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