ALTHOUGH I've stopped into this bakery on a whim, the sweet breads and pastries at Panaderia Antequera in Santa Monica are so appealing I can't buy just one or two but leave with a sackful. Then, on my way to the car, the aromas of yeast, cinnamon and anise wafting from the sugar-topped sweet rolls, flaky puff pastries and golden brown fruit-filled empanadas overwhelm me. I can't wait till I get home: I bite into one before I even get the car door open.
I admit it. I'm hooked on pan dulce (sweet bread and pastry) -- so much so that years ago I'd bring it back all the way from Mexico, stockpiling what I couldn't find here. That's long been unnecessary -- we've been blessed with great Mexican bakeries for some time.
But lately, L.A.'s panaderias have gone pan-Latin. Scattered throughout the city, there's an exuberant, ever-changing mix of Mexican and Central American pan dulce. Tiny, crowded Antequera is one of the best panaderias in a city that's seeing an upswing in inventiveness among Latino bakers, who come from an already freewheeling tradition.
Pan dulce is what panaderias are all about. This general term encompasses sweet yeasted breads large and small, puff-pastry creations and not-too-sweet cake-like renditions, as well as turnovers, tarts and cookies in amazing variety.
Panaderia displays are irresistible, featuring all manner of pan dulce. How could anyone refuse a pink, yellow or white concha (shell), light and fragrant, decorated with a stenciled sugar-paste to resemble a seashell? Or a rosa (rose), a flower-shaped swirl of sweet roll sparkling with pink sugar? Or a campechana, with thin layers of golden-glazed pastry so crackly it collapses in a shower of crumbs at first bite?
When the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 16th century, they introduced wheat and the concept of breads made with wheat flour. The idea was that bakers would supply them with bread to accompany coffee and an intriguing New World drink, hot chocolate. Delighted with the new medium, bakers gave full vent to their artistic skills, modeling breads on everything in their environment -- birds, flowers, animals, indigenous foods, tools, household equipment, human anatomy, geographical features, clothing -- anything was fuel for inspiration. This tradition of fanciful shapes continues today with pan dulce varieties such as tortuga (turtle), volcan (volcano) and gusanos (worms).
Some pan dulce is less like bread and more like cake in texture, others are crisp. The breads may be filled with cheese or fruit, decorated with sugar that is sometimes tinted a bright color, sprinkled with sesame seeds or chocolate. Raisins might be mixed into the dough or flecks of ground cinnamon stick or anise seeds.
In Mexico, it's typical to eat pan dulce and hot chocolate as a light supper after consuming an elaborate meal in the afternoon. But pan dulce shows up at breakfast too. Some restaurants place a basket on the table, then charge for the number eaten.
The great joy of pan dulce, one that keeps me always on the alert for a panaderia I haven't tried, is its infinite variety. Each panaderia has its specialties and its unique styles of popular varieties. You never know when you'll find a new shape or flavor, and the often-whimsical names change from place to place. In some bakeries, the campechana is called an espejo (mirror) because it is so shiny. The long, flat, crisp pastry known as a tostada at one place may be a huarache (sandal) somewhere else.
Some of the distinctions are regional. Panaderia Antequera -- Antequera is an old name for Oaxaca -- is jam-packed with intriguing breads and groceries, all from Oaxaca. People crowd in to buy the breads they remember from home. I stop in whenever I'm in the neighborhood because it's one of the few places where I can buy pan de cazuela (casserole bread), a medium-sized oval loaf shaped with a twist over the top; it's delicious, with raisins and an intriguing trace of chocolate inside. This bread is not baked in an earthenware casserole dish but in, of all things, a large sardine can, according to baker Juan Gutierrez.
I also love Gutierrez's pan de yema, a delicate sesame-sprinkled egg bread that Oaxacans dip in hot chocolate. Gutierrez bakes his al estilo casero (home style), using fresh butter and eggs, and the puff of golden dough is lighter than brioche.
Another baker I'm loyal to is Alex Pena. For years, I bought my basic supply of pan dulce at La Morenita in Cypress Park, where as head baker Pena turned out delightful crisp, flaky sombreros, as well as coricos, golden ring cookies popular in northern Mexico, lovely conchas and tiny, rich aladinos, cookies named for a popular Mexican peanut butter. When the Pena family sold the bakery, Alex Pena moved to Dona Rosa Bakery & Taqueria in Pasadena, where he has introduced some of his special pan dulce varieties. Owned by the family that owns El Cholo in Pasadena, Dona Rosa opened in 2004. It's primarily a restaurant, with a small bakery at the front counter, but the menu lists 20 Mexican breads; Pena can supply at least 50 kinds.
Big sellers include elotitos (ears of corn) and tortugas, which have a body of concha dough tucked into a shell of a different, slightly richer dough. And there's a pan dulce of his own creation flavored with coffee and cinnamon, modeled on traditional Mexican cafe de olla.
