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Friday, November 28, 2014

Pan Dulce for a changing York Boulevard

Elsa’s on York/Nathan Solis

Mario Rodriguez by espresso machine/Nathan Solis

By Nathan Solis

Pan dulce has long been a staple on York Boulevard. Elsa’s Bakery, for example, has served Mexican sweet bread to Highland Park customers for 37 years. “We have the same baker who comes in every morning at 3 a.m. to start the day’s batch,” said says Edmundo Rodriguez, who along with his son, Mario, purchased the panaderia from the previous owners earlier this year. “He does everything by hand and that taste is what people remember fondly.”

But with the gentrification of Highland Park well underway, the new owners of Elsa’s are seeking to keep the Mexican panaderia relevant and competitive in a rapidly changing neighborhood, where even ice cream and doughnut shops have gone gourmet.

“There are still a lot of Latinos here in the area, not just Mexicans. And they’ve known this place for so long,” said Mario Rodriguez. “It’s great that we can continue serving them, continue the story of Elsa’s.”

When the bakery’s former owners, the Vargas family, decided to put Elsa’s up for sale,  numerous people took an interest in the space, a prime spot on the ever-changing York Boulevard near the corner of Avenue 51. Next door to Elsa’s is Ba, a restaurant serving  French cuisine. Across the street, customers line up at Scoops for brown bread ice cream and other exotic flavors while the newly opened Donut Friend sells doughnuts with such ingredients as blueberry jam, goat cheese and quince paste.

What would become of Elsa’s? A French cheese shop? A frozen yogurt stand? How about a vintage boutique? All those were proposals potential buyers had in mind. But, in the end, the Vargas family sold to Edmundo because he agreed to keep making pan dulce. “If you look at the giant oven in the back – it’s huge. This place is only made for making bread,” he said.

Edmundo and Mario have owned other businesses in the area. But when the opportunity to buy the panaderia presented itself, it was too good an offer to pass up, and they sold off those other businesses.

“I always wanted to have a cafe, not necessarily a bakery,” Edmundo said. “When we started to tinker with the idea of a coffee shop, we thought this would be the perfect combination.”

Despite the change in ownership, the name Elsa’s has stuck around as a nod to the connection between the panaderia  and the neighborhood. But now with purple walls, granite counter tops and a large painting of Frida Khalo flanking the register, it’s obvious that Elsa’s is rebranding its image. With Cafe de Leche and the Highland Cafe down the street, Elsa’s needed a crash course in Coffee House 101.

Yancey Quinones, owner of Antigua Culture Cafe in Cypress Park, has been giving lessons to the staff of Elsa’s and will also be supplying coffee bean from a Latino roaster to create a robust brew to compete with the other coffee places on York.

“York is high end now, with so much emphasis on gourmet,” Quinones said. “We’re losing our traditional businesses in Highland Park. Elsa’s is going to keep that tradition alive.

Elsa’s pan dulce has many fans. Edmundo happened upon Elsa’s Bakery when it popped up in a dissertation paper on Mexican sweet bread at UCLA. Now Edmundo and Mario, immersed in Mexican sweet bread, know exactly the strong connections and history that bind a panaderia with its neighborhood.

For example, customers don’t have to explain what they are looking for when they come into the panaderia asking for a “cookie” or “la galleta,” a soft buttery cookie.

“We know which one they’re talking about,” Edmundo said. “It’s a connection to the past. It’s only sweet bread, but everyone has a pan dulce story in their family.”

Pan dulce from Elsa’s/Nathan Solis

Galletas/Nathan Solis

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park writer and photographer and contributor to Smashed Chair.



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18 comments

  1. I am from El Paso, TX., and use to get Pan Dulce from Bowie Bakery. I have been looking for pan dulce since moving to California in 1958. I am looking forward to visiting Elsa’s Bakery to try out their pan dulce. I met my wife in Eagle Rock when she lived on York Blvd., in 1965.

  2. ¿Manteca, si o no? Lard-free pan dulce might help land the new demo.

  3. I love pan dulce and they have done a really nice job over there at Elsa’s. Thanks for profiling such a sweet business. This is what make Highland Park such a wonderful place, pan dulce next to french cuisine. All good!

  4. Beautifully reported Nathan, you beat me to the punch vato! Haha. Props, seriously. I love HLP for this exactly.

    And to answer the question about manteca. Pork manteca stopped being used in the urban American panaderia industry as soon as much cheaper vegetable shortenings became available at restaurant supply stores, so take a nibble and enjoy the hydrogenated fat linger on your tongue. After all, we wouldn’t want to be ingesting any of that “nasty” naturally rendered stuff that a lot of our grandmothers and great grandmothers lived to be 90+ on, right?

  5. Did they get a permit for the outside chairs?

  6. I agree with the article, it’s great this was kept as Pan Dulce. Sounds like with the equipment and cost of materials, they should turn a profit and stay on York.

    I would also venture to say pan dulce is not as prevalent in Los Feliz or Silver Lake, although there is a popular Filipino bakery there. Anyway, the gentrying hipsters will likely enjoy seeing what to them could be a new cultural cuisine. Sure, they know Armenian pastries from Jon’s and Ara’s Pastries, but Latino pan dulce may find a sweet spot with them (no pun intended).

  7. the great cornJULIO!

    Do they offer wifi too?

  8. Now if that can just get rid of the party store, the computer repair shop and The MJ diispensary then York might live up to the hype.

    • You forgot the hermosillo’s, those two trendy coffee shops, BA, and those two bars.

      HP, are you from Huntington Park?

    • York does live up to the hype. Go there on any art walk and you’ll see plenty of people out. Same goes for a weekend night. Figueroa is stating to liven up too, with their own art gallery and record store, both which have hipster speak easy nights. It’d be nice to get another yoga studio, Namaste is far too expensive. While the Starbucks at York and Fig is welcome, a ma and pa shop would be welcome (de leche closes way too early).

  9. Cafe De Lech does closes early, but I’m hoping Donut Friend stays open later so I can have a place to hang out drink some coffee , eat donuts, while studying in the evening.

  10. Great news about Elsa. They’re open 6am-10pm. They have wifi. The cappuccino machine is there. Also, they offer a morning special, coffee + pan dulce for $1.25.

    Their pan dulce is more expensive than El Super or Super A. However the sizes are larger and I would say the quality is superior. I’m fine paying more for sweet bread if it supports local business.

    Go Elsa!

  11. I’ve lived in HP (NO, it’s NOT HLP!) since my parents bought the home I now live in, when I was two. I’ve seen it go from homey suburb, to ghetto, to the confused child it is today. I have great hopes that I’ll be able to walk the streets at night again, everywhere in HP, without having to watch my back. I live on the York end, and have seen the changes here…though not all are welcome (traffic jams due to narrowing a BUSY street, that make me avoid York Blvd like the plague), but most are. I’ve noticed rents going up, and lower income people and lower end indie shops closing down…now if we could only get rid of the onslaught of homeless people, and the El Super, in favor of an organic market and I’d be a happy camper!

  12. While it may seem appropriate to call Highland Park HP. Most people call it HLP because Huntington Park is already referred as HP by many here in LA. However, people will call it whatever they want among their circle of friends.

    Lol at the people that want to get rid of businesses.
    You aren’t any better than the people opposed to gentrification.
    This isn’t Brooklyn and you wont gentrify it completely.

    Funny how KD praises rents going up but then complaints about the homeless people. What do you expect?

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