SAM gives the local entrepreneurs of La Panadería a chance to shine.
La Panadería’s poblano pepper-and-cheese tamales are ridiculously good. The soft, creamy masa achieves richness without any heaviness or greasiness — they’re made with organic coconut oil instead of lard. To those who would say forgoing lard is a terrible aberration, I’d say I generally agree, but our friend the coconut does incredible work here. (Adding to the goodness, the masa’s also locally sourced and non-GMO.) My tamal had practically a whole poblano pepper down the middle, gently spicy and melty-soft, with the onions and tomatoes it’d been cooked with functioning as helpful, invisible flavor boosters (there’s also a little secret serrano pepper in there). The cheese — mozzarella — oozed beautifully on the tines of a plastic fork.
Currently, La Panadería is a pop-up operation at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, occupying the cafe space in the sleek, airy (and air-conditioned!) PACCAR Pavilion at lunchtime, Friday through Sunday, through Labor Day. Eastsiders, take note: La Panadería also has a table set up at Redmond’s Microsoft Commons on Tuesdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and in the church parking lot at 1717 Bellevue Way N.E. in Bellevue on Thursdays, from 3-7 p.m.
The hopeful enterprise comes from brother-and-sister team Oscar Fernandez and Felicitas Flores. They got partnered up with SAM by local nonprofit Ventures, which helps entrepreneurs of limited means get started in our very expensive city. Flores still works full-time in maintenance for a big apartment-management company, while Fernandez has turned his attention from his business making gorgeous cakes to this new labor of love.
10 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays-Sundays through Labor Day, PACCAR Pavilion, Olympic Sculpture Park, 2901 Western Ave., Seattle (206-488-5130); also 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays at Microsoft Commons, 15255 N.E. 40th St., Redmond, and 3-7 p.m. Thursdays at Bellevue Presbyterian Church parking lot, 1717 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue;
tamales $5, panini $10 (facebook.com/LaPanaderia.co)
Actually, he’s still doing both, filling the orders he got before taking on the La Panadería pop-up. Last Saturday, his nephew Bryan Fernandez, with pink-tipped hair and a gorgeous smile, worked the counter, while behind him, Oscar frosted an oversized cake perfectly smoothly in azure blue.
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“Right now, I’m really busy,” Oscar says, with delight instead of chagrin. If you talk to him for a few minutes about his food and his life, he’ll tell you he followed his sister to the States from their hometown of Zapopan, Guadalajara, 20 years ago. “She came here looking for a better future for herself, and then after that she sent for me,” he says. Living on the Eastside with her back then, he had trouble finding work. He’d always loved baking, but at home he was told it was “just for girls.” His sister was making a lot of tuna, saving the cans; his first professional foray was making cupcakes using the cans as tins, selling them to the neighbors. To attain his prodigious cake-decorating skill, he went to the library and got the Wilton series of books on the subject, then practiced and practiced.
Last year, Oscar and his sister took Ventures’ eight-week business course, taught in Spanish, then rented space at the nonprofit’s commercial kitchen to start making savory stuff to sell at farmers markets, and La Panadería was born. (Sweets, especially the cream-frosted cakes traditional in their hometown, are harder to keep stable under fluctuating outdoor temperatures, Oscar says, which is why they went savory.) When Ventures was approached about filling the often-vacant sculpture garden cafe space for the summer, they thought La Panadería’s menu of tamales, panini, shaved ice, Mexican iced coffee and more would be “a great fit for what SAM was looking for,” according to the agency’s Laura Gómez. The museum agrees: “It’s been going great,” SAM public relations manager Rachel Eggers says.
Have you been to the sculpture park lately? A civic treasure in a breathtaking setting, it ranges from the quiet valley of Richard Serra’s monumental “Wake,” to the tall-grass paths linking the mother-tree of the Vivarium with the gleaming robot-tree “Split,” to Alexander Calder’s industrial beauty of an eagle soaring above the Sound, to more art bridging the train tracks, leading down to the water for more, and more, and more. And for a lunchtime visit there (Friday through Sunday only, remember; maybe Mondays soon), La Panadería is indeed a great fit for what your stomach is looking for.
Oscar makes everything himself, short of the bread (from Grand Central Bakery) and cheese. Notably, this includes the chorizo for the El Guero panini — he chooses the cuts of pork carefully so it’s not too fatty, and it’s made with tequila, among other things. (The name doesn’t signify the sometimes-derogatory slang term for white people, Oscar explains; it’s the nickname of the family’s butcher back in Zapopan, who had blond hair.) Too often, panini are an afterthought, haphazardly made, only there because a panini press is easy to plug in and stick sandwiches into. The El Guero is golden crunchy-crispy on the outside, while the inside is everything: saucy, spicy, salty, piquant with caramelized onions and poblano peppers, laden with melted troves of Oaxaca cheese. It rejustifies the existence of panini.
The Guadalajara panini, based on the turkey sandwiches Oscar’s mom would send his brothers to school with, is damn good, too. It’s possible the Zapopan, modeled after his own childhood favorite, with ham, is the best of all. I haven’t tried it yet, but, clearly, this man understands, and loves, food. Talking about the joy he takes in sharing it, he taps his chest — “It’s something in here,” he says, achingly sincere. I watched him agree, angelically pleasant, to make an El Guero panini split in two, half of it vegetarian, for a demanding woman and her sullen-seeming teenage daughter. “Of course!” he said, smiling. “But her half would be just onions and cheese. She could also have our vegetarian tamal — they’re really, really good.” Truth. The daughter deigned to nod.
La Panadería’s aguas frescas and Mexican shaved ices are lovely, made with tons of fresh fruit and not too much organic raw cane sugar, in flavors like pineapple, mango and tamarind. (Mine had a whole strawberry impaled on the straw.) Oscar stays restrained with sweetness, as is traditional at home — his Mexican iced coffee tends more toward balanced cinnamon, less toward coffee-drink sugar-bomb. On weekends, they’re also serving the regional specialty tamales dulces: subtly sweet tamales, made with fruit incorporated throughout. The strawberry one, its corn husk peeled back, practically glowed a deep fuchsia color. The texture, firm but gummy, might qualify it as an acquired taste, but it might also be your new favorite thing.
If you head down to see La Panadería at the Olympic Sculpture Park, be patient — they’re still getting their bearings, and they sometimes run out of things. Be supportive — maybe don’t ask for your chorizo panini half-vegetarian. It’s a new business. Someday they hope to open their own permanent bakery and cafe. Godspeed, La Panadería.