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Oven-On, a small New London bakery, serves some of the finest food in the region

The name of Oven-On Bakery in New London pretty much says it all. Open seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and with me knowing enough about baking to understand someone's gotta be on-hand to start baking at least by 4 in the morning in that scenario — well, yes, the oven is decidedly on.

It must be a labor of love operation because, in many visits to the tiny storefront establishment on Jefferson, the staff is small — a wife/husband team, maybe, with one or two helpers? — so that translates to 100 hours.

But, boy, does the effort pay off.

As far as I'm concerned, Oven-On puts out some of the finest food in the city or, for that matter, southeastern Connecticut. Now, to call it a "restaurant" is an exaggeration in terms of seating. The full name of the place is "Oven-On — Small Bakery Serving Latin Delicacies" and, in that context, it's a take-out, storefront operation dominated by a display case of freshly crafted pastries.

But there's also a full menu including breakfast items, lunch plates, sandwiches and a la carte tacos, burritos, tamales, soups and quesadillas. Yes, there are two window-front alcoves with counter space where you can eat and look out at the street. And there are a pair of tall, two-top tables to the side of the main bakery display case by the soft drink cooler. But usually, these spaces are taken by folks waiting on just-placed or call-in orders rather than eating.

On display

The main bakery display case has, on any given day, about 20 different items ranging from cinnamon rolls and elephant ears to donuts to all sorts of Mexican pastries — or pan dulce. This encompasses all manners of cookies, sweet breads, sweet empananadas, conchas and more. There's also an adjunct, smaller case with cupcakes, cake and so forth.

Behind the counter is a handwritten menu with other items on an old-fashioned blackboard. The aroma when you walk in is powerful — a heady mix of simmering beans, cooking oil and the sweeter fragrances of the baked goods.

The first language at Oven-On is Spanish; the owners/employees and most of the customers are Hispanic or Latin, but it's a fluently bilingual operation and folks cheerfully help you out with any questions or when simply handling a dining/business transaction.

I was originally drawn to the place by the prospect of pastries. As in, can't get enough of them. Over-On has plenty of temptations thereof. And while each item presumably has a name, I've learned as a frequent customer that, regardless of one's native tongue, there's a lot of pointing and saying, "I'll take two of those."

Point and be happy

First off, of the familiar items, the elephant ears — crispy, oil-fried, elongated slabs of dough crystallized with sugar, butter and cinnamon — and the cinnamon rolls are distinctive and superb. Each bite of an Oven-On elephant ear is chewy and enticingly sticky, but with a fragility that means there'll be slight crumbling with each bite. The cinnamon rolls are thick, rolled ribbons of dough with the holy trinity — sugar, the titular spice and butter — baked to glory and topped with a not-too-heavy asphalt of vanilla-happy icing. Stunning, each!

I've also just randomly pointed and come away with gossamer, honeycombed croissants or empanadas lovingly infused with a cores of pineapple or guayaba (a tropical fruit like a pear if it was in all capital letters) or cherry. Some are festooned with powder sugar; others seem to have a sort of honey shellack. I really don't care because it's all really good — and prices for pastries top out at $3.50 for the cinnamon rolls.

As long as you're trying breakfast, I heartily recommend a La Canoa ($5.50), which is a devilishly clever idea wherein a half of a fried plantain serves as the canoe for a cargo load of savory ground beef and a tarp of melted cheese. The familiar combo of meet and cheese is kicked into a new and triumphant gear by the sour/sweet spangle of the fruit. Outstanding.

Also, take a chance on the Tostadas ($8). You get a generous portion, with three crispy corn tortillas, each topped with refried beans, cheese, Honduran cream, a fried egg and pico de gallo. The beans are earthy and rich; the Honduran cream is a seductive taste somewhere between sour cream and a Mexican crema; the egg perfectly over-hard (as requested), and the pico de gallo is a divine mélange of chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno and cilantro.

Traditional items

With these experiences chalked up most favorably, I was eager to try to the traditional offerings familar to Tex-Mex fans, and I couldn't be more pleased. I sampled a chicken burrito ($8.50; ground beef, steak and chorizo are also available). I was served a hefty, brick-shaped creation, wrapped in a thick but fresh flour tortilla. Inside? Plenty of flavorful hunks of stewed chicken breast with a perfect mixture of rice, beans, shredded lettuce and more pico. It's a LOT of food, and the juice from the chicken saturates the whole structure like a sauce without dissolving the exterior.

I also tried a pernil (pork) taco and a chorizo taco (beef and chicken are also on the menu; each is $3). The tacos required two corn tortillas to completely envelope the stuffing. My Lord: the pork is out of this world! It's very lean and ripped into succulent bites that are at once incredibly tender but with a very thin, crisped exterior. As for the chorizo, it's a crumbled, spiced sausage with a bit of pop and no discernible grease to overload the sensory experience. Tacos are sensibly garnished with pico de gallo and a bit of tomato sauce.

And definitely try one or both from the Tamales Honderenos section ($3). The plantain leaf-wrapped tamales are large and crammed with either chicken or pork inside thick, soft, steamed corn flour coating. They come with small containers of a tart, spicy green sauce or a sweeter red or sour cream. Eat 10 of these for Thankgiving and forget about turkey!

I'm not through trying the wonderful options at Over-On — and I still have plenty of plate lunch and deli sandwich options to try.

Don't tip the boat over

Let me say this: Oven-On is a small operation with a loyal client base. Folks deserve to know about the great food in this friendly spot. But at the same time, a sudden throng excited by this review could easily overwhelm the staff. Be patient and check it out when you get a chance. It will be more than worth your wait.

If you go

Oven-On

227 Jefferson Ave., New London

(860) 446-6136

Cuisine: Self-described small bakery serving house-crafted Latin delicacies

Service: Always polite; small staff that works hard to get your order out in timely fashion

Atmosphere: Bustling storefront operation; chiefly take-out

Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Credit cards: Yes

Wheelchair access: Steps from street level and small floor space

Prices: Very reasonable

Reservations: N/A for seating but call ahead for orders recommended

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