Columbus Bakery is full of baked goods I can't pronounce. Having recently mastered the correct elocution of the word "alfajor" (don't let that 'J' fool you), I walked into Columbus Bakery on Dufferin near Lawrence Avenue with a false sense of confidence. Yes, I spotted the alfajors ($1.50) right away, but then expanded by gaze to include the pastel de arequipe ($1.25), pandequeso ($3.00), and buñuelos ($1.00), and knew I needed a guide.
That's when Carlos Muriel (Jr.) stepped in to show me through Columbus Bakery. "All of our recipes come from back home," he tells me as we stand amid the flurry of activity. "They're one hundred percent Colombian."
But when Carlos and his family first took over the space back in 2003, the bakery was Italian. They decided to continue to bake the Italian offerings, while slowly integrating Colombian treats. "We wanted the transition to be slow," Carlos says. "The community was used to this as an Italian place."
But it's certainly not Italian anymore. The music is Colombian, the packaged cookies, crackers, coffees, and more behind the counter are straight from Colombia, and Carlos estimates that nearly 80 percent of the bakery's customers are Colombian. They come from all over the GTA to pick up or sit and enjoy the shop's freshly prepared breads, pastries, snacks, and sides, which are all--needless to say--Colombian.
Carlos explains that Colombian baked goods are distinct for their integration of guava, cheese (queso fresco), and Arequipe, which is made from slow-cooked condensed milk. The formula has been so successful for this strip mall bakery that Carlos and family have opened another Columbus Bakery at Jane and Wilson. "That one is more of an express shop," he notes.
But here, patrons are taking their baskets of hot Colombian sausages, beef empanadas, and cans of Malta, and digging in at the tables or island seating. The space near the cash is organized chaos, with customers forming more of a huddle than a line. Though everyone seems in great spirits, and interestingly, seem to all know each other. I, of course, am the odd (wo)man out, but confidently ask for an buñuelo and empanada ($1 each) anyhow.
The buñuelo is unlike anything I have ever tried before. It's the size of a small tennis ball, golden brown in colour, and made of corn flour dough that is kneaded in queso fresco. Carlos tells me it's colloquially known as a cheese ball, so I sort of expect some sort of cheese centre.
Instead, it's crunchy on the outside and warm and soft on the inside, more of a cheese-infused bread with the slightest hint of sweetness. The empanada is more familiar to me, made here with yellow corn flour. The shell has a light crisp, and the beef/potato mixture has the perfect texture and flavour, though it would have been better served a little warmer. In any case, I leave not just with a few extra treats, but with a couple new pronunciations rolling off my tongue.
Photos by Jesse Milns