The humble cinnamon roll represents the quintessential and most basic bakery pastry. However, its execution varies across the city, which prompted SFR to embark on a scientific and culinary journey to determine which rolls taste the best.
After our panel of five secret judges completed their score cards, the top two winners earned scores so close that we almost declared a tie. Notably, each of the top two rolls came from one of two basic categories: the flaky croissant style and the doughy bread style.
Angel’s Bakery and Coffee Shop came out on top with an average judge’s score of 8.2 out of 10 points.
The family business has been baking up goodies in Santa Fe for about 17 years, since the summer of 2020 from its kitchen and storefront in the Chamisa Center at Airport Road and Lopez Lane. Before that, it occupied various locations including one on St. Michael’s Drive and another in the former Catamount Bar & Grille spot downtown. For several years along the way, the family made ends meet as a wholesale-only operation.
Angel’s flaky pastry dough comes from a recipe head baker Jorge Perez developed when he first opened up shop. Now that his son Javier Medrano runs the business, Perez focuses on baking and has maintained a consistency recognized for years.
“We don’t use lard, we don’t use shortening and we don’t use margarine,” Medrano explains. “I know a lot of people—margarine is a lot cheaper than butter—so they’ll actually do half margarine and half butter. We just go full on with the butter. It’s all butter.”
Does that explain why the bakery landed No. 1 in the blind taste test?
“I think that’s it. I mean it really makes a total difference as far as flavor goes. That’s really the secret behind it. It’s just the ingredients you use, and it has to do with the bakers, too. You know, they love what they do. This is practically their life. They love baking and they put in 100% every time they bake. They don’t do it halfway,” he says.
During SFR’s visit, baker Oswaldo Lopez deftly maneuvered giant sheets of dough, sprinkling a thin layer of cinnamon and sugar on the entire surface, then rolling the sheet into a long cylinder. Next, he sliced off each roll and laid it flat on a baking sheet. It happened so fast that his hands are blurry in most of our photographs. Next, the rolls proof for two to three hours before baking for 12 minutes on each side, then they receive a thin drizzle of icing.
Each day, the bakery produces upward of 50 cinnamon rolls, along with its bear claws, danishes, croissants and other treats. Fruit fillings and other ingredients aren’t pre-bought, but instead made from scratch on site. Hotels, restaurants and other local businesses—including all three locations of Marisco’s as well as Sagche’s Coffee, Kaune’s Market and La Montanita Co-Op —place daily orders, and the storefront serves Southside commuters in person, starting with its early 7:30 am opening time.
Medrano was in middle school when his dad started the bakery, so he learned by doing. By the time he graduated from Capital High School, he was well-versed in many aspects. His mother Martha Dominguez still decorates specialty cakes for weddings and birthdays, and his wife Yuki Jalalon owns the coffee shop part of the business.
Ranking a close second place, Counter Culture Cafe’s extremely large “cinnamon bun” impressed our judges with an average score of 8.
The crowded parking lot off Baca Street that Counter Culture Café shares with a few other business can be a royal pain, but it proves just how many local fans of the menu, service and high-quality consistency the restaurant counts in its following. After years as a cash-only affair, cashiers will even accept debit and credit cards now, which sounds like a small thing but makes a lot of difference. Counter Culture’s indoor and outdoor dining areas tend to be slammed for most of its breakfasts and lunches, open seven days a week.
Still, you might be surprised to learn owners/married couple Jason Aufrichtig and Elaine Pirone have altered very few aspects of the business over time—case in point, the cinnamon bun, which Pirone herself developed back when the restaurant first opened in 1996.
The recipe for the massive bun (“as big as a baby’s head,” Aufrichtig says) has not changed in the nearly 30 years since it hit the menu, and it’s easy to see why. Taking the bread-forward route in a city that seems to love its pastries flaky, Aufrichtig explains, Counter Culture’s version of the treat is not only generous (it weighed in at 1 pound, 1 ounce—by far the largest in our taste test), it’s delicious and almost addictive; the dough is more yeasty, as well, making it more akin to a dense but challah-like loaf than a roll.
Counter Culture’s take on the cinnamon roll features moist layers that allow the flavorful but not overpowering icing (and lots of it) to seep inside and mingle with the cinnamon and sugar at the core of the treat. Aufrichtig says he still zeroes in on the “inside loin,” when he eats one.
Counter Culture’s patrons can’t get enough, according to Aufrichtig, who says the kitchen churns out large batches three times per week on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. He’s not even sure how many they sell on a regular basis, but it’s a lot. Plus, the kitchen will even make French toast using the day-olds if you please—which you most certainly should—because Pirone’s recipe is as inextricably linked to Counter Culture’s DNA as its ethos of breakfast, brunch and lunch done right.
