Novias at Pan Lourdes Bakery
Novias at Pan Lourdes Bakery Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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There are few good things that growing up in Miami taught me, but chief among them is the pleasure of a savory pastry and small cup of strong coffee in the morning. 

For as long as I’ve lived in D.C., I’ve griped that there are only a precious few places to grab a pastelito, or Cuban pastry, on the way to work. Nothing inspires religious fervor in me quite like a pastelito de carne—a biscuit-sized pocket of caramelized ground beef and onion, wrapped in layers of slightly sticky, laminated puff pastry. 

The D.C. region is ripe with its own pastry tradition, largely owed to the diaspora of Mexican and Central American immigrants who live in D.C., where nearly one-fifth of the immigrant population comes from El Salvador.

Several of those bakeries, or panaderías, are concentrated in the Northwest quadrant of the city and its neighboring Maryland suburbs. In them, you’ll find some of the most diverse arrays of sweet and savory bread products in the region, all of them reflecting the different flavor profiles and baking techniques of countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

“Food businesses play a pretty big role in the Latino community, and we see that in our client base,” said Marjorie Nemes-Galarza, the Chief of Development and Strategy at D.C.’s Latino Economic Development Center, which has funded five of these bakeries in the last fiscal year. “They create a good number of jobs in the community, and jobs that pay a living wage and allow people to move up the [managerial] chain.”

More than just an economic engine, they’re also social anchors of the immigrant community. 

Eddy Campos-Molina, whose mother owns Veronica’s Bakery & Cafe in Silver Spring, calls the region’s Central American bakeries “a kind of sanctuary” for the Latinx community. “Things are a little different in Latinx countries than they are here. Here, it’s work, work, work. But in the Latinx community we’re very into the family and the home and creating a safe space.” 

He calls D.C.’s panaderías comforting places where people can be themselves. He also loves the vibrant colors of sweets like Maria Luisa cake with its signature hot pink topping. 

Notice, too, that the prices for most of the pastries at these panaderías range from $0.50 to $1.50. Consider these bakeries a chance to branch out and try something new, like salpor de arroz, shell-shaped cookies made with rice flour, or novias, sweet bread rolls topped with a cookie crust. Better yet, bring a mix of them to build out a dessert table at brunch or a friend’s baby shower. 

Though D.C. might not boast the most robust bodega breakfast sandwich culture—I’m looking at you, AOC— its other offerings are just as worthy. 

Pan Lourdes Bakery

5121 Georgia Ave. NW; (202) 722-1229

Mondays through Fridays from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

One of the city’s most prolific bakeries, Pan Lourdes Bakery has three storefronts across the D.C. area.  Its main bakery on Rhode Island Avenue in Mount Rainier doubles as its production facility. The two offshoots located in D.C. proper are on Georgia Avenue NW and 14th Street NW. 

While the Salvadoran bakery serves dozens of pastries to-go, it’s the store’s cakes, which you can custom order, that really shine. Pan Lourdes makes them for every occasion, from sheet pan-sized hearts dripping in strawberry jam for weddings to picnic basket-shaped cakes for children’s birthdays. 

In its Georgia Avenue NW store, a half-dozen ready-made options—think layers of vanilla and buttercream topped with fruit, nuts, or chocolate glaze—are stacked in a display case. Consider Pan Lourdes if you flubbed your plan to order a cake ahead of time elsewhere, or just need a last-minute celebratory dessert.

The ground-level 14th Street NW store, sandwiched between Gloria’s Pupuseria and a hookah lounge, is best for grab-and-go orders. A handful of glass display cases tucked against its blue and pink painted brick walls offer some of the store’s most popular items. A cashier says most people come in for slices of milk and pineapple cake, which sell for $0.60 each. 

Even better? The store is now on Postmates. 

El Arbol Del Pan

8545 Piney Branch Road, Silver Spring; (240) 595-9649

Mondays through Sundays, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

At El Arbol Del Pan, the smell of freshly baked bread hits you from the sidewalk before you step inside.

For more than 15 years, the family business has been making bread and pizza—its true calling card—fresh, in-house, every day. While they serve a classic cheese pie, the store’s more popular option is a carne asada pizza, which comes topped with slices of charred skirt steak, raw iceberg lettuce, and avocado. 

The bread options are wide-ranging too. Find croissants, loaves of sweet Salvadoran bread, sesame rolls, and anise-flavored Guatemalan buns.

If you’re not looking for a sit-down meal, El Arbol Del Pan has a robust take-out menu. Pick up sweets ranging from torta seca, a Salvadoran dried apple cake, to festive shortbread cookies known as polvorones, which have a crumbly texture and are laced with cinnamon and vanilla. Take them to go with a cappuccino or coffee for a breakfast that costs less than $3.

Mi Pueblito

1812 East-West Highway, Hyattsville; (301) 422-0008

Mondays through Saturdays from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Just off East-West Highway, the seven-year-old Mi Pueblito—or “my little town”—looks like the inside of a piñata. Floor-to-ceiling pastry cases and refrigerators line the back wall, with dozens of Mexican and Salvadoran pastries piled in. It’s do-it-yourself at Mi Pueblito: Grab a tray, use tongs to load up and bring your bounty over to the register. By the day’s end, most of what’s left are crumbs.

Seek out some popular desserts from Mexico and El Salvador: sweet empanadas with guava, pineapple, mango, or strawberry cream cheese filling ($1–$1.50); elephant ear-shaped puff pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts ($0.80); Mexican sweet bread ($0.70); and caramelized puff pastry ($0.50). 

It’s the second bakery for its owner, Juan, who says its positioning on the major thoroughfare has attracted more clients who are commuting. The original location in Cheverly is a bit farther from the District. Juan says his favorite items are the Mexican sweet breads. 

But the best grab is Mi Pueblito’s tres leches cake, which Campos-Molina calls “kind of the universal pastry of Latinx countries.” The richly layered milk cake is topped with slices of candied fruit. Its moist sponge and dense whipped cream topping are unapologetically sweet—just as tres leches should be.