Few things are more devastating to a food pilgrim than arriving at your destination and discovering that it’s closed.
Such was my fate at Panadería Santa Teresita. I got there at quarter after two – 15 minutes into the bakery’s afternoon siesta. According to the handwritten sign on the door, they wouldn’t open again until 4:30.
Cursing myself for lingering too long over lunch at Las Cholas, I stood outside the bakery and contemplated my next move.
My thoughts wandered back to Pablo, the curly-haired taxista who’d brought me to the Las Cañitas neighborhood for lunch.
“That,” he said, pointing out the panadería as he aimed his taxi at jaywalking pedestrians who jumped out of his way, “is a wonderful bakery. Great pastries and cookies.”
This was the only hint of passion I’d witnessed from Pablo during our 10 minute drive.
Pablo had left his home in the province of Santa Fe thirty years ago and come to Buenos Aires, along with thousands of others, in search of work. He’d spent his first ten years in Las Cañitas – before the family-friendly slum became a hot spot for hip restaurants and night clubs.
Panadería Santa Teresita has been around since Pablo’s days in the neighborhood and has survived the gentrification of Las Cañitas. As has Las Cholas, the parilla where he dropped me off for lunch.
“When I lived in this neighborhood, I used to eat at Las Cholas,” he said, “The empanadas are good. Meat is good, too.”
I smiled my thanks and suppressed my urge to protest the idea of eating at yet another parilla. I was still a bit traumatized from last week’s close encounter with a chinchulin.
So I slid past the list of organ meats, classic cuts of bife, and milanesas on Las Cholas’s menu and zeroed in on the dishes cooked in the clay oven (Igloo-shaped, wood-burning clay ovens are a fixture at most countryside houses in Argentina, especially in the poverty-stricken northwestern provinces. Ignoring its peasant origins and recognizing its flavor-enhancing capabilities, more and more Buenos Aires restaurants are building clay ovens in their kitchens).
I’d been lucky to get a table at Las Cholas in the first place. At lunch time, the two-story, 200-seat restaurant was teeming with Argentines of every generation. Grandparents, parents, and kids from a nearby elementary school occupied most of the tables. Businessmen, couples, and twenty-somethings taking a break from shopping in Las Cañitas’s trendy stores filled the rest.
Children used crayons (in baskets on every table) to create masterpieces for their mothers on paper table cloths while they waited for their food.
Servers rushed to and fro, delivering wooden planks of sizzling beef and crocks of cazuela (stew/casserole) with unceremonious boredom.
The wooden floorboards under my wicker chair shook every time someone walked past my table.
Everyone struggled to make their voice heard over the collective roar in the dining room and the clanging pots in the open kitchen.
After ten minutes of trying to flag down my server, she finally acknowledged my wave and took my order. As my eyes followed her around the room, I realized that the Brazilian pop on the stereo was the only element that broke with the restaurant’s rustic-chic motif – antique soda bottles, vintage signs, and exposed pipes suggested they were going for a countryside cabin feeling.
Meanwhile, a busser brought me softball-sized roll on a wooden breadboard.
If you believe the adage that a restaurant’s bread foreshadows the quality of the rest of its food, then this roll was a promising omen: dense and soft inside with a crunchy, smoky clay oven-baked crust outside. A little olive oil, a little salt, and that roll was bliss.
The clay oven also worked its magic on the empanada de lomo that arrived next – thin, buttery masa encasing chunks of filet mignon, green onion, sweet peppers and spicy gravy that danced on the edge of being over salted.
The meal reached its natural climax when the server brought my butternut squash cazuela with corn and mozzarella. Screaming hot in a ceramic bowl, garnished with a spoonful of cream and a handful of flat leaf parsley, the cazuela exhaled a scent of caramelized honey.
Eating alone amidst the happy chaos at Las Cholas made me feel like the only kid on the playground without a playmate. But in the company of that cazuela – soothing, rich, sweet and subtle – there was no place I would’ve rather been. It steamed to the last bite.
Content and full of anticipation, I left Las Cholas and headed for Panadería Santa Teresita. Apparently, my culinary karma had run out, since it was closed.
I stood in front of the bakery and toyed with the idea of hanging around until they finished their siesta at 4:30. Pablo’s passion for this place had been so evident…
Right on cue, a delivery boy pulled up next to me on his moped, lifted a crate of eggs from a box mounted behind the seat, and rapped on the glass.
A frizzy-haired fifty-something with a no-nonsense frown pulled aside an orange curtain, peaked through the window, and opened the door a crack for the delivery boy. Either sensing my eagerness or wanting to get rid of me, she opened the door wider and let me in without a word.
I stepped behind the orange curtain into a paradise of pastry. Glass cases full of cookies, danishes, croissants, rolls, loaves of bread, cakes, tortes, tarts, pizza, and focaccia were – judging by the heat and the heady baking aromas coming from the back – all made in-house.
“Someone told me your bakery was very good,” I said to the two bespectacled grandmas behind the counter, “But I have no idea what to get. Can you recommend some things I could take home?”
Their initial annoyance morphed into a frenzy of suggestions.
“You have to try the struffoli!”
“The onion bread and the cheese sticks – we don’t always have these, honey.”
After filling a paper sack with four pesos worth of pastry, they bade me goodbye with smiles and invitations to return. I thanked the grandmas profusely and walked onto the siesta quiet street.
Though I was stuffed from Las Cholas, I couldn’t wait to get home before sampling the goodies. I pulled a struffole (honey-covered fritters beloved throughout Italy and originating in Naples) out of my sack.
The anise-flavored pastry, prepared by practiced hands, tasted like the Christmas treat that it was. The rest of the stuff was equally outstanding – especially the macaroon, light and richer than it was sweet. A fitting finale to a fabulous food afternoon.
Panadería Artesanal Santa Teresita (de Beatriz Burlato)
Arevalo 2882 (Las Cañitas) – Cuidad de Buenos Aires
Hours: Mon-Sat – closed from 2 pm – 4:30 pm; closed Sunday.