“We realized we were going to need a good blueberry muffin and a good cinnamon bun,” Aufrichtig says, recounting the restaurant’s early days and his wife’s rise to cinnamon stardom. “It was just learning what works at this altitude and what doesn’t; some places proof and bake what’s almost like croissant dough. We didn’t want to go that direction, so we do more of a bread type.”
Aufrichtig hypothesizes that, in addition to the cinnamon roll, Counter Culture has remained popular because of its commitment to quality and its staff. He doesn’t much go for the term “family” when it comes to work, yet he loves his workers and isn’t shy to show it. You’ll also often find him and Pirone manning the battle stations at Counter Culture, greeting customers by name and helping out in the kitchen, on the floor, behind the counter or wherever he’s needed. The neighborhood has changed since the ‘90s, Aufrichtig says, but Counter Culture remains the same and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
As for when to show up if you’re looking to get the freshest cinnamon bun: “10 o’clock,” Aufrichtig advises. “That’s when they’re still warm, but not blazing hot—when they’re just setting.”
About the judging process
SFR staff spread out across the city on a Friday morning to purchase two cinnamon rolls from each of the eight bakeries on the following pages. (We had planned to also include Dulce and Clafoutis, but both were already sold out by the time we arrived.) Judges completed a blind taste test and SFR compiled the scores and ranked them by the average.
4350 Airport Road, Ste. 13, (505) 557-6156
Average points: 8.2
Weight: 7.3 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Soft but flaky.” “Moist. Tender. So much flavor. Baked well.” “Very good with excellent flavor. Croissant feel.” “Sweet, sweet.” “Super buttery and Frenchy.”
About: The glass-fronted case at Angel’s showcases the plump and generous portions on which this bakery has built its reputation. In a true family affair, find Javier Medrano managing the business while his dad Jorge Perez focuses on the recipes he developed approximately 17 years ago. Medrano’s mother Martha Dominguez serves as head decorator for special-occasion cakes and his wife Yuki Jalalon owns the coffee shop. This storefront should get extra points for being open at 7:30 am in a town that wakes up late, but look for Angel’s treats in places such as Kaune’s Neighborhood Market and La Montañita Co-Op.
Counter Culture Café
930 Baca St., (505) 995-1105
Average points: 8
Weight: 1 pound, 1 ounce
Notes from the tasters: “So dense and soft.” “Perfect texture. Big and not traditional.” “Insanely good icing.” “Overwhelming, but not in a bad way.” “Kinda bready, the best for sharing.”
About: A popular local haunt since it opened its doors in 1996, Counter Culture Café is the reason Baca Street becomes so busy in the mornings and on weekends. Owned by spouses Elaine Pirone and Jason Aufrichtig—the latter of whom has worked in kitchens across the Southwest and East Coast, including Santacafé—Counter Culture has become of the most cited eateries for quality breakfast burritos, enticing one-off specials, treats, coffees and so much more. Someplace between that gargantuan cinnamon bun, that spicy green chile breakfast burrito, that filling salad, sandwich and/or baked treat and that perfect cup of coffee, the level of dedication to the locals becomes abundantly clear. Good thing seating options include a pair of nice outdoor dining spaces, too—open now just in time for summer.
821 W San Mateo Road, (505) 984-1980
Average points: 6.6
Weight: 7.7 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Infinity layers with pastry more like pie crust. Simple cinnamon and sugar, very moist.” “Yum, butter.” “Good classic cinnamon roll vibe but a bit plain and overly buttery.”
About: What began as a relatively small operation has grown over the years into a powerhouse cafe, coffeeshop/teahouse and commercial bakery that still has time and space for those who stop by its flagship Midtown location for brunch, lunch, high tea and more. Owners Dharm Khalsa and Gurukiren Kaur Ramos still serve up the killer treats, soups, sandwiches and brunch items you dream about, too. And that’s not even getting into desserts like the chocolate ganache petit four or the pies—oh, the pies! For the quick stop set, the Maven’s proprietary Coppenhagen cinnamon roll is still a big part of the enduring draw. Practically a meal unto itself, you could share this one after your Galisteo grilled chicken sandwich or eggs Benedict/Florentine, etc.—but more than likely you’ll want it all to yourself.
1291 San Felipe Ave., (505) 772-0949
Average points: 6
Weight: 3.4 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Crusty top like a churro.” “Crunchy.” “Would have had a higher rating with frosting.” “Caramelized sugar is good but it does not feel like a cinnamon roll.”
