At first glance Karinas Mexican Bakery might seem to be just another panaderia. There certainly are shelves of pan dulce available for self-service, crusty tri-ridged bolillos for making sandwiches, and information posted for ordering wedding cakes. But closer inspection of the refrigerator case reveals not only pastries but also Mexican and Mexican-style cheeses (i.e., genuine quesillo de Oaxaca), dried whole leaves of yerba santa, and brick-colored dried chapulines (a type of grasshopper) wrapped in plastic baggies. Taped on the counter are lists and prices for memelas (aka sopes), tamales, tortas, and daily specials in the style of Oaxaca.
The clerks dont speak much English but the chalkboard listing some of the items and prices is in English and Spanish. Though set up mostly for take-away, there are a few small tables and chairs for eating on premise. Coffee, cold drinks, and paletas are also sold.
One of the specials was an empanada de Oaxaca de coloradito de pollo, which sounds far more complicated than it is. Im going to have to abandon the mental notion that empanadas should be pastry-crusted hand pies, as I keep being surprised at the many forms they can take. This was composed of a huge corn tortilla (about a foot wide) made to order and folded in half over a filling of black beans and orange-light red coloradito-style molé with some bits of poached chicken and succulent shreds of fresh epazote. On top was a layer of refritos, shredded lettuce, chopped onion and cilantro, quesillo, and two salsas: a smoky chipotle with a nice kick and a green tomatillo sauce. The tortilla base was thick and chewy with a deep roasted corn flavor and soaked up the mélange of seasonings. This mild style of molé was only slightly sweet. Very tasty and makes a whole meal for $5.
The memelas have a masa base too, rolled in small thick ovals like a mini-huarache, with a fried pebbly crust. While freshly made with good flavor, two orders have been too tough and hard for my taste. They can be ordered vegetarian (3 for $6.50) with refritos, lettuce, crumbly queso fresco, and salsa or topped with meat as well. Ive only tried the veggie and carne cecina versions; carne asada (grilled beef) and pollo asada (grilled chicken) are the other meat choices (3 for $8). Cecina is thin slices of pork that have been partially dried, then rubbed with chili paste. Theyre grilled to order and sliced into strips to top the memelas and have a very intense and concentrated flavor.
The tamales are wrapped in corn husks rather than the banana leaves that are often used in Oaxaca. The savories ($1.75) are filled with a choice of rajas (shredded chicken stewed with tomatoes, bell peppers and jalapeños), molé rojo (strips of chicken and black beans in dark red molé), and molé verde (strips of chicken in green molé sauce). The masa has a whitish-gray cast and is more finely ground lending a softer and almost gummy texture. My favorite of the three was the rajas for the lightness of flavor, which were surprisingly delicate and mild with the heat of the jalapeños well in check. The rojo had the strongest and most robust flavor, with the red color and richness seeping through to the surface of the masa. The verde was mild and subtle and the chicken pieces were especially succulent and tender, but the sauce was a bit too starchy and solid. The tamales are made each day and kept hot for that fresh out of the steamer goodness. Tamales dulces (sweet tamales, $1.50) are also available by advance order.
A variety of tortas ($2.50 to $5) are offered but I have not tried any yet. Their own rolls are bollilo-style, flattened football-shaped and crusty. Several of the combos include the mozzarella-like Oaxacan cheese, quesillo.
On the sweet side, the tres leches cake ($1.75 per piece) is very good. Made in two thick layers, the heavy sponge cake is moist, eggy and richly flavored with vanilla and a hint of rum. The whipped cream is applied thickly and has some stabilizers but not to excess. The flan ($1.25) is grainy and not recommended here. Another speciality is churros, but they sell out in the morning and Ive missed them.
I have yet to taste the chapulines. They tell me theyre most delicious in tacos with a fresh salsa. More information on this delicacy is linked below.
Theres honest cooking going on here. The kitchen doesnt hit the heights of Oaxacan cuisine, but it does provide a welcome change of pace from the other local Mexican eateries. Ill be back to try more of the repertoire.
Karinas Mexican Bakery [Sonoma County]
827 Petaluma Blvd.
Mon-Fri, open to 5pm
Sat-Sun, open to 6pm