These hidden Boston Jewels offer something sweet to sink your teeth into

by Beacon Staff • January 31, 2007

Although the North End lays claim to real Italian cannolis, Chinatown houses Eldo Cake House's famous fruit cakes and Southie is grounded in its traditional pastries, some of the best places are often overlooked.,As with most major cities, some of Boston's best gourmet offerings aren't the usual names gracing the pages of travel guides. Luckily for lovers of luscious baked goods, Boston's best kept secrets are also its sweetest.

Although the North End lays claim to real Italian cannolis, Chinatown houses Eldo Cake House's famous fruit cakes and Southie is grounded in its traditional pastries, some of the best places are often overlooked. Three fabulous, often-missed bakeries are La Sultana in East Boston, Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline and Lulu's Bake Shoppe in the North End.

LA SULTANA 40 MAVERICK SQ., BOSTON

La Sultana is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant located less than a minute from the Maverick T-stop on the Blue line. From the outside, the place looks like nothing worth noticing. Inside, though, the rich smells of authentic Mexican food engulf the senses. Near the door, a display case reveals delectable desserts, including chocolate cream horns, cake rolls and bread pudding.

Around noon on a weekday, the desserts remain mostly untouched, but La Sultana offers its customers other options. Its hot lunch items are in high demand. A steady stream of Spanish-speaking locals enter the sunny eatery, ordering steaming plates of rice, beans and meat stews.

The most popular items by far are the fresh empanadas, which come filled with either chicken or beef. Their golden, crisp exteriors hint of a subtle sweetness, while the generous interiors boast of a mild spiciness.

Nothing is labeled, but the largely Hispanic customer base can already identify the items. The women behind the counter are pleasant, efficient, and helpful. They will offer to heat up items and provide a cup for people sharing a drink.

The delicious food is also easy on the wallet. One cheese puff, one caramel-filled doughnut, and one giant cheesy crescent came to a little more than $4, including tax.

The cheese puff is slightly larger than a tennis ball with a crispy outer shell and a cake-like interior, similar to the consistency of a crab cake. It has a subtle cheese flavor.

On the other hand, the cheese croissant is bursting with bold flavors. Its light, flaky layers contain a moist, tender center. The solid piece of formerly melted cheese was a bit of a turn-off, but this non-greasy breakfast staple would make any Parisian chef green with envy.

La Sultana also offers a large selection of drinks, ranging from the typical line of Coke beverages and bottles of Starbucks Frappucinos to more exotic drinks like Milo, a chocolate malt milk beverage, and Postobon, a Columbian soda available in three fruity flavors for $1.58.

CLEAR FLOUR BREAD 178 THORNDIKE ST., BROOKLINE

Far off the beaten path in Brookline is Clear Flour Bread. This hidden gem on Thorndike Street caters to both restaurants and individuals alike. It's open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Every day, Clear Flour mixes up fresh batches of dough, resulting in flavorful works of bakery art. The bakers shape the preservative-free dough by hand to create a large variety of baked goods ranging from simple loaves of bread to intricate wreaths like the sunshine focaccia, which is only available on Saturdays.

Items as elaborate as specialty breads have limited availability. Such breads, with mouth-watering names like golden fruit tea bread and rustic fougasse, are only available on Sundays, while more common breads, such as sourdough and focaccia with onion, are available daily.

The walnut buckwheat bread offered a consistency that would bring shame to the air-filled failures of the loaves found on supermarket shelves.

The Clear Flour cashier agrees; this item is her favorite. The crust was crunchy but not too tough to chew. The dense interior contained pieces of walnut throughout and was firm, but not stale, to the touch.

The loaf is on the small side; a slice from the middle only fit one standard piece of square cheese.

Even when challenged with oozing cheese and dripping tuna fish, the bread did not become soggy or lose its form. When dipped in soup, it remained a flavorful addition.

At around $6 a loaf, the bread is a little pricey, but the money is well spent.

The consumer is buying solid, hearty bread that is not filled with air, preservatives, and bleached flours.

One loaf yielded 16 slices, making each slice about 40 cents each. Check the bakery out online at clearflourbread.com or stop by its location near the Packard's Corner T-stop on the B branch of the green line.

LULU'S BAKE SHOPPE

227 HANOVER ST., BOSTON

For something sugary sweet, Lulu's Bake Shoppe in the North End is the place to go. When Mike's Pastry, Bova's and Modern Pastry are all crowded, Lulu's is a less-traveled place to satisfy that sweet tooth. The small little eatery does serve food, but its specialty is desserts. Lulu's is known for its delectable cupcakes. A glass case displays these treats in all varieties for $2 each.

The soft-spoken man behind the counter suggested the Red Velvet and Chocolate