Pena, who also makes European breads at Dona Rosa, describes the concha as brioche with cinnamon; he notes that the oreja (ear) is similar to the French palmier. These sweet breads, as well as the bolillo (Mexican hard rolls) and buttery cuernos (horns) modeled on the croissant, became popular in Mexico during the brief period of French occupation in the mid-19th century.
The concha is the most beloved of all pan dulce varieties. The sugary shell design on top may be tinted cocoa-brown, pink, yellow or whatever takes the baker's fancy. The huge conchas at La Adelita in the Pico-Union neighborhood are spectacular. Eating such a monster at one sitting seems impossible -- until you discover that they're amazingly light and so soft that the whole enormous thing compacts into a modest bun.
Adelita, a big, bustling bakery, restaurant and tortilleria, sells Salvadoran pupusas and Nicaraguan enchiladas in the restaurant; the bakery offers Central American as well as Mexican pan dulce. My favorites here are the pan de queso, a square of pastry with soft, lightly sweetened pale cheese in the center, and the pan Cubano (Cuban bread), a large, sweet bun with a jaunty topknot of notched dough.
A few blocks west, La Adelita's owner has opened Huicho's Bakery, where you can get Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Mexican pan dulce, including Guatemalan conchas and gusanos (worms), named for their long, round, jointed shape. But what caught my eye was the perepecha, a dazzling, pineapple-filled Salvadoran pastry decorated with bright pink sugar. Like La Adelita, Huicho's combines bakery and restaurant. Customers sometimes pick up a cookie or bread to go with their breakfast coffee.
A sampler's paradise
For years I have gone to La Mascota on Whittier Boulevard just to buy chorreadas ("dirty ones") for myself and my neighbor Lupe, who once lived near the bakery and is always craving these big whole wheat buns with their tantalizing brown-sugar glaze and hint of rich caramel. La Mascota is a terrific panaderia, warm and pleasant, and it happens to sell the best bolillos I've found in Los Angeles. The salmon-colored building in which it is located could have been plucked from a Mexican village. In some panaderias it helps to speak Spanish, but here English is just as common.
On a recent visit, I not only helped myself to a supply of chorreadas, but also sampled capirotada, a bread pudding eaten during Lent, which had been set out for tasting.
Although they're completely different from those at La Mascota, the chorreadas at Los Reyes Bakery, a large, busy panaderia in Bell, are heavenly too. Large, flat cookies embedded with chunks of piloncillo (dense Mexican brown sugar), these chorreadas have the rustic look that gives them their name, but they're light and chewy and the piloncillo melts in your mouth like candy. At Los Reyes, I make my selection from the tall racks that hold trays of pan dulce fresh from the ovens.
To walk into La Fama in East L.A. is to visit one of the city's stately homes of baking. Founded in 1928, La Fama is a landmark panaderia, classic in its approach and exemplifying the long tradition of Mexican baking in L.A.
As I step through the door, I'm surrounded by pan dulce on three sides, all of it intriguing. There's usually a stack of golden crisp bunuelos on the sales counter, and there are empanadas and other treats under the glass top. The sales room opens into the bakery proper, and you can watch bakers forming these lovely breads, patting little mounds of dough into a variety of shapes. I always seem to find a few I'd never seen before: maybe a volcan, a simple, round, lightly sweetened bun shaped like a volcano with a head of steam, or a monja (nun) a soft, delicately spiced pan dulce with decorative edging that looked like a wimple.
Holidays bring out some of the most imaginative breads, such as the pan de muertos for All Souls' Day, topped with skulls and bones or shaped like a human figure, and the rosca de reyes (kings' ring) for Epiphany.
Just a short walk away is El Gallo, which opened in 1949. Although I may already have bought my allotment of pan dulce at La Fama, I always stop in at El Gallo as well for the charming rosa shaped from dough swirled to simulate a flower and dusted with pink sugar. The outer circles of the rosa are slightly crisp, and the flavor is delicately sweet. Other unusual pan dulce I've found at El Gallo are rectangular libros (books), complete with pastry pages, and monos (bow ties).
La Mascota on Whittier Boulevard, another classic, is probably best known for its tamales, but that does its wonderful pan dulce an injustice. The bakery, named for Mascota, Jalisco, the birthplace of its founders, is now run by the second generation, but it still employs old techniques largely forgotten today, such as making rock sugar for pan dulce topping.
As L.A.'s panaderias and the pan dulce they offer continue to evolve and change, an easily tempted shopper like me has mixed feelings about the tradition of self-service. On one hand, it's a heady experience to move with your tongs from shelf to shelf, piling a tray high with your selections. On the other hand, it's hard to know when to stop. Sometimes I'm better able to moderate my purchases in the bakeries that display the pan dulce under glass, and have a salesperson to help me.
