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Sampling the Valley's Ethnic Bakeries : Cultural delicacies rich in exotic ingredients abound, from Filipino cakes to Cuban pastries and luscious Viennese desserts.

August 19, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson writes regularly about food for The Times

Man cannot live by bread alone. Especially in one of our colorful ethnic bakeries.

Most of us have a favorite neighborhood bakery, where we treat ourselves to a cookie or slice of pie when we need an emotional lift. But the San Fernando Valley fairly abounds with exotic ethnic bakeries, places where it is possible to experience a totally different culture while satisfying that sudden craving.

Expect anything from mom and pop storefronts to larger commercial outlets in this genre, with a few surprises thrown in. The majority of our ethnic bakeries emphasize breads, but a host of others bake up specialty fare, pastries and novelties from countries as diverse as Armenia, the Philippines and Cuba as well as various points on the European compass.

The following short list should get you started on the bakery trail, with apologies to the many fine places not mentioned.

Filipino

The delightful Dates and Nuts belongs to Leah Gonzales, a former nurse who hails from Cavite City on Luzon. The bakery is part of a franchise in the Philippines, but Gonzales and her special passion for baking make this store extra special. Talagang naiiba-- that's the bakery chain's Tagalog-language slogan. Translation: "It's really different."

That it is. In the Philippines, tropical ingredients such as yam, coconut and mango abound, so don't be surprised to find pastries and cakes using these flavors to the fullest. The round cassava cake ($5.50, serves six to eight) is made from the starchy root staple that produces tapioca. This one is sweet, heavy and eaten hot, with a custard-like topping.

How about these tiny, rich macaroons, little pastry cups filled with a sugary suspension that is almost pure coconut? A scrumptious-looking mango cheesecake or mango cream cake, both with a yellowish tinge and an ultra-creamy taste, is $7.50.

Ube cake is purple, thanks to the purple yam for which it is named. (Filipinos also make a delicious, purple ice cream from the ube.) Bubo pie is a standard on the islands, a coconut pie with a flaky outer crust and a light crumb topping. And Gonzales is especially proud of her sans rival, a wafer cake with butter cream icing and a cashew nut filling, sold in sheet form.

It's not all sweet stuff in here. The Spanish influence on the islands is responsible for breads such as pan de sal and ensaymaditas. The first is a salted roll for snacks and sandwiches. The second is a buttery breakfast bread. Snacks include lumpia Shanghai, little cylinders of meat filling inside a fresh egg roll skin, and crusty adobo pie, a chicken-stuffed short pastry that is pure Filipino. Gonzales will make you lunch too, mostly home-style noodle dishes.

Dates and Nuts, 13556 Roscoe Blvd., Panorama City, (818) 786-5100. Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Jewish

Solley's Woodland Hills is the newest Jewish bakery in the area, open three weeks. Now that the redoubtable Weby's of Studio City has closed its doors after a 27-year run, Solley's--with a main branch in Sherman Oaks--is poised to become the preeminent Jewish bakery in the Valley.

This newly remodeled Solley's is big and bright with lots of windows and a full-service deli counter and restaurant. The pastry carousel is right by the front door, so you can't walk in without passing an array of tortes, cheesecakes and other cardiological nightmares.

I've long been a fan of the hearty, swirly black and white (pumpernickel and rye) bread--chewy, seeded bread sold at $1.20 a pound. One sliced bread usually weighs in at nearly two pounds. The bakery section sells 13 varieties of bagels at 42 cents each, plus a variety of other breads.

Pastry lovers should try the terrific hamentash , a triangular short pastry filled with prune, poppy or apricot paste; rugalach , bite-sized cookies made from a rich cream-cheese dough; any of the mini-Bundt cakes at $1.95 each; or the delicious, moon-shaped black and white cookies, smeared with chocolate- and vanilla-flavored frosting. If you're really in the mood to do the town, try the cylindrical, individual-sized strawberry shortcake, wrapped in wax paper and dense with thick whipped cream, a bargain at $2.25.

Solley's, 21857 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 340-0810, and 4578 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-5774. The Woodland Hills bakery is open 7 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; in Sherman Oaks, the bakery opens at 6 a.m.

Cuban

Glendale's wonderful Porto's is bound to overwhelm anyone unfamiliar with a Cuban bake shop. Cubans like their pastries sweet and tropical, arrays of cakes made with ingredients such as mango and coconut, and rum-drenched pastries clotted with creams and custards.

This is a big, bright place with several tables, a huge open space in the center, a hot-food section for meat pies, sandwiches and snacks, and a long, colorful pastry counter.

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