The first United States location of the upscale San Martin panaderia chain has finally opened in Dallas
Restaurants need not be particularly noteworthy, in order to capture a man's heart; some of my most treasured food memories out of years of travel to Mexico revolve around meals at the 100% Natural chain of cafes. Maybe you've heard of it, maybe you've seen one, in Playa del Carmen, or Mexico City—essentially, this is one of those diner/coffee shop type places, in the tradition of the ubiquitous Vips or Sanborns, but very healthy, offering a menu filled with organico things, and vegano things, and a style of cooking called spa cocina.
The food is good, as chains go, lots of fresh things you can feel good about eating, but for me, trips to 100% Natural were always about the company. Falling for people who live in other countries is not a particularly sensible thing to do, in hindsight, but at the time, it made perfect sense. It was a happy moment in my life, punctuated by leisurely breakfasts of goblets brimming with tropical fruits, of huevos Popeye, scrambled eggs with spinach and Chihuahua-style cheese, and afternoon stops for chia seed frescas. Long after life snapped me back to reality, I still found myself seeking out the nearest 100% Natural—same menu, same calming environment, from the Acapulco bayfront to Cancun's congested Centro.
Most people don’t travel through Latin America in search of home comforts, but I've always enjoyed experimenting with regional chain restaurants, wherever I go, and they certainly are easy to find here, from Giraffas in Brazil to El Corral in Colombia, all offering familiarity, a certain level of comfort, and in many cases sprawling menus, typically featuring very nice photos of the food. Guatemala seems to be particularly good at chains, and they also seem to be particularly good at exporting them—fried chicken fanatics will most likely be aware of the existence of Pollo Campero, now boasting dozens of stateside locations, everywhere from St. Paul, Minnesota to Miami. If you didn't already know this, Pollo Campero hails from Guatemala, and they’re super proud about it, and why not—it’s pretty good chicken, after all.
There’s another chain from Guatemala, however, one that you probably haven’t heard of, unless you have spent time hanging around Guatemala’s finer shopping malls, its most desirable residential neighborhoods, or the odd reinvigorated centro historico, and it’s called San Martin. San Martin is a high-end panaderia, but it is also an all-day cafe, boasting one of those thick, spiral-bound menus, nearly Cheesecake Factory-length, with—but of course—some very flattering food photography.
At your typical San Martin, you can have it whichever way you like—grab some tongs and start collecting breads and pastries —humble rolls, extravagant filled croissants, or the magnificent little tostados, one of their signatures, crunchy cookies topped with cinnamon that cry out for a cup of coffee. (This is a thing you can easily find, right on premises—you’re in Guatemala after all, they have lots of coffee there.) There are the pastry cases, filled to the brim with patisserie-pretty cakes and creations—who knew there were so many ways to convey dulce de leche!—and there are other things to buy as well, including colorfully-painted ceramic owls, owls being a popular Guatemalan symbol of good fortune and abundance.
Then, there is the food. From breakfasts of eggs, panela cheese-filled tortillas, black beans and plantains, to pizzas and pastas and burgers and salads, whatever you might need throughout the day, it is here, and while the cooking won’t necessarily light your world on fire, that’s not the point—this is a haven, a place you linger with friends, a place you leave the cares of outside behind. A place to sip coffee out of a sizable ceramic mug, festively decorated to look like an owl.
The first San Martin Bakery in the United States was supposed to open in Dallas quite some time ago—the story goes that the owners sent at least one of their kids to college at Southern Methodist University, got to know the city a little bit, eventually realizing that the fast-growing region might be the perfect fit for an upscale Guatemalan bakery. As luck would have it, I happened to be in Dallas the very week they finally went into soft open, just before Christmas; after driving down McKinney Avenue multiple times, only to be disappointed by a sign on the doors that promised they were going to be open very soon, I finally hit the jackpot. The doors were open, I was welcomed in, and at least a dozen times. One look around, and I knew it had been worth the wait.
The first thing you need to know about the first San Martin Bakery in the United States is that they did not come here to play around—for their grand entry into the market, they took control of a sizable lot in the fashionable Uptown section of Dallas, a short walk from the Ritz-Carlton hotel and not far from the iconic Mansion on Turtle Creek. Then they built a 10,000 square-foot building with vaulted ceilings and skylights and living walls, popped in some kitchens behind big walls of glass, hired someone who really knows from interior design, and from lighting, and now here we are, and apparently, this is to be the first San Martin of many. If we’re lucky, anyway.
Initially, I decided on buying up as many of the baked goods as possible—sweet rolls, cinnamon rolls, cream cheese rolls, lots of those cookies; for my haul, I paid just over seven dollars, a fraction of what the same things would have cost in an American bakery. The next morning, I returned for breakfast, charmed by the notion of table service, and attentive service to boot; with my traditional breakfast, the one with the black beans and the plantains, and eggs over easy laid out to look like an owl's eyes, I got a basket of rolls and more cookies—at one point, someone walked by and handed me a ceramic owl refrigerator magnet, and thanked me for coming in, possibly for the fifteenth time that day.
On my way out, along with more of the tostados, I picked up a Rosca Vienesa, another house signature—this New World interpretation of Austria’s classic Gugelhupf was pitched as having a slightly madeleine-like texture, and also as the perfect companion to a cup of coffee. Both of these things turned out to be true—I was still eating that cake a week later, and liking it a great deal, too. The tostados, those were gone within hours. At thirty cents apiece, I should have bought more.