Step inside Bed-Stuy’s Pilar Cuban Bakery and you might, for a moment, think you’re in Miami instead. The bright space, which opened this week, is awash with pastel, brilliant tiled floors, and an ever-present neon sign advertising sweet wares. And that transportive quality is the idea: Cuban-American owner Ricardo Barreras, who grew up in Florida, styled his new outpost to be like the no-frills mom and pop shops that line Miami’s sun-drenched streets.
Barreras wasn’t intending to make a bakery, he tells Gothamist during a recent visit. A desire to see traditional Cuban food more visibly represented within New York City evolved from selling Cuban sandwiches at Brooklyn Flea to owning Pilar Cuban Eatery, which he has for nearly ten years. (Before then, Barreras was a social psychologist by trade). The restaurant, which specializes in modern Cuban cuisine, has stood on the corner of Bedford and Greene since 2015.
The new bakery, attached to Barreras's restaurant, initially sprouted from his goal to make Cuban bread in-house. The problem? They had no room. But the space next door to Pilar had been vacant for a while, so he set about trying to find a way to take it over. Given the locale’s size, it became clear that he could make more than bread: Empanadas followed, then pastelitos, then it snowballed from there. The idea, Barreras says, is for people to stop by the bakery for a cafecito and dessert after dining, perhaps taking home a box of treats with them. During warmer days, the window that opens up onto Greene Avenue will be crucial for those on the move looking to buy café con leche.
The preposterous cold on Thursday didn’t deter locals and passersby from stopping by Pilar, scooping up beef picadillo empanadas, tortilla española, and pastelitos to take back home. There’s a lot to choose from, both savory and sweet. The dense empanada Gallega (a Spanish meat pie) is crafted from house-smoked chorizo next door, is a mighty treat. As are the smoked ham, potato leek, and bacalao (salt cod) croquetas—but don’t let their diminutive size fool you. The cilantro sauce, imbued with orange and roasted garlic, makes a perfect dip for Pilar’s savory offerings. A tropical layer cake, loaded up with mango jam and pineapple, topped with a passionfruit buttercream and then toasted coconut, is a dream. Don’t sleep on the guava bars, stacked with shortbread, and topped with a crumble and guava glaze.
Ingredients indigenous to Cuba, such as sour oranges and cachucha peppers, are central to Pilar’s food, as are harder-to-find staples: He says they buy hundreds of small packages of Goya short-grain rice—it doesn’t exist in bulk—to make bonafide arroz con pollo and paella. Some people might be surprised with the presentation and preparation of several items—Barreras's twist on tres leches, for one thing, is infused with pomegranate, which slightly cuts its signature sweetness.
“All those really iconic things that people grew up with, we have,” he says. “Pretty much most of the stuff you find here is stuff you’re going to find in a Cuban bakery. Some of the stuff isn’t, but uses ingredients that are typically Cuban.”
Barreras says there’s much more to come on the menu (see the current version here), including tamarind cinnamon rolls with a peanut brittle, a cake flan (half cake, half flan) made of red velvet and cream cheese, batidos (milkshakes) with flavors including guanabana and mamey, and salads. The iconic capuchino, an ever-present treat at Cuban bakeries, is also on its way.
Pilar Cuban Bakery is located at 397 Greene Ave., between Bedford and Franklin Avenues, and is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. (347) 350-9037; pilarny.com.