We love that Chicago is a melting pot — and even more so when sugar is the main ingredient. That’s exactly the scene at ethnic bakeries across town, where your whole family can globe-trot by way of sweets. We whisked our kids off to a half-dozen pastry shops that sell traditional treats from Greece, India, China and beyond. Our little sugar monkeys loved sinking their teeth into new flavors. And the fact that they were exposed to new cultures was icing on the cake.
MEXICAN: Panaderia Nuevo Leon
The sweets: Most items at this Pilsen favorite ring up under $1 each, so you’ll be exploring in no time. Not everything is labeled, but then again, treats like sugar and cinnamon dusted fried tortilla need little persuasion. Take your time browsing rows of pan dulce and help yourself to free samples. If you see something you like, ask the staff if they have some in back, hot from the oven. Little ones will make a beeline for the bigger-than-their-head chocolate chip cookies or sugar-crusted donuts. Go ahead — let them spoil their dinner, but maybe not the inside of your car; save the crumbly goodies for home and pick up empanadas with pineapple, sweet potato, or pumpkin filling for the ride home instead.
The scene: There is no seating, but you won’t feel pressured to hurry or keep Miss Sweet Tooth by your side the whole time. Note that the tight layout makes it tricky for, say, a fixed-wheel jogger, so whip out the umbrella stroller or baby carrier.
Panaderia Nuevo Leon
1634 W. 18th St.
Mon.-Fri., 5:30 am -9:00 pm; Sat.- Sun., 6:00 am – 9:00 pm
Online: On Facebook
GREEK: Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop
The sweets: Hankering for baklava? Greektown has boatloads, but those at Pan Hellenic rise above the rest. They’re sweet, flaky and drenched just the right amount in honey syrup. Other traditional fare includes kataifi, a bird’s nest-like treat that tastes similar to baklava; and kourabiethes, almond cookies bathed in powdered sugar. The display case closest to the door features cookies (some gluten free), brownies and macarons in an array of flavors. Those finger smudges your tot leaves on the glass should tell you that they’re worth a try.
The scene: The sunny interior and warm wood seating may remind you of the cafes you pulled off cram sessions in while in college. So will the free Wi-Fi and all-nighter-worthy Greek coffee. Milk cartons and juice bottles quench your kid’s thirst, while imported olive oil, dried oregano stalks and jars of quince jam will find their way into your stroller basket before you head out.
Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop
322 S. Halsted St.
Mon.-Thurs., 9:00 am-8:00 pm; Fri.-Sat., 9:00 am-9:00 pm; Sun., 12:00 pm-6:00 pm
INDIAN/PAKISTANI: Tahoora Sweets & Bakery
The sweets: Next time you’re in Indiatown at your favorite lunch buffet, grab some Desi sweets afterwards. Tahoora specializes in candy-colored confections, many that are milk or cheese-based like kalakand (cottage cheese and sweetened milk) and barfi (condensed milk and sugar). When temperatures climb, indulge in a mango or pistachio kulfi, a cone-shaped ice cream treat. This hotspot is also known for its breakfast and sizable lunch menu, which include kabob sandwiches, paratha rolls (wheat wraps) and even pizza. If you go the savory route, the 75-cent samosas are a must; the potato version is lightly spiced and encased in flaky crust, the meat version spicier and in a thinner, crisper skin. Wash it all down with a mango lassi for them and a chai tea for you.
The scene: Stretch your legs and park here for a while; there’s ample space and seating. The food court-feel isn’t quite date night-worthy, but coupled with the self-serve utensil/napkin/condiment area, the digs are positively family-friendly.
Tahoora Sweets & Bakery
2345 W. Devon Ave.
Sun.-Sat., 10:00 am-10:00 pm; closed Friday from 1:00 pm-2:00 pm
KOREAN: New York Bakery
The sweets: Korean pastries are mild and rarely cloyingly sweet, making this Koreatown destination a no-brainer for families looking to avoid sugar shock. Most items follow the same recipe — a bun is filled with various flavors, from red bean paste to sweetened white bean paste to mocha cream (a must-buy). There’s even peanut butter cream, a whipped and airy version of the kiddie cult favorite. For something heartier grab the vegetable bun, a sort of croquette made with sweet potato and veggie filling in a perfectly fried shell.
The scene: Some seating is available for those who can’t wait to get snacking. Avoid rush hour that turns this busy thoroughfare into a bottleneck; in fact, the place opens at 5:00 am, meaning you and your early riser can stock up and go back home well before naptime.
New York Bakery
3455 W. Lawrence Ave.
Mon.-Sun., 5:00 am-8:00 pm
CHINESE: Saint Anna Bakery and Cafe
The sweets: Meet your new favorite type of takeout. Tucked in Chinatown Square, Saint Anna has been a longtime favorite of locals and foodies, and will similarly charm your pint-sized food critic. Gleaming egg tarts and pillow-y pork buns top the must-try items here, along with mainstays like red bean buns and mochi filled with fresh fruit. Like any bakery with a following, the goods often sell out throughout the day so come early. Don’t be put off when aggressively asked for your order and make sure you have cash on hand; no cards accepted.
The scene: Seating is mainly reserved for those ordering meals, but you’ll want to divvy up the spoils outdoors in the square anyway. Perch the brood on a bench and snack away.
Saint Anna Bakery and Cafe
2158 S. Archer Ave.
Mon.-Sun., 8:00 am-8:00 pm
Online: On Facebook
The sweets: Dinkel’s is a slice of Chicago history and its throwback neon sign and elaborately decorated cakes are like big warm fuzzies. Or maybe that’s the piping hot pastries and bread coming from die Küche. Butter cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts and danishes dot the display cases, but it’s the traditional strudel and stollen that steal the show. Walnut apple or praline pecan strudel and powdered sugar stollen are bestsellers and pre-packaged to take home. Let the kids sample their specialty hot chocolate while you sip Metropolis coffee. The new sandwich menu offered Tuesdays through Saturdays will be hard to resist, with flavors like caprese on Wurzelbrot bread — as tasty as it is fun to pronounce. Kid’s sammies are a mere $4 a pop and come with applesauce, banana or apple.
The scene: Cozy up with ease, thanks to café seating and stroller parking. If you’re in a rush, there’s free 15-minute parking out front and across the street in front of Starbucks. Boxed cookies and even a hot chocolate mix make it easy to grab and go. Check the website for daily specials, because buy-one-get-one-free cupcakes are always be worth the trek.
3329 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tue.-Fri., 6:00 am-7:00 pm; Sat., 6:00 am-5:00 pm; Sun., 8:00 am-4:00 pm
What is your favorite sweet treat? Let us know in the Comments section below.
— Selena Kohng
Photos: Courtesy of Panderia Nuevo Leon, Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop, Tahoora Sweets and Bakery, New York Bakery, Saint Anna Bakery and Cafe, Dinkel’s