Donut twist from Paris Baguette
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS
If you believed the tourist maps, you’d think Spring Garden Street was the northern boundary of Philadelphia—but there’s a whole other city north of the picturesque colonials and the Market-Frankford Line. That Philadelphia is diverse, multilingual, unapologetically working-class, and served by plenty of old-fashioned mom-and-pop businesses.
I spent four years commuting from Fishtown to Elkins Park, a nine-mile straight shot up North Fifth Street. During rush hour Fifth was an obstacle course of double-parked cars and delivery trucks, but one thing made up for that—the street’s array of international bakeries. From Girard Avenue to Cheltenham, this artery stretches through the city’s immigrant neighborhoods, so stopping for a café con leche at La Caleñita or a char siu bun at Good Star was the highlight of many a morning. Here are a few of my favorite stops along the North Fifth bakery trail.
LA CALEÑITA BAKERY-CAFÉ
The yellow, red and blue of Colombia’s flag (and—perhaps more importantly—its soccer jerseys) beckons visitors into La Caleñita. Inside, soccer memorabilia decorates a spacious dining room. Andres Ortega, 29, presides over a case full of braided breads leaking guava jam and cheese and rich milhoja pastry laden with dulce de leche. A heated case offers chicken and beef empanadas made with a cornbased dough; packaged snacks and preserved fruit bring a taste of Colombia to the homesick. Ortega, the nephew of owners Maria Tascón and Jerry Torres, has been working here for eight of the bakery’s ten years. He hands me a sweet, cinnamon-spiked milk drink called avena and insists that I wait for a batch of pan de bono to come out of the oven. The ring-shaped cheese bread, made with corn and cassava flour, is springy, slightly sweet and worth the wait. Arepas, sandwiches, and breakfast and dinner entrées are also available.
Colombian Bakery’s storefront is as matter-of-fact as its name, with a red, white and blue awning announcing “Pan Colombiano Mexicano.” A few retirees sit on barstools enjoying coffee; customers, mostly Spanish-speaking families with young children, crowd the small space. The pastries reflect pan–Latin American tastes, with Colombian almojábanas (round, hollow cheese rolls made with corn flour) sharing space with Mexican churros and concha bread decorated with a sugar shell. The bakery was founded by a Colombian family, two friendly employees explain, but the current owners are a husband from Mexico and a wife from Nicaragua. A selection of fresh juices and Mexican products fill out the shelves.
Pastries from Colombian Bakery, clockwise from top:
almojábanas, concha, pineapple tart, churro, cream horn
Pastries from Oteri’s, clockwise from top: chocolate-dipped
marshmallow pops, éclair, glazed orange pound cake, sugar cookies
Jaunty metal palm trees line Fifth Street as it cuts through the Centro de Oro (Golden District). Part of a recent revitalization effort, they’re a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s historic Puerto Rican neighborhood— welcoming and friendly, but without losing the gritty feel that defines North Philly. Three of the palms stand in front of Delicias, between a small grocery store and several sidewalk vendors. There’s little decoration inside, but the fresh doughnuts—and the locals buying them by the dozen—speak for themselves. A second pastry case is packed with Puerto Rican specialties for a dollar each: guava-andcheese pastelillos, sweet, cheesy quesitos, and festive pink-and-yellow cake iced with pineapple and passion fruit. Delicias has been serving this neighborhood for longer than the employees can remember: “Years and years,” the bakers tell us with a laugh.
GOOD STAR BAKERY & COFFEE INC.
On a hopping stretch of North Fifth that includes produce stands, a breakfast diner, a Vietnamese café, and the Greater Olney Library, a bright-yellow awning greets passersby in English, Vietnamese and Chinese. Cake decorations and small toys take up more display space in the small shop than food does, but behind the counter is a rack piled with freshly baked sugar buns, roast pork buns, cream buns, and breakfast buns stuffed with pork roll and egg. A small display case offers rolled sponge cakes in an eye-catching bright green. The middle-aged woman behind the counter struggles to remember the English word for their flavor, then finds it: pandan, a fragrant herb that’s popular throughout Southeast Asia. The cake is bright and a little tea-like, tender and delicious.
OTERI’S ITALIAN BAKERY
The Oteri family opened their first shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1904. Today that flagship location has been joined by a shop in South Philly as well as this Fifth Street location, in the Logan neighborhood, which has been around since 1968. Its customers are fierce loyalists. “I won’t go anywhere else,” says a woman who’s picking up a sheet cake. She’s bringing it to school as a birthday surprise for her mother, a teacher. The shop is large, but there are no tables—it’s all about display cases here, with eye-catching wedding cakes in the front window, candies and gelato on the side, and Italian pastries like custard-filled sfogliatelle, éclairs, glazed pound-cake roses and cookies in the main room. Another case by the door displays elaborate, handcrafted fondant high-heeled pumps. Children watch as an employee dips fruit into chocolate in an open work area.
This French bakery offers breads and cakes straight out of—Seoul? Don’t let the name fool you: Paris Baguette is a US outpost of a chain that boasts more than 3,000 locations in South Korea, as well as California, the East Coast and even Paris itself. There are two Philadelphia locations, one on either side of Cheltenham Avenue. Paris Baguette offers its distinctly Asian take on the French patisserie in a sunny, inviting shop. Customers fill wicker baskets with individually wrapped pastries. Traditional French baguettes, fruit-and-cream cakes and madeleines appear next to Korean treats like sweet-rice-and-red-bean doughnuts, chestnut buns, and light, lemony, black-sesame-studded tofu chips. Endearing heart-shaped macarons and small rounds of sponge cake arranged like sushi are pretty enough to give as gifts, but you’ll want to eat them right in the shop.
La Caleñita Bakery-Café
5034 N. 5th St.
exterior sign at Colombia Bakery
4944 N. 5th St.
Quesitos, passionfruit-pineapple cake, guava
and cheese pastelillo from Delicias
2861 N. 5th St.
Pandan cake roll from Good Star
Good Star Bakery & Coffee Inc.
5523 N. 5th St.
Thumbprint cookies from Oteri’s
Oteri’s Italian Bakery
4919 N. 5th St.
6773 N. 5th St.