling our tray, hundreds of pieces of pan dulce remained on the shelves, so we felt a bit swamped and defeated as we filed out into the parking lot to eat. The style of Adelita’s pastries is typical for a Mexican bakery — most items taste a little dry and muted to an American palate raised on jelly doughnuts and iced cinnamon rolls, and the lack of coffee at this particular spot doesn’t help.
But we thought everything we tried was well made, and there were a couple hits.
Adelita’s churro called out for dipping chocolate (as you’d find in Spain), or at least a cup of coffee, neither of which were on offer. That said, it was a classic of the form, crisp and cinnamon laced, and this is where we’d go if we wanted to assemble a churros breakfast. The bakery’s flan-stuffed cream-cheese wedge was pleasantly tart, not overly sweet, and respectably hefty. We appreciated its mellow nature and sense of gravity.
And — we save the very best for last — Adelita’s custard-stuffed pastry horn of plenty was a total triumph. The barquillo was crispy and buttery, the custard filling rich and not overly sweet. We practically inhaled this thing, relishing the way the moist custard and crisp pastry complemented one another. — J.N.
Al Amir Bakery
2552 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.2 miles to Broadway Street
We arrived around noon. The front door was bolted. But a sign in the window showed the hours to be “7-10” every day. We began to question whether it might mean 7 to 10 a.m., but according to a menu board visible through the door, they sell shawarma and kebobs. And offering shawarma and kebobs between the hours of seven and ten in the morning seemed, at minimum, ill advised. No, they should be open.
We were about to walk away when the back door of the place swung open and a guy
stepped out for a smoke break.
He looked weary, as if he’d been working all night, but he was amiable enough. We asked when the place usually opens. He told us it normally is, “But I’m not the owner, just the baker.” Which explained his weariness. He shrugged apologetically. We chalk it up to one of the many quirks you get with small businesses.
We told him what we’ve been up to, and his eyes lit up. He insisted on letting us in to try his baked goods. We didn’t argue. This was exactly the kind of experience we were looking for when we started this journey.
Inside the store, he stood by the bakery case picking out items one by one and plopping them onto a paper plate saying things like, “This one is good. You’ll like it.” By the time he was finished, the paper plate sagged under the weight of a mound of delicious pastries.
In addition to the sweets, he offered us a puffy, diamond shaped bread that resembled a pita. It was still warm from the oven, and we immediately began ravaging it, pulling it apart in soft chewy pieces.
Another man, who our new baker friend seemed to know, entered the store. They shared a few words in their native tongue. We suspect some of the words might have had something to do with us. Eventually, the baker went to a back room and came out carrying four plastic bags filled with stacks of round flatbreads the approximate diameter of some compact-car wheels.
We assumed the man was buying these bags for a restaurant or market, but he told us they were for his children and relatives, who were visiting from out of town. He explained that this is the best Iraqi bread you can get anywhere. He was emphatic about it, and attempted to give us one of his bags as proof. We agreed to take just one piece. The man continued singing the praises of the baker’s work, even as he walked out the door.
And by the time we left, so were we.
On our way out, the baker made us promise to come back and try the deli food when they’re open. We assured him we would. And that’s a promise we intend to keep for a future installment.
Our tasting notes for Al Amir are a little tilted because of the warmth of the establishment’s hospitality — anytime the employee of a locked business opens his doors for you and then plies you with a plate of pastries just because you’re curious, you’re going to be warmly disposed toward them. That said, we feel confident when we declare their baked goods indisputably delicious.
Our walnut baklava was rich, sweet but not overly so, and perhaps most reminiscent of a superb rendition of pecan pie, with its toasted, nutty hits of sugar. This goes up there with the baklava of Filfillah in terms of excellence. The pistachio baklava was also quite tasty, and quite different — the hit of pistachio flavor was distinct and unusual, and fans of the nut will love this stuff.
A coconut macaroon was pleasant — the coconut was ground quite fine (no tooth-clogging strands here), and its sweetness was measured and balanced. Perhaps best of all was the flat, beautifully chewy, carbon-kissed Iraqi bread (think lavash) that we were able to beg off of a regular customer who was picking up bags of the stuff, some destined for relatives in North Dakota, some destined for the freezer, and some destined for lunch. — J.N.
