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By Bill Wisser
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Early mornings are when bakeries shine brightest, rising breads in sync with the sun. We arrived at opening, 7:00 a.m., in time to witness the first patrons carrying their steaming Cuban coffees and fresh-from-the-oven treats to one of two short counters with four stools each, the preferred counter taking up a confined space in the storefront window. As the morning progresses so does the Charlotte "scene," consisting of a steady flow of eat-in and take-out customers cramping into the narrow, weathered shop and buzzing with enthusiasm over display cases packed with all manner of baked items.
One case contains a vast variety of small, butter-based cookies; another numerous pastries like fruit tarts, Napoleons, strawberry cheesecakes, and mini-pecan pies. Next case up has other such treats, plus turnovers tunneled with sweet cheese, fruit, and dulce de leche. Sheet trays of facturas lay atop the counters -- by now you probably know that facturas are like mini-Latin danishes, as it seems half of those who recently fled beleaguered Argentina for Miami's sunny shores have opened bakeries. The other half, of course, own parrilladas.
Charlotte also bakes off whole cakes and breads galore, the last mostly beige-colored, lard-shortened sorts popular in Latin-American countries. The shiny pastry casing around an Argentine-styled empanada was darker brown than that, and its juicy, full-flavored chicken and sautéed onion filling had me raving that it ranked with the very best in Miami. Ernie nodded in agreement, though I suspect it's the only empanada he ever had here. Pork and beef empanadas are available as well, and so are those modeled on other Latin countries, such as a blintz-like Chilean version with soft, pale dough draped around sweet white cheese, which Ernie said was "terrific."
A Venezuelan empanada packed with savorily seasoned beef was larger than the others and that much more pleasing, as was a flaky half-moon pastry with a smooth, creamed-corn interior. Ernie's mouth was full so he simply gave a thumbs-up, and it was beginning to dawn on me that Dough Boy wasn't particularly discriminating. Then, in regard to what I thought were delectable Brazilian arepas of succulent, pepper-speckled roast pork enveloped by a delicate white-cornmeal dough, Ernie volunteered his first negative pronouncement: "It could use a sauce." I was encouraged by his comment, which was not untrue, and figured that he just might render some relevant culinary judgments after all. Little did I know he wouldn't utter another criticism all day -- unless you count his sullen remark about how he would have preferred to take part in "a real restaurant review."
Overloading on bread products can indeed lead to a cranky demeanor, so I tried to get a little protein into the big fella by ordering one of the petite premade cold-cut-and-cheese sandwiches piled atop the pastry case. At $4 they're inexpensive enough, but the unlettuced, undressed sandwiches are not exactly Charlotte's strong point. Ernie ate it without complaint, but his mood didn't really brighten until a strawberry fruit tart, textbook flan, and dulce de leche-stuffed sweet bun were placed before him.
"Great place" was Dough Boy's concise and genial summation, and though I agree with his assessment in terms of ambiance and empanadas, the other baked goods don't quite rise to the level of greatness. Still everything is fresh, satisfying, and pleasantly priced. Plus, Charlotte's old-timey atmosphere makes it an apt spot to catch up with the past.