Castro’s Bakery I on Wilson Blvd., in an almost residential section of Arlington, would be easy to miss. In fact, unless your singular goal for the day is to find it, you’d most probably drive by and miss it altogether. Word of mouth has made Castro’s Bakery I a landmark to Latin American immigrants, homesick for the breads and pastries of their native countries. Opened in 1999, although started years earlier in mom’s kitchen, Castro’s Bakery I would get so packed with customers, its owners opened a second Castro’s Bakery (II) a couple of miles down the road a few years later.
The bakery’s nondescript glass door welcomes the hungry to another world – which might as well be one’s rustic, beloved town in Guatemala or El Salvador. Vibrantly colored star-shaped piñatas, somewhat randomly placed posters and stuff (e.g., everything to set up a party, impromptu or otherwise), and boughs of colored lights and artificial greenery might just make the first-time, non-Latino customer suddenly lose his or her bearings and ask: Where am I?
Back home in their native countries, Latin Americans would pick up their breads and pastries for merienda, the must-have mid-morning or -afternoon coffee break. With bakeries such as Castro’s, merienda continues to be an anticipated part of the day in an adopted country. Thus, come early for the bakery’s full spread of sweet breads, pastries, and cookies. At around 4 in the afternoon, the bakery’s shelves are somewhat in need of replenishment.
The bakery has a rather short lineup of sweet breads. The concha Guatemalteca corona ($0.60), a round bun with a cream-colored short-bread-like crust, is beautiful on the shelf, although a little on the dry and too-airy side, even with a good, hot cup of coffee ($1.50). So is the semita pan Mexico ($0.60), the bakery’s version of the Mexican crusty but chewy-in-the-inside bolillo (bun), and its compechanas cuernitos guaraches ($0.60), a crescent-shaped sweetbread.
Castro’s Bakery I cookies and pastries call out one’s name, as do those in virtually every baker’s kitchen. They’re beautifully done in various shapes and sizes. There’s the pastelito de pina (pineapple-marmalade-filled pastry, $0.75), margaritas de frescas (strawberry-filled butter cookie, $0.60), galletas de mantequilla (butter cookie, $0.60), among others. Most have short-bread-like textures, whether or not they’re supposed to. Undoubtedly, however, to that little boy transfixed by the sight of row upon row of baked goodies, very few things, if any, can be as perfect.
A young man gingerly places a big boxed cake – iced in a range of Crayola colors and decorated with plastic trees, trucks, and what have you – in his car and proudly beams to onlookers: It’s for my son’s birthday! The breads and pastries of the ethnic bakery may not make the gourmet list, but they’re truly enjoyed and loved. They truly are comfort food.
Castro’s Bakery has moved from it’s Arlington location to 6276 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, VA 22044.