At this time of year, tucked amid the dizzying trays of Mexican breads and sweets at Panaderia Zaragoza, a certain festive pan dulce stands out.
The pan de muerto, or pan de los Muertos, is specially created for Día de los Muertos, and at Zaragoza, it’s a sight to behold. The delicately spiced sweet bread, baked here with pecans and raisins, is hand-fashioned into round buns adorned with a crisscross of “bone” decorations and into long skull shapes. The macabre vibe is offset by a bright shower of colored sugar in blue, purple, green and pink — though they’re also sold covered in sesame seeds.
Zaragoza, 3277 Cerrillos Road, begins selling the treats a couple of weeks before Día de los Muertos, which is celebrated from Halloween through Nov. 2. During the holiday, Mexican families remember and honor their deceased loved ones. Pan de muerto is traditionally eaten and placed on altars for these loved ones.
At Zaragoza, the pan de muerto ranges from $1 for a single roll or skull to $12 for a tray-sized version. The shop rolls out at least a couple of hundred of the baked goods every season, said Mary Quintana, who owns Zaragoza with her husband, Bernardino Jaquez. They are popular items in classrooms celebrating and exploring the holiday and at Santa Fe museums, banks and other businesses — as well as for those for whom pan de muerto is a nostalgic and necessary part of the holiday.
“They see this and say, ‘Oh, this makes me remember my grandma,’ ” Quintana said. “It’s something that means a lot, and it’s interesting to share that with people.”
Zaragoza opened in 1996, and the couple bought the business about five years ago. The panaderia is tucked into an unlikely spot on Cerrillos near Richards Avenue — the family-owned eatery is sandwiched between Long John Silver’s and Little Caesars on one side and KFC, Krispy Kreme and McDonald’s on the other. The shop announces itself with a simple, all-caps “PANADERIA” in robin’s egg blue, though a host of signboards and images out front quickly reveal there’s more inside than just baked goods.
But it’s that selection that forms the backbone of Zaragoza. Jaquez, who has a background in restaurants and whose uncle ran a couple of bakeries in Mexico, quickly mastered some 100 bakery recipes. On a given day, Zaragoza might have 80 different baked goods filling the bakery case that lines one wall.
“I don’t know how he does it,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. Like masa, the dough has life — if you overmix it, you will ruin it.”
Most recipes haven’t changed since the couple took over the business, but they added a buñuelos de viento to the lineup with a play on “Zaragoza” — the Zarañuelos are light, crispy fritters made with a rosette mold.
The couple pride themselves on maintaining the shop’s consistency and quality, Quintana said.
“People who have left the city and then come back say everything tastes just the same as they remember,” she said.
The clientele is diverse, Quintana said, and they warmly greet customers in both Spanish and English.
Quintana came to the United States in 1995 and quickly found a home in Santa Fe; she and Jaquez married in 1997. They’ve poured their life into the shop — Jaquez, too busy baking in the back to stop for an interview, joked, “Anything I would say, my wife will say.”
Quintana and Jaquez have two grown sons and two girls, age 7 and 3, the younger of whom bopped around on a recent weekday morning, munching on pan de muerto. Her favorite bakery treat? “Horses,” she said with a shy grin — cookies made for her with a special horse-shaped cutter.
Popular bakery items here include the bolillos, or rolls; conchas, or sweet bread; marranitos, or pig-shaped goodies made with molasses; and the empanadas, which come with a variety of fillings, including apple and rich, sweet apricot. Most of them are 50 cents to 80 cents, with a few special items costing a few cents more.
The shop’s busiest season is winter, and not just because of the holidays: “You can feel it — when it’s cold, you want bread,” Quintana said.
Zaragoza also has a full food menu, including breakfast burritos and lunch and dinner dishes such as carnitas, gorditas and tortas. The asada tacos are particularly popular, Quintana said, and customers rave about the tamales and menudo. Guests order at the counter, and while their meal is prepared, they may peruse the baked goods, grab a cup of coffee or Mexican soda, or pick out any of the shop’s many Mexican candies and chips on display. Near the register are stacks of corn and flour tortillas brought up fresh from Tortilleria Cuauhtemoc in Albuquerque.
Given the sheer variety of baked goods lining the shelves along the panaderia’s far wall, it seems unlikely you’ll ever be looking for something that’s not already prepared. But Quintana said helping to fulfill special requests is a core part of the couple’s business ethos. If you don’t see it, ask — and chances are they can whip up a few, fresh and just for you.
“This place has been here for so long, and we want to help our customers as much as we can,” she said. “When you see people get their favorite cake or bread and they’re so happy, it’s wonderful.”