The Sweet Side of San Miguel
By Brooke Bell
It’s not unusual for Brian Hart Hoffman and I to travel together with one goal in mind: to find the best-baked goods an area has to offer. For this journey to San Miguel, we were joined by our photographer, Kyle Carpenter. As we drove through the narrow cobblestone streets in the historic center of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I was overstimulated in the best of ways. There’s nothing I love more than seeing and discovering places for the first time, and I had high expectations for San Miguel. It’s one of Brian’s most-loved spots in the world, and my mother has fond memories of her visit with friends a decade ago. Plus, we had our new friend and local guide, Jose De Anda, by our side giving us a crash course in all things San Miguel, including its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The unassuming exteriors of casas and businesses are painted in varying sunset shades of rust, sienna, and gold. But don’t let the simple façades fool you. Once you enter their elaborate wooden doors, often adorned by ornate hand knockers, you’ll find serene inner courtyards perfect for enjoying the mild climate of San Miguel.
As you wander about the pedestrian-friendly city, you’ll quickly learn that directions are based on proximity to the towering pink Parroquia San Miguel Arcángel. This neo-Gothic church was built in 1709 and sits adjacent to El Jardín, a tree-lined square with plenty of shaded benches to sit and watch the bustle. Here, mariachi bands play, joyous wedding parades (callejoneadas) go by, and mojigangas, tall puppet-like figures, pose for photos. Every day truly feels like a celebration in San Miguel. Papel picado, tissue-paper flags, hang across streets, and colorful ribbons and flowers adorn the doors of businesses and indicate them as such.
San Miguel is known for its thriving art scene, and the crisp sunlight has drawn artists here for decades. You can’t walk far without passing an art gallery. Where there’s art, there’s culture. And where there’s a deep appreciation of culture, there’s always food. Food and baking are at the very soul of San Miguel.
THE BLUE DOOR BAKERY
Panadería La Colmena, also known as the Blue Door Bakery, dates back to 1898, making it one of the oldest bakeries in Mexico. Upon entering, regulars know to pick up a metal tray by the door and use tongs to hand-select from the more than 100 different breads and cookies that are made each day. Choosing is hard when the baking pans are overflowing with elotes, a traditional Mexican sweet bread that’s scored on top and sugared; niño envuelto, a jelly roll-style cake often topped with sprinkles that kids love; and cinnamon sugar-covered orejas that resemble French palmiers. In the corner, yellow carts are piled high with bolillo, an oval-shaped everyday table bread.
Third-generation owner Don José Antonio Rayas told us we were welcome in his “home” as he invited us to see his kitchen, where an incredible team of bakers mix large quantities of
pan dulce dough before shaping and loading it into the ovens, one of which is 55 years old. While one baker glazes pans of cinnamon rolls (they bake 70 pans a day!), another dusts confectioners’ sugar onto horn-shaped, cream-filled barquillos.
When you visit La Colmena, you’ll feel right at home, too, and you’ll be back each day eager to taste even more of the bakery’s delicious baked goods.
CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH A LOYAL FOLLOWING
Petit Four owners Norma Guerrero and Paco Cárdenas met in college, where they shared a love of food and began baking and selling cakes. After graduating and studying under a pastry chef in Mexico City, they chose historic San Miguel as the ideal location to open a bakery. That was 25 years ago, and today, they still have some of the same customers as they did on opening day.
With a bakery counter, kitchen, and café area surrounding an inner courtyard with dappled sunlight and colorful artwork, Petit Four is the kind of place to linger over a café con leche and almond croissant in the morning and stay for lunch.
On the menu since the beginning is Petit Four’s famous Chocolate Truffle Cake. Thin layers of sponge cake are brushed with simple syrup before being coated with chocolate ganache. While the towering cake looks decadent and is, it’s also incredibly light. This beloved cake has become a birthday tradition for many people who live in San Miguel, and it would certainly be our birthday cake of choice if we lived here.
Other standouts at Petit Four include tres leches cake, marble cake, and a Mexican pie made with xoconostle (the sour fruit of a cactus) and frangipane filling. Paco also teaches cooking classes at his home outside of town and graciously shared his homemade tortilla recipe with us. While we can’t replicate his outstanding tortillas due to his use of locally sourced ingredients, this easy recipe is a close second.
A feast for all your senses, a walk through the Mercado Ignacio Ramírez y de Artesanías can’t be missed. Stalls are filled with brightly colored marigolds, piles of dried chile peppers, fresh produce, street corn, tacos, tortas, and so much more. Everywhere you turn, there’s vibrancy and delicious street food. Keep winding through the main mercado until you get to the Mercado de Artesanías. This is the place to buy jewelry, crafts, clothing, milagro folk art, and otomi, the iconic colorful embroidered textiles.
Lucas Balderas S/N
SUNSET PASTRY TASTING
Nestled in the heart of the Zona Centro, the rambling Casa de Sierra Nevada, a Belmond
Hotel, is set among several 17th- and 18th-century buildings. Around every charming corner, you’ll find spots to tuck away, as well as trickling fountains, courtyards, and lush foliage. We were invited for a special sunset dessert-tasting on the hotel’s rooftop terrace with an intimate view of the grand Parroquia and mountains in the distance. The pastry team, led by Brenda Puente, proudly presented one of almost every dessert served at the hotel’s restaurants.
