Picture this: Every street corner in Charlotte boasts a family-owned bakery. The outside window is filled with glorious treats. Inside, an endless display case holds multiple permutations of pastries and cakes. Depending on the culinary heritage, these trays would be filled with melt-in-your-mouth pain au chocolat or kardemummabulle (Swedish cardamom bun) or egg custard tarts.
In much older cities, the pastry shop is a mainstay of the neighborhood. Charlotte has only a few of these classic bakeries. Suarez Bakery in Park Road Shopping Center comes to mind. Nowadays, many of Charlotte's upstart ethnic bakeries are more likely to spring up in a nondescript aging shopping center with affordable lease rates. No glorious windows or eternally long display cases. Most are perfunctory in style.
But the romance lies in the taste. Two bakeries of note are New York Pastries & Pasteleria and Tropical Bakery & Café.
If my Spanish were better, baker and owner Martin Rojas of the newly opened New York Pastries & Pasteleria would have told me more of his 18-year journey from a teenager in Mexico City to a Greek bakery in Brooklyn to opening this new bakery in Charlotte.
A Mexican expat making Greek baked goods? That is so Charlotte, right? Rojas moved his family here in hopes of a better life. Coincidentally, Charlotte has a large Greek community with deep ties to the city's culinary heritage. As one fellow customer noted as we stared longingly into the cases, "I used to wait for the Greek Fest for all of this."
In the bakery are spot-on melomakaronas (spiced walnut cookies), galaktoboureko (custard in phyllo), kourabiedes (powdered sugar cookies), and kataifi (nuts rolled in shredded phyllo and doused with syrup). The baklava reminds me of the style found in Kalabaka, Greece — large and heavily soaked in syrup. A loaf of a seasonal sweet bread vasilopita, or king cake, is nestled on a shelf with containers of sprinkle cookies. In the lit case are galato bouriko, a cream-filled pastry, and cakes: tiramisu, Oreo, strawberry, cheesecake, and a just-in-time-for-Cinderella layer cake adorned with a chocolate mouse. Rojas gives a nod to his native Mexico with a well-crafted tres leche cake.
The bakery is stark: green and pink walls with a large framed poster of the Manhattan skyline. Greek and Spanish are the lingua francas, and, yes, more thought should be given to English signage. However, the unexpected pleasure of this bakery outweighs all. Try the galaktoboureko and, I promise, you will agree.
THE BRAZILIAN BAKERY Tropical Bakery & Café has changed hands — and names — a few times since first opening in Matthews in July 2006. But its latest iteration has a special bonus: Portuguese natas. Not familiar with natas? I wasn't either until I took advantage of US Airways seasonal nonstop Charlotte to Lisbon flight.
Lisbon is a city devoted to pastries, and the archetypal pastry is the pastel de nata, simply known as nata. So delicious is this caramelized egg custard in a crisp nest of puffed pastry that Hong Kong bakers adopted it as their own after being introduced to the nata via their neighboring former Portuguese colony Macau. (These Chinese egg tarts are baked daily at Chanelle Cake in the Grand Asia Market, Stallings). The Holy Grail of Portuguese bakeries is Lisbon's 178-year-old Pastéis de Belém, which reportedly sells 10,000 natas daily. And that's just one bakery. Lisbon has hundreds of cafés and pastelarias selling natas.
Fortunately for those afflicted with a nata addiction, as am I and my entire family, Tropical's new owner and pastry chef Rui Oliveira is from Lisbon, and although most of the items in his display case are Brazilian — pão de queijo, coxinhas, coconut cake — the singular tray of natas is worth a trip to this rustic Matthews bakery. Be warned: Natas often sell out. But you can place an order a day in advance.