Dulce Treat

Why does it seem like every out-of-town guest wants to drive to Mexico? "Because it's so close," they plead. They've obviously never endured that stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson.

If you've lived in Phoenix long enough, you've probably been coerced, or victimized, into the dreaded Trip to Nogales. Nogales is in Mexico, but it will never be the poster city for the bureau of tourism.

I grew up in Tucson, which is even closer to Nogales. By the time I was in fifth grade, the border town bored me. By the time I was in junior high, I hated the place. The only part of the trip I always enjoyed was our visit to the bakery.

The bakery had cross-generational appeal. Most of the pastries, which come in a multitude of shapes, have a coating of sugar. They look like every child's dream.

But looks are deceiving. The sugary outside is often the only sweet thing about Mexican baked goods. When well-made, the sugar crust enhances the flavor of a rich, moist, unsweetened (or mildly sweet) dough.

After moving to Phoenix, I lost touch with the bakeries of Nogales. A few years ago, a woman I worked with brought a box to the office. It was filled with familiar shapes and flavors. She told me that this box of tasty nostalgia came from the best Mexican bakery in town. Within a week I made my first trip to La Purisima Bakery.

Walking into La Purisima was a walk into the Mexican bakery of my youth. The woman behind the counter used tongs to pile my selections onto a round metal tray. Just like in Nogales. Within minutes I chose enough pastries to fill a large box. Just like in Nogales. By the time I got home, my lap was covered with crumbs. Just like the trip home from Nogales.

I continue to make an occasional trip to La Purisima. Usually, I go if I'm having a party. For $20 to $25, I can buy a lot of pastry -- enough to satisfy 30 to 40 people. I put a huge mound of the stuff right on the table. Add a few candles and cloth napkins and people rave about the "display."

There are other Mexican bakeries in town. I just completed a sugary tour de force of what's available in the Valley.

The bakeries have two things in common. They all sell similar-looking pastries. And they're all inexpensive. The individual pastries range in price from about three for a dollar to 50 cents apiece.

Despite a frequent language barrier, I didn't feel out of my element in any of the bakeries. I was met with a lot of smiles. Food is diplomacy.

I pointed. I asked, in very bad Spanish, for the name of each pastry that caught my eye. I then ordered uno or dos of each. I said, "Gracias." I got in my car and drove to the next bakery.

So, how do they rate? Is La Purisima the best?

First prize does, in fact, go to La Purisima (4425 West Glendale Avenue in Glendale) for several reasons, none of which has anything to do with nostalgia. Its selection is one of the largest. Its pan de huevo (egg bread with a sugar crust that looks like peeling paint) is light, soft, slightly chewy and has a rich egg flavor. The sugar crust is sweet, but not too sugary.

Out of six bakeries, the La Purisima pan de huevo is the only one that isn't a little -- or a lot -- dry. It's the only one I'd really want to eat again.

La Purisima's elotes (pastries shaped like ears of corn for which they're named) are also better than the rest. A good elote is dense, has a starchy, barely sweet filling and has a lightly sugared exterior. Most important, a good elote is moist. Again, La Purisima rates highest on the moist meter.

There's also a flaky pastry that comes in a variety of shapes. Each shape has a different name. Reylas are circular, reminiscent of a crown. At some bakeries, the circular shapes are called cuellos, or collars. Plumas are a sort of braid, folded in half.

Regardless of their shape, they should be airy, with paper-thin layers of dough that melt in your mouth. The topping is a thin crust of granulated sugar. At La Purisima, the reylas get a B+. No other bakery comes close.

Empanadas are like soft turnovers. Pumpkin (calabaza) is a popular year-round filling. A good empanada is like a pumpkin pie sandwich. Ojos are a little like Hostess Snowballs: spheroid cakes with coconut on the outside. Beware -- even at their best, ojos are for the under-10 crowd. La Purisima's empanadas and ojos are topnotch.

Panadería La Reyna (3615 West McDowell) is a close second to La Purisima. Its pan de huevo is soft, mildly sweet and fresh. But it isn't as eggy-rich as it should be. The elotes, which also come shaped like a chirimoya (a tropical fruit), are eye-catching, but just a little dry.

La Reyna's pumpkin empanada is very good, but the empanada panoche is excelente. The panoche filling is caramelized brown sugar. It's like a hard sugar crust inside a pie-crust pocket. It's an easily acquired taste.

My favorite sweet at La Reyna is the tamarindo. Tamarind is a tropical fruit with a sweet-and-sour pulp. The dried pulp is combined with chili and sugar to make tamarindo a unique candy.

El Fenix Bakery (6219 South Central) has all the right baked goods, but they tend to be on the dry side. It will do if you're in the neighborhood, but it's not worth a special trip.

El Fenix has one saving grace. Its dulce jamoncillo is perfecto. This is a candy made from milk and sugar. It's a sort of caramel fudge with a sugary crust and creamy inside.

La Mejor (5819 South 16th Street) is self-serve. You help yourself to dry, mostly flavorless baked goods. The only passable item is a pan de huevo covered with white frosting and a layer of sugar. I think the frosting keeps in the moisture.

Don't waste time or money at either La Fama Bakery (5328 West Glendale Avenue in Glendale) or La Sonorense #2 (3029 West Van Buren). Everything at La Fama is dry, and none of it tastes very good. La Sonorense #2 sells a lot of "number two," if you catch my drift. Several items were overcooked -- not just dry, but burned.

Pan de huevos and elotes are simple pleasures. Their doughs are rich, and their distinctly different sugary crusts add just enough sweet to satisfy. The culinary strength of Mexican pastry is the dough. As Martha Stewart might say, "It's a good thing."

Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]