The brilliant Tres Leches Parroquia was prepared with communion wafers purchased from the nuns of the church. The Chocolate and Bone Marrow dessert was creatively presented in a faux bone and filled with smoked panna cotta. We also feasted on traditional churros with a chocolate dipping sauce, Oaxacan chocolate mousse cake, sticky toffee pudding, and macarons to name a few. Go for cocktails and dinner. Stay for dessert.
BREAD OF THE DEAD
We visited San Miguel in mid-October, just before Día de los Muertos on November 1–2. On this special holiday, life and death are celebrated throughout Mexico, and families create elaborate altars to honor the deceased. These altars are filled with flowers and the favorite foods of loved ones, including pan de muerto, or bread of the dead. This seasonal bread is plentiful in bakeries during October and November.
Carina, the pastry chef at the chic new Hotel Amatte Community that sits high above San Miguel, welcomed us into her kitchen to prepare pan de muerto by hand. Pan de muerto is made from a dough enriched with butter and sweetened condensed milk, and Carina adds grapefruit zest to flavor hers. The iconic shaping consists of a round base that represents the circle of life and death.
A smaller dough circle is baked on top and signifies the skull of the deceased, and the strips of dough that look like a cross depict bones and tears. After baking, pan de muerto is finished with melted butter and a generous dredge in granulated sugar for an irresistible crunch.
The Amatte Community was built using sustainable materials mostly based on chukum,
a limestone-based stucco mixed with resin from chukum trees, semi-hardwood thorny trees native to the Yucatán. Be sure to visit Amatte for a sunset cocktail or tequila at one of its many outdoor bars and restaurants. The view is stunning and so is the hotel property.
Salida Real a Querétaro 168
Pastry chef Marc Misseri is a force in the San Miguel baking community, and to step into his Panio Atelier is to step into a bustling workshop where the art of baking is perfected and celebrated. A third-generation baker from an Italian-French-Mexican family, Marc began his journey as a baker in Mexico City before retiring in San Miguel. After realizing there wasn’t any amazing bread in the city, he decided to open a small bakery. And with that, people came seeking his bread. There’s a line daily for his sourdough boules; baguettes crafted with such precision that you can hear the crunch when you break open a loaf; garibaldis, small pound cake-like treats that are glazed with apricot jam and rolled in sprinkles; and conchas—but not just any conchas; you’ll find them with crackled sugar tops of vanilla, chocolate, and orange.
Marc didn’t stop with bread and his San Miguel outpost. He forged a path to become a lifestyle, with bakeries elsewhere in the city and throughout Mexico.
Salida a Celaya 69
(additional locations throughout Mexico)
PERFECT PAIRING: CONCHAS AND WINE
Part bar, part bakery, and part café, Cumpanio translates to “with whom you share bread.” And there’s no better place in San Miguel to share a concha, sip on a glass of crisp local wine, and watch the world go by through doors flung open to the energetic Zona Centro. Here, you can enjoy a concha con nata, where the pan dulce is split and filled with cream. (Turn to page 107 for our Concha con Nata adaptation.)
This sister location to Panio Atelier features its incredible baked goods in an environment that’s always buzzing. Stop in for brunch, lunch, or an afternoon reprieve.
Correo Street, 29, Corner with Recreo
OTHER FAVORITE SPOTS IN SAN MIGUEL
Step inside the inviting Terraza-Trinitate to find an impressive selection of ceramics, from vases to curiosities, serving pieces, and dinnerware. This is a great place to buy gifts, and don’t worry, they ship!
Cuna de Allende 10
We love the rooftop terrace of Atrio for a long lunch or dinner. The views overlooking the Parroquia can’t be beat, and the menu features inspired food with a global viewpoint. Don’t miss the soft-shell crab tacos.
Cuna de Allende 3
Stop in Chocolates Johfrej C&V for a taste of its small- batch, handmade-in-San Miguel truffles that use only the finest Mexican chocolate. Elvira Villaseñor began making the confections more than 100 years ago in Mexico City, and today, her legacy is carried on by her family. In addition to truffles, you can also sit and sip hot chocolate and coffee.
SMART NAME (AND FOOD!)
Yes, the name is The Restaurant. But this isn’t just any restaurant. Here, you’ll find the brainchild of owner and San Miguel food pioneer Donnie Masterton. After working as a chef in the US, most recently in Los Angeles, California, Donnie found himself reenergized after moving to San Miguel, and he’s been instrumental in bringing the local farming community together.
Viñedos San Lucas is the perfect excuse to get outside of San Miguel and see the beautiful rolling hills that surround the city. You can enjoy lunch on the terrace that’s nestled among vineyards and lavender gardens in full bloom, and stay for a winery tour and tasting. Our favorite wine is the La Santísima Trinidad San Miguel de Allende Blanco, which we ordered every time we saw it on a menu. Santa Catalina, its new brother property, features a fabulous restaurant and luxury accommodations.
W88P+7G San Miguel De Allende,
WILL BRAKE FOR COPPER
If you fly in and out of León, be on the lookout for this copper stand on the side of the road near La Sauceda. You’ll find some great pieces at fantastic prices. Be sure to leave room in your checked luggage for your purchases. Brian and I learned the hard way that copper can’t be taken on board in a carry-on.