It takes a lot to keep me from my Friday visit to La Central, the panadaria on South Bend's west side. If you have never had Mexican pan dulce, find a panadaria pronto, and prepare to be delighted. "Pan dulce" directly translated means sweet bread, but these bakery goods are not as sweet as they look and rarely seem like bread. They are not quite pastries; they are themselves.
The textures are light and soft. The colors can be as pink and yellow as the closet of a seven year-old girl, and the shapes are fantastical. No doubt each traditional form has a name, but --- not knowing them --- we call various pan dulce by their nicknames: the flower bud, the cigar, the Edvard Munch face, the alligator, and the You Know the One. There are huge crumbly cerise cookies and sugary oval pods with gooey fillings. There are whorles that flake like croissants, and sturdy anise-flavored scone-like things. If you are lucky, you will be able to grab a pumpkin empanada before they are all gone.
Each panadaria pretty much looks like every other panadaria. No sexy patisserie style here, but instead you'll find utilitarian pan dulce cases lining the walls, shuttered with clear plexi knee-to-head doors. At the cash register counter, you will pick up a round metal tray as big as a pizza pan and a pair of spring-loaded tongs. Then you will start piling the pan dulce on the tray. Go ahead. Try to stop yourself. I think I will try this one, and this one, and of course this one, and on it goes.
At La Central, the best panadaria in South Bend, I take my tray, towering with treasure, to Andres, the owner and head baker. He puts them all in a big grocery bag, doing the math in his head. If Edward and I show a little discipline, the supply will last until the next Friday, but that doesn't happen often.
My Friday trip to La Central is one of the wonderful sensory traditions that Edward and his family have shared with me. As everyone knows, nothing beats knowing how to judge a tamale. I will need many more years to master that one.