There may be no more passionate bond between eaters and their sense of home than baked goods that serve as part of their morning ritual.
Take the phenomenon of Paula’s Donuts, tucked by the dozen into airliner overhead compartments to cushion expats’ post-holiday return to the West Coast. Or consider how inconsolable – and insufferable – people from New York City and Long Island can be about bagels.
Buffalo’s Puerto Rican community bloomed in the 1950s with the city’s postwar economy, and by the 1960s, the lower West Side was its heart. The stretch of Niagara Street south of Porter Avenue has been christened Avenida San Juan, marked by street-corner monuments evoking the island’s iconic Castillo San Felipe del Morro.
A few blocks south, at 544 Niagara St., La Flor Bakery signals its Puerto Rican origins with coconut palms in the window. Like veteran Puerto Rican family restaurant Niagara Café, which is practically across the street, it offers sandwiches, chicken, pork and beef dinners, and a selection of pastellilos and other deep-fried snacks known collectively as cuchifritos.
Yet it’s the bakery side that has worked its way into the morning routines of Buffalonians, something sweet with a cup of café con leche.
“We get all kinds of people as customers,” said Enrique Sexto, who opened the business in 2102. “White, black, Chinese, from everywhere.”
Sexto is from Jayuya, a region in the island’s mountainous north with roughly the population of the Village of Kenmore. A year after the destruction of Hurricane Maria’s 175-mph winds drove many Puerto Ricans from the island, many have returned.
But for displaced Puerto Ricans in Buffalo, La Flor Bakery is a taste of home.
“That’s what everybody says,” Sexto mused. “It tastes like the country. It’s more like grandma’s flavors.”
Relying on the skilled hands of Gilberto Perez, who has been a professional baker for about 40 years, La Flor offers a dizzying array of tropical sweets that could use an introduction to people who have never been to the Caribbean, or encountered guava paste.
Guavas are a tropical fruit with a flavor somewhere between pear and berry. It’s commonly processed into a jamlike spread that can be thick enough to serve in slices, as it is sometimes served as a snack, with slices of cheese.
Puerto Rican bakeries wrap guava paste slices in puff pastry, bake them until they turn into golden pillows, and dust them in powdered sugar for the guava pastelitos ($.50 small, $1 regular).
Quecitos are longer crispier pastries, shaped more like an éclair. They start with another type of puff pastry, then get finished with honey and sugar for a more crackly bite. La Flor offers a plain version, filled with sweetened cream cheese ($1.75), as well as a cheese and guava version ($2).
Another guava-centered confection is called brazo gitano ($2). Many would know its English alias: jelly roll.
A tender sheet cake is spread with guava, carefully coiled, and dusted with coconut flakes, Sexto said, before being sliced.
Baked custards, or flans ($2.50), appear in numerous forms in the La Flor case. Set in caramel, and cooked in a swaddling water bath, it’s offered in regular vanilla, cream-cheese-flavored, and coconut, made with coconut milk as well as cow’s milk.
Flancocho, the most ambitious flan of all, is a custard-cake hybrid with a tender layer of cake crowned with wobbly custard.
Budin ($2), or bread pudding, is a cinnamon-scented custard soaked into hunks of torn bread and baked. There’s a reason to use up loaves because La Flor also makes two kinds of bread daily. Pan agua, which is like a Cuban loaf, and pan sabao, which is sweeter and slightly more dense. Both are used to make sandwiches of pernil, roast pork ($10), ham, cheese and egg ($6.75), pastrami ($10) and tripleta ($11), packing steak, pork and chicken.
La Flor also offers treats that might be familiar elsewhere: banana bread, corn bread, pineapple upside down cake.
Then there’s the mallorca ($2.50), a big, sweet bun that spirals like a snail shell. In its plain state it’s sometimes split open, grilled and buttered, and used for sandwiches. La Flor’s come in two styles, simply dusted with powdered sugar, and topped with a dollop of cheese.
Tres leches ($7/$3.50) might be the most popular treat in the entire bakery, said Sexto. It’s a sponge cake that’s literally been used to soak up as much sweet dairy essence as possible.
After the cake is baked, it’s poked to ventilate it for better absorption. Then a mixture of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and fresh milk is poured over it, until it’s soaked. Then it’s covered in whipped topping, almonds and bright red maraschino cherries. Tres leches single servings come in a shallow bowl or lipped plate because of its dairy puddle.
One last little taste of home: Sexto shared a little cup that looked like rice pudding, called tembleque ($1).
“This was invented in my hometown,” Sexto said.
A spoonful was smooth, cool, rich with coconut cream and fragrant with cinnamon, like rice pudding without the texture, and an islands accent. It may have been a taste of far-off lands, but it also seemed very much at home in Buffalo.
Address: 544 Niagara St.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.