You probably wouldn't notice the place if you passed it a hundred times, maybe on your way to Lake Mayer for a picnic, or coming back from a shopping trip at The Pig in Sandfly — unless you have an eye for Spanish and a taste for delectable baked goods.
My Spanish may be rickety but I do have a nose for sniffing out fresh baked goods, an eye for hidden (or half-noticed) little goodie-spots.
When La Canasta arrived almost four years ago, I gave it a glance and said to myself I'll stop sometime when my schedule wasn't so full. But even I let six months pass me airily by before I came upon them one morning, faint with hunger for something Latin-inspired.
It was the name that intrigued me: La Canasta is Spanish for 'basket' and a 'panaderia' is 'bakery' and the two sent dreams of wide woven baskets of warm bread and rolls dancing through my head. I opened the door to get the scent of fresh, yeasty, sweet baked goods blowing gently over me, and before I took two steps inside, well, I was sold.
Julio Cesar, native son of Guerrero, Mexico, stood there in his baker's apron, loading delicious goodies into a big, wooden case with glass doors. He smiled and handed me a tin platter and tongs.
In a panaderia, you see, it's a Pick Your Own Goodies service. No counters holding you back. No pointing and asking for that one ('cause it has more icing, haha.) Nope, you pick and choose as you like.
It's like Christmas morning: Round sweet buns cut and raised up to show the golden custard inside looking like a plump little bird, tempting pineapple and cream cheese and apple empanadas; authentic Mexican concha (meaning 'shell') with swirls of pink or white sugar topping; the darling 'porquito', a dusky, molasses-tinted cookie shaped like a pig; and the pièce de résistance: a great golden-brown Mexican cheesecake with a delicate, butter-yellow inside—quite different in texture from American-style cheesecake, and, like all the sweets here, less loaded with sugar and fat.
Oh, and don't miss the Chamuco, a big, thick, golden-orange butter cookie, fragrant with vanilla, looking like someone had pressed a baseball in the middle — it's a signature sweet of Julio's home state, Guerrero.
In case you're not in the mood for sweets, look by the counter for the little menu board that holds their selection of savory treats. Keep in mind these are cooked by Mexican people for Mexican tastes — no Americanizing influences invade this kitchen.
Tacos (soft corn tortillas), huaraches (oblong, fried masa-corn base topped with meat, queso and salsa), sopes (thick, golden, fried cornbread fritter topped with beans, meats, avocado and such), tortas (sandwiches of crusty bread stuffed with ham, eggs, cheese and pico-de-gallo), taquitos (corn tortillas rolled tight around meat/cheese/bean filling and deep-fried) and empanadas (delicious white corn pastry with shredded chicken or beef filling).
The owner's 9-year old son, Julio Jr. sat and talked with me while I had lunch and told me about the weekend specials: Pozole, a rich stew made with hominy and pork; they also make a fine Menudo, a tasty soup of tripe, tomatoes, onion, fresh cilantro in a light broth; mouth-wateringly delicious whole, fried Mojarra (a Caribbean fish), moist and tender tamales (steamed corn pastries stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork with a spicy sauce) as well as Carne Asada and Bistec Mexicana.
Specials change by the weekend so make sure and ask Rosa or Lucie each Friday, "¿Cuáles son los fines de semana especiales?"— I have 'em write it down, then go look it up on the Internet or inquire of a Latino friend, then make damn sure I'm there when it's getting' served up fresh and hot.
All the food can be taken to-go if you're in a hurry. For those who like a little leisure with their meal, there's a small dining area with warm, orange walls, fun and funky Mexican party decorations, tall, colorful flowers in sand-filled vases, and a TV for us folks who crave a lil' Telemundo or the latest soccer game.
Order at the counter and your food is brought out quickly. Cash only at this time, though Julio's working on that. New coffee machine on the way, but in the meantime, try out that wonderful coconut water, mineral water or one of the Jarritos sodas like tamarind or grapefruit.
Before coming to Savannah four years ago, Julio worked at the family panaderia in Atlanta and then came further south to make a go of it on his own. He's a sweet, humble sorta guy, but happy to be of service when you need a rich Tres Leche cake for a celebration, or serve you a piping hot bowl of menudo on a cold autumn afternoon. His English is perty decent (better than my Spanish!) so ask questions if you want to know more about a dish.
Don't worry if you've left all memory of that eighth grade Spanish class behind you with the pom-poms and football helmet. Rosa and Lucie will get your meaning, and are sweet-tempered, patient ladies who will do their best to make you comfortable.
Whether it's a hunka-hunka lovin' cheesecake you want, or a box of authentic tamales to take home for a family lunch or dinner, you really should, finally, seriously, put on those brakes, pull into the little parking lot, and find out just what you've been missing.
La Canasta Panaderia
1545 East Montgomery Cross Rd
Savannah, GA 31406