Columbus' ethnic diversity is mirrored in its bakeries with immigrants kneading and rolling out the flavors of home.

Essam Issa, owner of Salam Market & Bakery, is in particularly good spirits today. After being recently featured on a local TV spot, he's seen an uptick in business. "We have Africans, we have Americans, and they love it a lot", he says of his baked goods. His Columbus Square bakery, set in the back of this Middle Eastern market, revolves around a sizable custom-made gas-fired oven that cranks out around 500 pitas a day and, when catering opportunities arise, is large enough to roast a whole lamb.

Salam's real draw, though, is its savory Middle Eastern-style pies, which he bakes daily and typically sells out of by mid-afternoon. Similar in size and concept to empanadas but made with pita dough, they can be filled with a wide variety of ingredients, including beef, lamb, fava bean-chili and falafel. Some are mild, some are spicy and some are even open-faced (of these, the cheese pies are a must-order), but they all are delicious. Essam's personal favorite is a pie covered in za'atar, a piquant Middle Eastern spice mix.

Salam is not alone in featuring such intriguingly exotic baked goods. Over the last decade, a wide variety of bakers have set up shops featuring international flavors. Columbus' ethnic diversity is mirrored in its bakeries with immigrants kneading and rolling out the flavors of home. While ethnic restaurants receive some attention, the smaller bakeries are often overlooked, especially those like Salam that are hidden in the back of markets.

Middle Eastern

In addition to Salam, Columbus has a wealth of Middle Eastern bakeries offering different national specialties. Hayat Market and Bakery in Bethel Centre specializes in two Iraqi flatbreads: samoon (easy to spot by its diamond shape) and khoubz (round bread). Like many of the ethnic bakeries, they bake in the morning and often sell out of fresh bread after lunch.

Not all of the Middle Eastern bakeries specialize in bread. Nanak and Little Lebanon are known for sweets including the best-known Middle Eastern treat: baklava. Nanak, which supplies Lavash with their sweet pastries, has moved several times and is now located on Westerville Road in Westerville. In the Polaris area, Little Lebanon offers several flavors of baklava as well as other sweet and savory baked goods.

Asian

In the "Little Japan" known as Kenny Center Mall, Belle's Bread has had a booming business selling delicate Japanese-style baked goods for the past three years. In format, the shop is similar to a Panera. You order at the counter and pick up your tray, sandwich and small entree. But the pastry and baked goods are more extensive and are artfully arranged on shelves accessible to the customer.

Their selection is broad, spanning from the recognizable-like the delectable pear Danish-to the curious-like chicken curry doughnuts and hot dog rolls-to the more traditional Japanese, including pastries filled with sweet red bean-paste and sweet green tea puree. French baked goods include batard and brioche, and seasonal favorites, such as stollen, make annual appearances. Their long run of refrigerated display cases feature some of the most beautifully displayed cakes and other desserts I've seen, and if you're overwhelmed by the multitude of choices, a slice of the mango mousse cake is a good place to start.

Other Asian bakeries worth noting include Golden Delight, Tea Zone Bakery and Cafe and Ichiban. Golden Delight, in Bethel Centre, is widely known for its fresh strawberry cake but also carries a selection of sweet and savory Chinese-style filled buns. Ichiban's selection is smaller but not dissimilar to Belle's (and is not more than a couple hundred feet from it), but they also carry hard-to-find seasonal specialties such as delicate, flaky moon cakes. Tea Zone, in the Olentangy Plaza, puts a Korean spin on Japanese-style pastries and is also the only place in town to regularly find bing soo, a wildly dressed-up shaved ice dessert.

Latino

Panaderia Guadalupana is far from the largest of the Mexican bakeries in town, but it's quite possibly the best. Freshness is an obsession of the owner, and it shows in the taste and texture of his baked goods. Conchas, delicate bread rolls with dramatically patterned cookie crusts, are second to none here, and the guava-filled flake pastries are exceptional, too. Churros rellenos-long, thin sticks of pastry filled with either custard cream or caramel and then coated with cinnamon sugar-can be ordered in advance and are best eaten soon after they've been made. The pastry selection varies from day to day, with seasonal and holiday-based items cycling through frequently.

As with most Mexican bakeries, near the pastry case there is a rack with trays and tongs. Grab one of each and use the tongs to put your selection of treats onto the tray. As most pastries are in the $1 range, do as Panaderia Guadalupana's regular customers do-pile them high.

The West Side has the largest number of Mexican Bakeries with Plaza Tapatia, Panaderia Oaxaquena and El Rico Pan all offering a wide selection of freshly baked breads and pastries, but you'll find Latino breads and conchas in Mexican stores all over town. Like Plaza Tapatia, some of the La Michoacana stores have in-store bakeries.

In addition to Mexican, there's also a small Guatemalan bakery on the East Side called Bendicion. From its humble storefront, they vend bread, churros, conchas and crispy cookies known as galletas de azucar. Their churros are some of the best in town.

African

While the aforementioned bakeries reflect the national origins of their owners, L'Appat's pastries reflect the wide-ranging interests of its owner and baker, Benin native Didier Alapini. In Alapini's hands, African, European, Asian and Caribbean influences all intermingle intriguingly in the pastry case. Selection varies wildly from visit to visit, as Alapini draws from his claimed range of more than 1,000 recipes. But standards include tarts from taro to ginger, pistachio to pandan, and chausson (flaky puff pastry turnovers) with fillings like coconut, strawberry and Japanese sweet red bean. The Olde Towne East patisserie also does a variety of rich, moist cakes, including their most-requested Double Chocolate Curry Cheesecake. L'Appat excels at the savory side of things, too, offering a sit-down cafe menu, including a different Pan-African menu every Thursday.

More traditional African offerings can be found at two Ethiopian bakeries on the East Side-Awash and Addisu. Both specialize in injera, a large, spongy pancake-like bread that is a staple of the cuisine. Injera is made with tef, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia, and a sourdough-like starter. The results are a soft, chewy and tangy flatbread traditionally torn into strips and used to pick up morsels of other dishes.

Bethia Woolf, owner of Columbus Food Adventures, blogs about the ethnic dining scene at alteatscolumbus.com.