Bread Hunt!

After her favorite bakery closes up shop, our intrepid writer embarks on a search for a new fave

Since Ilsa's Konditorei and Café closed at the end of January, I've searched for a rebound bakery. Gone are Ilsa Bechert's savory and sweet European breads; after 21 years of serving Tucson, Bechert retired on Jan. 31.

"They're at a loss for the bread, for the pastries, for the cookies," Bechert said about heartbroken customers, like me. "I do not know where they can find this bread. I could not find someone to make what I make. I use expensive ingredients; it's labor-intensive, and I've been consistent. That's another fact; it's not so easy. But I do know that there are many people who are health-conscious, and they do buy quality items. I do not know where to get this."

Unwilling to give up, I explored four independent, locally owned Tucson bakeries for a decent loaf. It must be noted that there are other specialty bakers in Tucson that offer quality products; I didn't have time to visit them all, but these four give grieving bread-lovers like me options.

Lutz's Swiss Bakery and Konditorei

5418 E. Pima St.

Lutz's is sandwiched between an Ace Hardware and Alice's Restaurant. There's a New York Times vending box next to one outdoor table. It's a nice spot to drink coffee and work the puzzle with the scent of bread in the air.

Inside, Lutz's is a small, pink-walled, little pillbox of a store. To the left of the entrance is the bread--four kinds of rye; challah, french and tea rolls; hotdog and hamburger buns; and other specialty breads, including white mountain, seven-grain, Vienna, challah, Swiss, honey wheat, butterspilt, Sicilian, ciabatta and sourdough.

I ask what the cashier recommends. She likes the ciabatta, but it's not in today. The golden round of Swiss isn't a bad bet, assuming one can't go wrong with the nationality the store stands behind. Don't assume: The cashier reports that the family who owns and operates this bakery is not Swiss. They bought the bakery from some Swiss folks. I keep the Swiss nonetheless, even though the round loaf of white mountain tempts me with its cloudy, flour-rubbed, rustic exterior. There's something comforting about the Swiss and the seven-grain I later snatch up. Wholesome, even.

With two loaves of bread and a Chinese almond cookie, I'm good to go for $5.50 total.

These breads work well for a laid-back Saturday night--Swiss and seven-grain with sweet butter and an Errol Morris documentary film. Kathryn, the media-arts maven who longs for the moist, cake-like Swiss, says, "It smells almost sweet." She doesn't like wrangling with crusts that destroy teeth and resemble chew toys. I, however, side with Sylvester Graham, the inventor of Graham crackers: "Bread should be baked in such a way that it will ... require and secure a full exercise of the teeth in mastication." Using Graham's standard, the Swiss and the seven-grain don't do it for me, but the seven-grain does well toasted and served with tuna fish and almond slivers. I bet it would make a killer French toast.

Verdict: Lutz's is the type of bakery where I want to be a patron so that folks know my name--like Cheers meets Chocolat. The bread is good, but not the best, especially if you're a "thunker" who tests the quality of bread like one might a cantaloupe for ripeness. What is wonderful is that one will be greeted with genuine warmth, individual attention and mom-and-pop-made bread. It's not like some other places, where being a customer is like being part of a herd of cattle.

La Baguette Parisienne

7851 E. Broadway Blvd.

In order to get "street cred" in evaluating baguettes, I invite along Carmella, who has a long-distance French boyfriend. We then drive east on Broadway the morning after my bread orgy with Kathryn.

When I arrive at La Baguette Parisienne, Carmella tells me this looks like an Americanized version of a French bakery. "The things they had," Carmella says later, "were chocolate-chip cookies. The bakeries in France have more delicate things, like little éclairs. They don't have danishes there. I don't even think they have danishes in Denmark."

But we're here for the bread. The crowd at 9 a.m. on Sunday was pert and polite; they let me back in line when I lose my place gawking at lovely, pale globes of miché (a round, white bread) and substantial rounds of ciabatta. Carmella chooses a butter croissant; I choose a chocolate-filled one, a skinny baguette and the miché. All that bread only costs $5.05.

