Here’s what you need to know about panaderías in Puerto Rico: They’re more than just bakeries. In fact, I’d go as far as to say they’re part of the social fabric of the island, a cross between a neighborhood diner, bakery, deli and coffee shop. A good panadería (and every Puerto Rican has their favorite) brings people and communities together. Some are basic hole-in-the-wall joints where you can grab a decent quesito (a sweet pastry filled with soft white cheese) and a cup of strong Puerto Rican coffee; others are proper delis, with their baked goodies proudly arranged in long curved glass displays; and still others double as markets where you can buy anything from fine Serrano ham to bottles of wine to gourmet gift baskets.
Many panaderías are also known for a specialty, or have been around long enough to be spoken of with reverence, but you can find one in virtually every neighborhood on the island. Here are a few of my favorites.
La Ceiba, in San Juan’s Puerto Nuevo suburb, may not look like much from the outside, but this is the oldest panadería on the island and is venerated as much for its longevity as for its fine food. Their sandwiches, served on toasted and pressed baguette or the local pan de agua (literally, “water bread,” it’s similar to French bread).
The well-named Panadería España in San Juan is the one place in Puerto Rico where you’re guaranteed to find paella any time of day! You can also enjoy other delicacies from Spain (like Serrano ham and Spanish wines) along with a full range of sandwiches and pastries.
The first panadería I ever visited was Kasalta, in San Juan’s Ocean Park neighborhood, and it’s one of the larger ones on the island. Sandwiches, prepared foods, pastries, cakes and desserts, and a fine cup of coffee make this a neighborhood institution.
In Mayagüez, Brazo Gitano Franco is famous island-wide for the specialty for which it is named: the brazo gitano (literally “gypsy arm,” a sweet and buttery roll stuffed with a layer of guava, guava and cheese, or other fillings), and people come from all over the island just to sink their teeth into one.
Ricomini is another west-coast icon. Located in Mayagüez, it has been drawing locals and visitors by the droves for decades, thanks to its signature brazo gitano, which rivals those at Franco. Another popular item here is Fido’s Sangría, a special recipe made by a local.
Los Cidrines is a very popular mini-chain of panaderías that began in Arecibo (it’s the only such chain in Puerto Rico). Locals rave about their quesitos, pan sobao, and guava turnovers, among other staples.
When you visit Vieques, make time for Panadería la Viequense, which has a terrific selection of hearty sandwiches (many with creative names and multiple ingredients to satisfy a hungry appetite!).
And on Culebra Island, Pandeli serves outstanding breakfasts and will help you stock a picnic lunch for your trek to an isolated beach.
As for what to order at a panadería, it all depends on what you’re in the mood for. Those with a sweet tooth will love the aforementioned brazo gitano; tres leches, a sweet sponge cake made with evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream; quesitos, a personal favorite; mallorcas (a buttery roll doused with powdered sugar, pressed and toasted), or pan sobao (a sweet local bread).
For those who want something savory, try an oversized, pressed and toasted sandwich, which comes with a variety of fillings. Media noche, made with ham, pork loin, Swiss cheese, and pickles) and tripletas (a triple-decker of ham, turkey and pork) are among the most popular staples.
Next time you’re looking for a quick bite in Puerto Rico, look for the nearest panadería, and enjoy a slice of local life … and a slice of local bread!