After all the flurry of bakeries specializing in precise and adorable cupcakes that have opened the last few years, St. Paul’s new Bars Bakery seems wonderfully down-to-earth and full of good Midwestern common sense: The focus is bars! You know, bars: dough pressed into pans and cut into rectangles or squares; sometimes pronounced bars, but also pronounced with that nice rural, unpretentious final s sound—barsss, perhaps barce. Bars are the great common touch of church-basement potlucks and 4-H bake sales, the easiest of all pastries to master (there’s no fussy molding, shaping, or decorating), and the git-r-done dessert when you want to deliver sweetness and baking to someone but don’t want to fuss about it. Bars, where have you been?
Of course, they’ve always been here, and anyone eating out in St. Paul the last decade has probably had bars made by the mother-daughter team of Sandi Younkin and Kara Younkin Viswanathan. Sandi, the mother, founded Swede Hollow, the classic St. Paul coffee shop with great baked goods, in 1997, and Kara worked alongside her as she was growing up. Sandi sold Swede Hollow a few years ago, and once Kara graduated from college and had a baby, it seemed natural for the two to collaborate again. “I like working with my mom,” Kara says. “Someone told me: If you can’t go into business with a friend, you shouldn’t go into business. With your mom, it’s even more so. We can be contentious some days, but we push each other and challenge each other and ultimately, at the end of the day, you have to get along—it’s your mom!”
Whatever challenges mother and daughter are throwing at one another, it’s successful: I have never had a caramel roll as good as the one I had at Bars. (Yes, I’ll get to the bars. But first, this roll!) This is a historic caramel roll: caramel satiny and deep, toffee-smoky, and finishing for days. The nuts were crisp and fresh, the tidy ribbons of swirled dough thick and cinnamon-touched, each inch offering a bit of resistant chew and enough weight to stand up to the caramel—I didn’t know caramel rolls got that good! The bars aren’t nearly as good as that roll, though they’re still very good. The Hungarian shortbread bar is tender, threaded with a jam filling, and topped with a buttery crumble finish. The blondies have a nice browned-butter nuttiness. The maple-nut bar was loaded with cashews and a candy-like filling that was both tooth-sticking and yummy. Sandi says there aren’t any real baking secrets at work at Bars, just lots and lots of local Hope Creamery butter. So let’s give a little bit of thanks to the good Midwestern sun, water, and pasture that allows cows to make such great butter, and a little more thanks to the Younkins for bringing back bars. “We have a lot of Midwest pride,” Kara says. “You can do everything with a bar that you can do with a cupcake, in terms of flavor. We do a lime bar and are planning a bacon brownie. But in the end, we’re not pastry chefs, we’re bakers. It’s different.” Different in the best possible way.
St. Paul’s sensible response to the cupcake craze is all about tasty versions of the simplest of all baked treats: bars.
Ideal Meal: A cinnamon roll followed by a pecan roll—and a blondie for dessert! Tip: Don’t miss the coffee from Seattle’s Intelligentsia, it’s an evenly balanced brew that works perfectly when you want to dunk something sweet. Hours: Monday–Friday, 7 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m.–3 p.m.; closed Sunday Prices: Most pastries are $2 to $4. Address: Bars Bakery, 612 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651-224-8300, barsbakery.com