We’ve all heard stories about how Walmart and McDonalds are the only businesses showing any growth in this recession. Two bakeries that happen to be located on opposite ends of OB are here to prove that saw wrong. Oh, and by the way, they’re both owned by women. And did I mention that the food is delicious? It is.
We’ll get into the particulars about Azucar and Stephanies in a moment, but first let’s talk about what they have in common. Each place has only a few tables. Orders are placed at the register. Baked goods are presented in display cases, with more substantial fare being prepared back in the kitchen. They both can and do run out of things as the day winds down, because most everything is baked fresh daily.
Business is brisk at both locations, and a quick spin through Yelp! or any of the other venues on the internet where wannabe food critics lurk shows they have plenty of fans.
Both owners are quick to point out that support within the OB community is the backbone of their business. And both owners are uncompromising when it comes to sticking with the niche they have chosen—which is the real story behind their successes.
They do what they do well and that’s what they do. They have resisted the constant not-so-subtle pressures that restaurateurs face to dilute their concept. This pressure can be manifested in many ways and—trust me, I’ve been there as a restaurant owner—it’s unrelenting. Whether it’s a distributor urging you buy a lesser quality (usually processed) product or a faux gourmand disgruntled about the lack of white linen tablecloths in a burger joint, there isn’t a day that goes by in the life of a chef or manger where you are not challenged in this fashion. Azucar and Stephanies have stayed true to their visions.
Azucar calls itself a Cuban style patisserie, and is located at the top of the Newport Avenue commercial district. Owner Vivian Hernandez-Jackson blazed a bright trail in the pastry world, attending Le Cordon Bleu and making sweet things at hotels in both Europe and the United States before settling in OB last year. The restaurant, with its candy apple green motif, photographs evoking street life in Havana and sensuous Cubano rhythms emanating from behind the counter, is all about design and presentation. The cake boxes are beautiful. The cupcakes are gorgeous. The menu boards are giant flat TV wide screens, turned vertically with attractive graphics running off a pc.
While most everything I’ve sampled there has been tasty, your best value at Azucar is to go with the flow. Pretend you’re there in the little Havana section of Miami. Order an espresso or a dark roast coffee. Have a Cuban meat pie. Try a pastry filled with guava paste and cream cheese. Or a raspberry scone with passion fruit icing. (Okay, that’s not particularly Cuban, but I can recommend anything they’re serving that happens to be called a scone. I’m sure there’s a Cuban name for it somewhere. All the on-line reviewers seemed to be pretty worked up over the ginger-flavored scones.)
The other interesting kinda morning treats include quiches, a Spanish-omelet sandwich and reportedly wicked-bad Cuban toast deal that’s filled with Chocolate-Hazelnut butter (aka Nutella). Mealtimes really aren’t a big deal there; pretty much everything is available all day. Until they run out, in which case you gotta wait until tomorrow. And if you get there late and they’ve had a crazy busy day, it can be more like a visit to the real Havana—not much left. But like I said, it’s all good. I had three pastries and a cuppa joe on a recent visit: total bill $6.25.
Lunch is four different pressed sandwiches baked on organic bread and a meat-cheese combo plate. No, there aren’t fifty seven or even seven choices. Go for the —wait for it—Cubano, with sliced pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles. Sandwiches are served with choice of side salad or plantain chips with a (very garlicky) mojo dipping sauce. Non coffee drinks there include boutique sodas, waters and juices. Lunch for three of us, including some sweets, ran about $27 the last time my gang ate there.
Vivian makes some very pretty (and a little more expensive) desserts. The red-velvet cupcake always whispers “eat-me….eat-me…eat-me” but so far I’ve stayed strong. I haven’t had the same kind of luck with the mojito cookie, however. (Think snickerdoodle with lime zest and a hint of mint.) I drove by last week and one magically appeared on my dashboard. It should be noted that Azucar (Spanish for “sugar”) is big time into the whole desserts business. I saw a birthday cake go over the counter that could have easily passed for a piece of art.
Restaurants are usually pretty generous when it comes to supporting good causes, and Azucar told me that they are donating to five non-profits each month on a first come, first served basis. They are already booked up with donations through May and have been most involved with support groups for local schools.
Stephanies sits over on Voltaire Street, just down the block from gag-in-the-bag. The business has been through a couple of changes in ownership over the last decade (the original owner died). Current owner Maria Sanchez has been at the helm for three and a half years, extending the menu to include pizzas and winning praise for her delicious and artfully decorated cakes. Oh, and, by the way, did I mention that the entire menu is organic and vegan?
(Attention my carnivorous friends! Don’t let that five letter concept–vegan: food prepared without meat or dairy products–scare you away. Wear sunglasses and a floppy hat if necessary to protect your identity if necessary. This isn’t like the gruel that your college roommate’s girlfriend served up.)
The bakery has a funky old world charm to it. There are a few tables inside, but it’s better to grab a seat outside–after placing your order at the counter–so you can watch a procession of OB street life pass by. The thing to order on your first visit is the strudel; it comes in both sweet and savory flavors, and be sure to ask them to toast it up.
Strudel is one of those “aha!” culinary experiences. Although we think of strudel as coming from Austria and being filled with sweetened fruits, it actually can traced back to ancient Persia and provides a nice platform for just about any type of filling imaginable.
The strudel experience is about eating thinly layered pastry (it’s actually related to noodle dough) that delights the taste buds with a rich, buttery sensation. Making this sensation happen is part of a skilled baker’s magic, one that Stephanies has captured. Her skill is also evident in the quality of the pizza crusts that capture just the right texture as they serve as a platform for the righteously flavored toppings that are available.
Like her cohort across OB, Maria has somehow imbued her cupcakes with telepathic powers that make your mind powerless to resist the temptation. Give in to those siren callings and you’ll be back for more. For sure. Beverage choices at Stephanies include organic sodas, juices, teas and coffees. A slice o’ mushroom strudel and a micro-brewed root beer set me back $6. The pizzas are not super competitive price-wise with the chain stores. If you want lovin’ in the oven and contentment on the palate, you’ll be payin’ more. But not that much more: $10-$22.
As you might expect, Stephanies’ charitable efforts often extend to supporting various vegetarian/vegan causes. She’s also been reaching to support organizations that are seeking to halt the environmental destruction of Baja California.
So there you have it. Two women who have drawn the culinary line and stood up for what they believe in. They both work six and sometimes seven days a week to sustain their visions. In this era of corporate blandness and mass produced factory farmed foodstuffs, it’s a welcome change, one that we’re glad to see OB supporting.