2506 Central Avenue NE, Minneapolis | 1.1 miles to Broadway Street
Rather than hanging up the first dollar he made, the owner of Aki’s framed the parchment sheet from the first tray of pretzels he sold. It’s fading now, but the yellow silhouettes of those first pretzel braids are still there.
The owner — whose name is, not surprisingly, Aki — was taking a much deserved break at one of the tables in the front of the store. He told us, in a light German accent, that he’s trying to come up with some way to preserve the parchment, because he’s worried the pretzel markings will disappear soon. He fears all he’ll have left to show for his efforts, is an old piece of parchment in a frame.
But based on our visit, he doesn’t have to worry about his legacy disappearing any time soon.
It’s an airy space with light pouring through the front windows. The walls are stark white. Wooden tables, wooden floors and other wooden accents add warmth. A wire rack holding fresh, golden loaves of take-home bread in plastic bags sat beside a collection of antique bread boxes from a time before plastic bags.
We ordered an apricot streusel, a bread pudding in a parchment baking cup, and of course, a pretzel. Various specialty mustards were offered for our pretzel-dipping enjoyment. Each was distinct, ranging in flavor from sweet to tangy, but all featuring whole mustard seeds. French’s, these were not. It would be hard to choose just one.
The owner points out a woven wall-hanging dangling from a cork board. He tells us his mother managed to accidentally print days-upon-days of duplicate receipts while struggling with the register. “This is how she used them, so they didn’t go to waste.” We take a closer look and see that the wall-hanging is woven from long strips of printed cash-register tape.
Everything at Aki’s, down to the braid in every pretzel, feels handmade. And it all seems to tell a story. It feels as if the whole place and everything in it has been influenced in some way by a deeply felt cultural and personal pride.
In the year-plus it’s been in operation, Aki’s has won plaudits around the city for its pretzels, the perfect companions to the region’s burgeoning craft-beer scene (witness the way they’re paired with Surly and Fair State beers at those taprooms and others.) They’re wonderfully chewy and dense, not fluffy and insipid like so many of their ballpark peers. And they pair well with the beer mustard, sweet mustard, cranberry mustard, and / or brie-cream-cheese dip that accompany them.
That’s the savory. On the sweet side, the shop’s bread pudding was a revelation. It’s light as air and just the perfect amount of sweet — nothing cloying here. And the apricot streusel (made with individually quick-frozen apricots imported from France, we were told) was a sophisticated twist on the typical Danish, with a typically European take on how best to combine fruit and pastry. The secret: don’t use so much damn sugar that you strangle the flavor of the fruit. — J.N.
2418 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis | 1.1 miles to Broadway Street
Before we even walked through the front door, we were confronted with an illustration of a scorpion holding a wedding cake, a baby doll lying in a gurney topped with a pink lace canopy, and a display of cakes with nonsensically angled staircases running between them like some kind of homage to an M.C. Escher painting.
There’s something strange going on at Durango.
It’s gritty. Not gritty as in dirty; gritty as in it has an edge.
We peeked through a window into the baking area. It’s a smallish room with an industrial-sized Hobart mixer in the corner. If you’ve never seen one, a Hobart is a big, beautiful piece of industrial design that resembles a Kitchen Aid mixer hit with the same blast of gamma radiation that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk.
In the center of the kitchen there was a wooden table with mounds of gorgeous raw dough being cut into squares by a guy wearing an “All Hail the Bartender” T-shirt. It was such an authentic scene that it gave us real hope for the baked goods.
We grabbed the customary panaderia tongs and loaded our tray. We noticed right away that Durango didn’t have the extensive selection of Adelita’s, but many of the items were comparable (at least visually). And many were also unnaturally dyed.
The woman behind the counter wasn’t exactly unfriendly, but Mary Poppins she was not. We bought our goodies and head out to sit on the benches next to the front door to eat under the watchful gaze of the scorpion.
The bakery’s bread pudding was dense as a neutron star but packed with flavorful little fruit bits amid the beige tedium of the pudding’s heavy, custard-like base. Prices were low — we paid $4.75 for our bag of baked goods and a bottle of water. — J.N.