LA CALAVERA BAKERY
747 E. College Ave., Decatur. 404-998-8389
755 Commerce Drive, Decatur. 404-500-4456
Decatur has become a whole lot more gluten-tastic of late. Two idiosyncratic and wholly original bakeries have opened, but neither is the cheerful downtown storefront you might expect. There are no window displays of cookies and cakes, no sidewalk patios and no charming awnings. In fact, both hide in plain sight — one slightly hard to find, and the other nearly impossible.
La Calavera Bakery, the more senior of the two, offers a gourmet/organic turn on a Mexican panaderia from baker Eric Arillo and his wife, Dale Ralston. They also sell their goods at the Decatur Farmers Market. La Calavera is set in a modest space in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mini mall on the south side of the train tracks. The daily offerings greet you from bakery trays as you enter, and you get them to go or sit at one of the few tables set with colorful tablecloths and fresh flowers along the cinder block wall. Ralston says a sign is on the way.
Every day, Arillo sets out daily trays of hearty, hunky rolls, cookies and croissants as well several kinds of sweet and savory bread. Typical offerings include ojos de buey (“oxen eyes,” a puff pastry-wrapped almond cake), mini-babkas (some studded with chocolate), cinnamon rolls, and my favorite orejas, or elephant ears imbued with crunchy caramelized sugar. The kitchen prepares a roster of daily bread loaves. There is a pot of Cafe Campesino fair trade organic coffee. You also can order a freshly blended licuado.
La Calavera doesn’t lack for charm, but the daily offerings can be a little higglety-pigglety. I must have stopped by a half dozen times hoping to try the specialty, a whole wheat bread made from sprouted wheatberries milled in-house, without any luck. It’s only made on certain days, or it sells out early, or the supply of wheatberries dries up. The licuados are delicious, but the last time I detoured for one the blender was broken. No matter. These growing pains make this place all the more lovable.
Ratio Bakeshop joined the scene last month, having moved from a shared kitchen space nearby. Like La Calavera, its product may be familiar to farmers market shoppers. Baker Chris Flores, who previously created pastries for West Egg Cafe and Nikolai’s Roof, makes distinctive croissants. Their sharp-edged cuts show off their many, many crisp, gorgeously steam-leavened layers.
His new bricks-and-mortar location is a real charmer, with comfy tables, free wireless and a fantastic house-blend coffee created for the shop by Smyrna’s Rev Coffee Roasters.
But good luck finding it. The shop sits in the basement of Commerce Plaza, an office building filled with medical clinics and public health facilities that doesn’t even have a street-front entrance.
Here’s what you do: locate it on a map (across the street from the “Soviet” Kroger), figure out the side-street way in, get a parking ticket to validate, then ride the elevator to the basement. Once inside, you’ll be rewarded with the likes of a ham-tallegio cheese croissant, a slice of spinach quiche, a chocolate tart, or an absolutely incredible scone studded with caramelized white chocolate chunks and dehydrated strawberries. I’ve never eaten a better scone: perfect (not too) sweetness, canny flavors, brilliant firm crumble to the texture.
Flores has begun setting out a few loaves of bread, including his terrific ciabatta rolls. He also has pumped up the lunch menu to include sandwiches and salads along with his excellent quiche. (Try the goat cheese and arugula.) On my last visit, he had begun serving breakfast sandwiches of smoky bacon and freshly scrambled egg on croissants or bagels. Happy days are here.