About: When you really set out to find bakeries in Santa Fe, you might be shocked at their sheer numbers. In Midtown alone, a veritable cavalcade of baked goods includes Madame Matisse. Owner Siriporn “JJ” Khongkabrirat opened the space in 2019 with her much-ballyhooed Thai on Canyon opening the following year. But don’t think her running two restaurants means you’ll get lesser quality baked goods by any means. Our tasters loved the churro-like quality of the Madame Matisse cinnamon roll, and though there was no frosting to be found, many of us went in for more bites long after the tasting was finished. Chef Eric De Margerie deserves a shout-out here, too, of course, for presiding over tasty brunchy and lunchy bites, too, including French toast to die for, crepes that appear like little envelopes of love as well as healthier options like granola, acai bowls and wraps.
The New Santa Fe Baking Co
504 W Cordova Road, (505) 557-6435
Average points: 5.6
Weight: 4 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Subtle, satisfying squish.” “Like the little crisp of the exterior.” “Kind of down the middle.” “Lovely smell.” “Fluffy.”
About: All hail Filiberto Rodriguez, the longtime Santa Fe Baking Co. employee who became the owner in 2016, reopening the famed Cordova Road eatery and cleaning up its act while he was at it. The Baking Co. is the kind of spot that quietly makes one of the more beloved breakfast burritos in the city, where you’ll find a hot and ready cup of coffee, where the patio feels nice in the warmer months and the sunlight spills in across the room for your enjoyment. Don’t sleep on the bakery offerings, though, like one of the biggest bear claws we’ve ever seen and a croissant so tasty and flaky it ranks among the city’s best (with or without butter). When it comes to cinnamon rolls, too, Rodriguez and company’s recipe seals the deal—just make sure you show up well before the middle point of the day, because the New Santa Fe Baking Co. will sell out, guaranteed, and then what are you supposed to do?
San Marcos Cafe
San Marcos Cafe & Feed Store 3877 State Hwy. 14, (505) 471-9298
Average points: 4.8
Weight: 8.9 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Less sweet. Flaky.” “Not very much icing.” “Falls apart.”
About: The cafe connected to a legit feed store near Lone Butte has a farm kitchen feel, demonstrated partly by the peacocks outside and the interior decorated with antiques and furnished with mismatched wooden dining room sets. Its cinnamon rolls, listed at the top center of the menu and described as “the traditional start to your meal” are best served on-site rather than making the trek back to Santa Fe, which we learned the hard way. The treats—one of two on our list to be baked in muffin tins, and available every morning but Sunday—are light on icing and heavy on flaky layers. In-person, they arrive with a pat of butter that might seem over the top until you taste how much it improves each delicious bite. Cindy and Mark Holloway took over the cafe in 2014, one of the few restaurant options for residents along the South NM 14 corridor. The basic breakfast and lunch menu includes New Mexican staples and country classics such as biscuits and gravy.
226 N Guadalupe St., (505) 983-9006
Average points: 2.2
Weight: 7.9 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Where’s the cinnamon?” “Dry and doughy at the same time.” “Hard to place what this tastes like.”
About: For years we’ve said Boultawn’s serves up the best bagel in Santa Fe, and we stand by that thanks in part to the bakery’s green chile and cheese number. While our tasters didn’t love the cinnamon roll, there are plenty of other treats to try instead, including but not limited to a strawberry and Nutella crepe, massive cookies and, of course, the bagels. That last one is kind of the biggest deal thanks to co-owner Tawn Dix’s multi-decade dedication to discerning the best possible recipe. That bit’s a closely-guarded secret, but with Dix having studied the noble bagel on both coasts, just know he’s doing it right. Remember, too, that Boultawn’s moved from Marcy Street to Guadalupe Street some years back, and while that makes parking a little tricker, we’re kind of hard up for solid bagels around here, so you’ll surely work it out. Note the cozy dining area, too, and a patio that has evolved into something quite comfortable over time.
Design Center, 418 Cerrillos Road Unit 6, (505) 346-2669
Average points: 1
Weight: 5 ounces
Notes from the tasters: “Powdery. Bland. Weird smell.” “Trust me: Taste the smallest possible bite.”
About: During prime pastry hours, Revolution Bakery is also one of the only businesses open in the Design Center—conditions that make for an easy in-and-out to grab gluten-free treats and a quiet place for a meeting. We commend owner/baker Dionne Christian, too, for reinvigorating her space in 2019 after shutting it down roughly two years before. But that’s the gluten-free life for you, the type of diet that not only works for the trendy and health-conscious, but those suffering from celiac disease. And though we tip our hats to the idea of dedicating the kitchen to 100% gluten-free pastries and assorted other treats, this was our least favorite cinnamon roll due to its dry texture and sour taste we couldn’t quite place. Not to worry, though, because Christian tells SFR she switches out three other dough types regularly and, if nothing else, it’s indescribably cool to tell someone, “Oh, yeah, we have a 100% gluten-free bakery here.”