The safest place to be in a twenty-car pileup would have to be in the back of a Filipino bakery truck. Slamming up against packages of mamon, pan de coco, and ensaymada, each puffier and sweeter than the next, would be twice as fun as a roll in a bouncy castle. You’d walk out into the landscape of warped metal bruise-free, your hair matted up with dabs of sugary cream cheese and your pants splattered with purple yam puree.
The shelves at Maynila Bakery in San Pablo made me want to crawl up and nap, snuggled into a bed of cottony, egg-gold dough. Several years ago, Chris and Ann Marquez took over an ailing branch of the Philippines-based Valerio’s Bake Shop chain in the forlorn San Pablo International Marketplace. The Marquezes are still making the transition slowly — they’ve changed the sign out front, but many of the plastic bags they pack their pastries in are still printed with the old company’s name.
At the counter of the microscopic storefront are glass cases displaying cakes and lumpia (either savory meat-and-veg egg rolls or dessert rolls filled with banana and dipped in syrup.) Sometimes, at lunch, you’ll find takeout entrees stacked on top, such as a decent pancit palabok, rice noodles covered in an orange sauce with shrimp, pork rinds, and eggs, and an oily beef kaldereta, a stew of beef, potatoes, and carrots.
Most of the pastries stacked on the wire shelves that ring the room look like the kind of stuff you get at an Entenmann’s outlet. For a white boy from the sticks, they exert a mysterious appeal, suburban familiarity laced through with exotic goo.
There’s little taint of those butter-lovin’, flaky French in Filipino baking. Instead, the Spanish, who occupied the Philippines for a third of a millennium, clearly had the most influence. You see it in the empanadas, which could have come from Cadiz or Buenos Aires, and in the use of so many eggs in the brioche-like doughs. Most of the flavors and fillings, however — like the purple yam (ube), coconut (macapuno), and jackfruit (langka) — have indigenous origins and Malay names.
Maynila’s jackfruit mamon, muffin-sized sponge cakes, taste like tropical Twinkies, and the pan de sal makes a solid replacement for the dinner rolls your father’s favorite steakhouse used to serve. Eat it for breakfast with some coconut jam spread on top, advises my friend Lulu. The bakers fill foot-long haba-haba with yam, coconut, or cream cheese, and smear a blend of granulated sugar and margarine over the top (you can buy Danish-like ube rolls and Spanish rolls, smaller versions of the haba-habas, for fifty cents). Bicho-bicho, rectangular doughnuts coated in granulated sugar, tasted airy and freshly fried. The bibingka, a flat, round cake with sticky-rice flour, egg yolks, and cream cheese that is baked on a banana leaf, was gooily delicious.
The pastries in Maynila’s heated case at the back are probably its masterpieces — especially the empanadas, baked half-moons whose pastry flaked away at the touch. We bit through the crust into shredded chicken mixed with finely chopped vegetables. Another, sweeter empanada contained beef braised with raisins. The warm baked siopao, Chinese-style buns, were filled with barbecued pork. Steamed siopao, packaged four to a bag and easy to microwave, are filled with the same pork, or chicken, but my favorite was the meatball version, stuffed with ground meat and vegetables, a quartered boiled egg, and a few slices of five-spice-flavored sausage.
Seeing as how Maynila replaced a Valerio’s, I drove down to Union City to compare the two. If the breads I tasted down south are any indication, the Marquezes are by far the better bakers. Valerio’s storefront smells great. Its ovens seem to be working all day, producing pan de sal, siopao, and sweet breads. But baked siopao came out of the oven barely golden and stuffed with half as much filling as Maynila’s. The sponge cakes weren’t nearly as light and moist. The bicho-bicho were twice as skinny and twice as dense, and the carioca — tangerine-sized, deep-fried balls of solid glutinous-rice paste — had as much give as a racquetball. Less, actually: I dropped it on my desk, but instead of bouncing it stuck firm, depositing an appetizing smear of oil.
The Union City Valerio’s is only one of three bakeries in a Filipino strip mall. It jostles up against the Red Ribbon Bake Shop next door, another Asia-based chain, whose countertop cases of plastic-wrapped siopao and ensaymadas are merely a distraction from the rows of American-style cakes done up in hallucinatory puffs and frills. There’s no doubting which of the cakes are filled with ube, for example — each is iced with enough purple dye to keep Barney from going gray for a decade.
Across the parking lot, the independent Jojoli Bakeshop and Restaurant dwarfs both its competitors. On a sunny day, everyone sits at the tables out front — nurses in scrubs grabbing a bite far from the hospital cafeteria, clusters of older men who look like they spend enough time there kibbitzing to earn engraved plaques at their spots. If you’re not a connoisseur of the donut-shop school of interior decoration, there’s no reason to eat inside anyway.
Like most Filipino restaurants in the Bay Area, Jojoli offers a steam table with an ever-changing, never-labeled array of stewed and fried things. A few dollars gets you a mound of rice and one or two dishes, and they’re all right, though you might as well drive to the next strip mall down Alvarado for Lechon Manila’s roast pork.
You’re better off buying baked goods off the rack. Jojoli’s rolls and breads may not come out of the oven as frequently as Valerio’s do, but they’re notably better. The tops of the baked siopao are browned and shiny, with more than a few bites of shredded pork adobo, sugary Chinese-style barbecued pork, or chicken at their core. Bosomy pan de coco rolls were packed with shredded coconut, which tasted slightly caramelized, as if sweetened with brown sugar. If you’re in an ube kind of mood, the mild yam puree squishes satisfyingly out the center of Jojoli’s ube rolls or lurks, in concentrated gut-clogging doses, at the heart of flaky hopia (Chinese mooncake-like pastries). None of the pastries bested Maynila’s versions, however, except Jojoli’s bibingka. The golden cake had the texture of a warm tamale, with a dollop of tangy cream cheese surfacing here and there and half a hard-boiled egg staring up from its center. The bibingka lasted a couple of days on the filing cabinet near my desk, shrinking sliver by sliver — too rich to finish, too good to throw out.