But, as I've had many an occasion to learn, pan dulce freezes well and tastes fresh and delicious when gently rewarmed. I always warm these breads when I serve them, even when I've just purchased them. It seems to lighten the texture and bring out the flavor.
The tortilla may be the staff of life in Mexico, but pan dulce certainly sweetens existence. For me, it's the best daily bread there is.
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A guide to the best Latino bakeries
There are hundreds of Latino bakeries in and around Los Angeles. Here, in alphabetical order, are my picks for the best pan dulce.
Continental Bakery, 262 S. Normandie Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 380-3878. Try the salpores, Salvadoran pan dulce resembling scones that come in corn and rice-flour varieties.
Dona Rosa Bakery & Taqueria, 577 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena, (626) 449-2999. Alex Pena offers a rotating menu of about 50 types of pan dulce including tortugas (turtles), novias (brides) and elotitos (ear of corn) as well as Salvadoran semitas and quesadillas (cake squares filled with sweetened cheese).
El Gallo Bakery, 4546 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East Los Angeles, (323) 263-5528, This 56-year-old bakery produces not only pan dulce, but big buttery cuernos (horns) and small dinner rolls perfect for entertaining.
El Rinconcito del Mar, 2908 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 269-8723. This bakery is attached to El Rinconcito del Mar restaurant where you can have a seafood lunch before shopping for bread. White-topped buns called panaderos (bakers) are delicious. Grab a bag of miniature conchas, seven for a dollar.
Guatemalteca Bakery, 4032 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 382-9451. The spectacular tortas -- round loaves -- are topped with eye-catching designs such as a butterfly or leaves. They'd be impressive for a brunch. The shop includes a restaurant and market.
Huicho's Bakery, 1250 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 385-3957, (213) 385-3999. This pan-Latino bakery has pan dulce from Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, including Guatemalan conchas and gusanos. It's a restaurant too.
La Adelita, 1287 S. Union Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 487-0176. Take a tray and tongs and help yourself to breads from Mexico, Central America and Cuba. La Adelita sells fresh tortillas too, and cooked food such as Salvadoran pupusas.
La Fama Panaderia, 420 N. Ford Blvd., East Los Angeles, (323) 265-4587.This old-time bakery has a glorious selection of pan dulce, including flat, crisp pan tostado, sweet empanadas, monjas (nuns), piedras (rocks) and panque, a nut and raisin cake from Argentina.
La Favorita, 2305 E. 4th St., Los Angeles, (323) 265-4445. It's worth a trip just to see the murals that cover the outside walls -- on the west wall, a man balances a huge basket of bread on his head. Inside, check out the conchas, panaderos, orejas and a delightful fluffy corn bread.
La Flor de Yucatan Bakery, 1800 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles, (213) 748-6090. Typical pan dulce from the Yucatan include sweet-cheese loaves and a prettily decorated ring bread. Sweet potato-coconut empanadas are another specialty.
La Mascota Bakery, 2715 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 263-5513. This bakery is probably better known for tamales than for its baked goods, but the pan dulce is excellent and the bolillos are top notch.
Las Americas Bakery, 12719 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 764-8430. Have lunch here, then buy a sackful of pan dulce, including salpores, semitas and other Salvadoran specialties.
Los Reyes Bakery, 4028 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 562-2253. One reason to visit this bakery is the quality of the pan dulce. The second is the location, next to an excellent Mexican restaurant, Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana.
Pacific French Bakery, 4152 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 735-1700. A recent expansion has made this a roomy shop offering sandwiches, French bread and many varieties of pan dulce, including the whimsical ombligo (navel).
Panaderia Antequera, 1704 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 450-4468. This was the first Oaxacan bakery to open in Santa Monica. Try the pan de cazuela, pan de yema and other typical breads of Oaxaca.
Panaderia El Salvador, 4015 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 665-5890. This blue and white bakery is small but well-stocked. Pineapple-filled semitas are especially attractive. Quesadillas (sweet cheese cakes) come in various sizes and shapes. It's across the street from the Guatemalteca Bakery, so you can visit both in one trip.
-- Barbara Hansen
Pan dulce: Don't miss these
Semita (pineapple-filled pastry): This Salvadoran specialty is gaining in popularity and is often offered in Mexican bakeries. Panaderia El Salvador. 50 cents
Chorreada (dirty one): This whole wheat pan dulce has a tempting brown-sugar glaze. La Mascota. 65 cents
Cajeta empanada (turnover): The fillings of sweet empanadas vary widely. This delicious and unusual example is filled with caramel-like cajeta. La Fama. 75 cents
Pan de queso (cheese bread): Sweetened cheese in the center makes this pan dulce hard to resist. La Adelita. 65 cents
Torta: These medium and large sweet loaves are rustically handsome. Guatemalteca Bakery. $3
Panadero (baker): The frosted white top symbolizes a baker's toque. Flecks of cinnamon spice the dough. El Rinconcito del Mar. 3 for $14
-- Barbara Hansen