As we leave, I stop to watch the baker, who scores the slender columns of dough before they are lifted and pushed into a multi-shelved oven. The baguettes are "naked," as M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her essay, "How to Rise Up Like New Bread": "like a firm-hipped woman, without the benefit of metal girdlings."

When I return to Carmella's kitchen, she proceeds to make tea. When the tea is done, per Carmella's suggestion, I dunk my croissant into it. She says the croissants are good, but not as good as the ones in France. Are they ever? Meanwhile, the croissant's chocolate filling is beautifully bittersweet. But I'm not content. I'm ready for the baguette, for the miché, for the bread.

Carmella puts out the strawberry preserves, the Devonshire butter and the brie. I break the baguette and spread the room-temperature butter. The sand-colored crust crunches and then gives into the off-white interior. The center is alternately moist and airy. I am sold.

Carmella likes the miché. "This is how a baguette should taste, but with a slightly hard crust," she says. She's waxing poetic about Parisian baguettes and about the French who bring bread home from real bakeries after work.

Verdict: La Baguette Parisienne is another small, local bakery (though not as small as Lutz's) that is worth visiting. Many Tucsonans know the worth of the bread Mario and Francoise Marini and family make. I found the baguette both satisfying and hearty, while Carmella found it adequate--but nothing to write Grégoire, her boyfriend, about. The miché, however, was loved by all. And with some of Ilsa's former employees coming on board, I predict this bakery will only get better.

The Village Bake House

7882 N. Oracle Road

NPR plays on the car radio as I drive north on Oracle toward Magee Road.

I am sad and angry when I walk into the Village Bake House in Oro Valley. I think about those who have no bread and become even more sullen. It is a Monday.

A rustic round of white, the ever-popular kalamata olive and the traditional French country bread, pain au levain, cheer me up. I become a little less angry. I know buying bread will not fix anything, but the weight of those three loaves in a brown bag makes me feel a little better about the world.

When I get home, my roommate Jessica and her friend Nadia are watching CSI. "I have bread to share," I say. We slice bread, and it is good. I'm reminded of what the Iowa folk artist Brian Andreas said: "There are things you do because they feel right and they may make no sense and they may make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat each other's cooking and say it was good."

The Village Bake House's cooking is beyond good. The kalamata is the group fave with its balance of textures and olive-studded goodness. Jessica thinks the rustic would go well with a hearty stew. Nadia takes the pain au levain home. I clean up and think about the quality of bread in America.

Verdict: Get thee to the Village Bake House! You won't be disappointed with the selection and gusto of breads. I got three loaves for $12, a bargain.

Beyond Bread

6260 E. Speedway Blvd.

3026 N. Campbell Ave.

Who in Tucson doesn't know about Beyond Bread? Since 1998, the little bakery that could has grown up with its two locations, 100-plus employees and dozens upon dozens of handcrafted breads. Consistently voted as serving Tucson's best bread, the enterprising independent bakeries of Shelby and Randie Collier continue to impress.

On the Monday and Tuesday I visited, the semolina and sesame, white bread, marble rye, pumpernickel and olive were consistently good. My personal favorite was the marble rye, a lovely mix of colors, taste and texture. Too many ryes are dry, dry, dry, but not this loaf. I meant to only have one slice, but ended up eating two or three, each with a smear of butter. The seedy, faintly sour taste of the rye complements grilled cheese. The olive bread was fresh and chewy, but not as flavorful as the Village Bake House's kalamata olive. And the pumpernickel, one of my favorite meaty breads, was good in terms of presentation and taste, but lacked the oomph and weight of Ilsa's dark, course sourdough. But then again, pumpernickel is a German bread, so my comparison of Beyond Bread's version to Ilsa's is like comparing apple pie to apple streusel. Home-court advantage.

Verdict: I gun for the underdog, be them bakeries or March Madness contenders, but Beyond Bread is popular for good reasons--it produces an amazing output of artisanal breads and has two convenient locations. Oh, and the three loaves I bought were less than $12. It's a steal for high-quality, original bread.

But I still miss Ilsa's. Although Tucson offers many plan B bakeries that are good, I am still left searching for great. After all, Ilsa's closed because, as Bechert said, she couldn't find someone to take her place. I couldn't agree more.

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