In Latinx households across the country, pan dulce is a staple. It can be enjoyed throughout the day, whether in the morning with coffee, as a mid-day treat to overcome an afternoon slump, or eaten after dinner for dessert.
The culture of pan dulce dates back to pre-Hispanic days in Mexico. Back then, two types of bread were consumed: cocolli and uilocpalli, pastries not as sweet as the pan dulce we eat today. Both were made out of corn and offered to the gods during the harvest.
When Mexico was colonized by Spain in the 1500s, Spaniards introduced wheat, and pan dulce went through its first evolution, becoming sweeter and made with wheat flour. The most popular pan dulce from this era is the concha, a brioche-like sweet bread shaped like a seashell, with its recognizable topping made out of flour, powdered sugar and vegetable shortening.
In the mid-1800s, when France invaded Mexico and brought its culinary traditions, pan dulce changed once again. Many of the most famous pan dulce look strikingly similar to their French counterparts. What is called cuernito in Mexico is a croissant in France, and orejas are much like palmiers.
The European influence has carried over to other seasonal breads found in Latinx panaderías, such as the rosca de reyes, a seasonal bread eaten on Jan. 6 to commemorate the festival of Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season.
Similar to the king cake found in New Orleans, rosca de reyes is shaped like a ring and adorned with red, green and yellow candied fruit to represent the jewels on the crowns of the three wise men who visited baby Jesus when he was born. Inside, tiny plastic baby figurines are hidden throughout the rosca. Traditionally, the bread is consumed by families, and whoever receives the plastic figurine inside their piece is tasked with preparing tamales on Feb. 2, the last day of the Epiphany.
Whether you already enjoy the occasional pan dulce, or have never tried it and are curious, here’s a list of Mexican and Central American bakeries in Oakland (and see the sidebar to the left for a few spots in Berkeley) to get a taste.
At all of these bakeries, you’ll find popular breads like conchas, and if you stop by Jan. 5-6, you can also indulge in rosca de reyes, which are only available at this time of year.
Bakery El Sol
Husband and wife, Jose Flores and Alejandra Salgado own and operate this small bakery at the Fruitvale Public Market, also home to Nieves Cinco de Mayo. El Sol’s bestselling pan dulce is guayaba — a lightly sweet bread topped with toasted coconut flakes. There are three variations: plain, one with raisins, and one with extra coconut flakes inside. The bakery’s panque de chocolate — a rich, chocolate loaf cake — is perfect. If you want something a bit sweeter, try El Sol’s pastel de tres leches, a cake sold by the slice that’s filled with fresh strawberries, canned peaches or caramel. Bakery El Sol, at Fruitvale Public Market, 3340 E 12th St. (at 34th Avenue), Oakland
Tucked all the way in the back of El Valle market, this bakery is known for its panque de nueces, a pound cake topped with walnuts. During the holidays, it also carries a brandy-infused pound cake filled with candied fruits. Another bread worth trying is the elote, a sweet bread with anise, cinnamon and orange zest coated with sugar, which gets its name because it resembles an ear of corn. El Valle also carries Guatemalan bread. El Valle, 1527 International Blvd. (between 15th and 16th Avenue), Oakland
Delicias is one of the newer Mexican bakeries in Oakland. It opened six years ago in Fruitvale’s heart at 35th Avenue and International Boulevard. You’ll often find the owners working behind the counter. Delicias has two regional pan dulce that customers seek out most. One is the cuellos (also called ciudadelas), the other is ojos de buey (also called ojos de pancha), a flaky ring made with puff pastry, coated with sugar, and filled with an orange-flavored pound cake. The ring’s flakiness combined with the spongy, citrus pound cake makes this pan dulce unique. Delicias Bakery, 3460 International Blvd. (at 35th Avenue), Oakland
Los Mexicanos Bakery
A beloved institution, Los Mexicanos represents nostalgia for a disappearing Oakland. An Oakland OG, this tiny bakery has been around since the ‘80s. If you stop by, try the conchas, and make sure you have some bills in your wallet as Los Mexicanos is cash-only. Los Mexicanos Bakery, 1522 Fruitvale Ave., (between E 15th and 16th streets), Oakland
Lopez Bakery in deep East Oakland has been on the corner of International Boulevard and 97th Avenue for over two decades. Its owners are related to the owners of Los Mexicanos Bakery. While the selection isn’t as extensive as some other panaderías, Lopez’s pan dulce is worth the trek to the neighborhood. Its fino, a lightly sugar-coated bread that resembles elote, is a best-seller. Every bite — with hints of cinnamon and anise — melts in your mouth. Lopez Bakery, 9639 International Blvd. (at 97th Avenue), Oakland
This is the only bakery in Oakland where you will find bread exclusively from Guatemala, which is heavy on the shortening and only slightly sweet. Chapinlandia offers a wide range of pastries, including conchas, cachitos, pan francés, gusanitos, batidas, zepelines, magdalena and more. Chapinlandia Bakery, 4737 International Blvd. (at 47th Avenue), Oakland
Panadería La Favorita
La Favorita has been around for over 20 years. Hands down, its bestselling pan dulce are conchas, which are soft, spongy and just the right amount of sweet. On the Saturday we visited, the bakery sold out of conchas by noon. Another sure bet is the mantecadas, sweet, buttery and crumbly muffins typically wrapped in a red cupcake liner. Like Los Mexicanos, this bakery is cash-only. Panadería La Favorita, 1433 Fruitvale Ave. (near Farnam Street), Oakland
Panadería El Pueblo
Currently, customers are not able to grab individual pieces of bread at Panadería El Pueblo. Instead, the pan dulce is bagged to-go, so you can’t mix and match. The bestsellers at this 20-year-old bakery include its fluffy and just sweet enough conchas, and its marranitos, or Mexican gingerbreads shaped like pigs. Panadería El Pueblo, 10228 International Blvd. (at 103rd Avenue), Oakland
Panadería y Pizzería Lupita
The first thing that you’ll see as you walk through the door at Lupita is a colorful display of pan dulce. Some of the breads will look familiar, but others are unlike ones that any other bakeries carry. You will probably find the owner, Reyes Mora, behind the counter on any given day. Two pastries you must try at Lupita: cuernitos, the cousin of the croissant, a less flaky, but more flavorful, soft and buttery pastry, and the estrellita, a star-shaped sweet bread filled with cream cheese. Panadería y Pizzería Lupita, 653 98th Ave. (at Edes Avenue), Oakland
With two locations, Sevilla is a hybrid bakery that sells not only Mexican pan dulce but also pastries from Guatemala and El Salvador. Be sure to try some of these latter specialties, which are less sweet than Mexican pastries, not coated with sugar and are best eaten dipped in your morning coffee. One Salvadoran must-try is the quesadilla salvadoreña, a cheese-filled pound cake topped with toasted sesame seeds. Panadería Sevilla, 1414 Fruitvale Ave. (at International Boulevard), Oakland; and 11000 San Leandro St. (at Royal Street), Oakland
The Peña family has run its two bakeries since the late ’90s. Peña’s is a fan favorite among Latinx Oaklanders. Make sure to try the ciudadelas, puff pastries shaped like a circle and coated in sugar. Two other note-worthy pan dulce are canastas, filled with cream cheese, sweet cream or jam and cornetas de crema, a flaky pastry shaped like a horn, filled with sweet cream and dusted with powdered sugar. Peña’s Bakery, 3355 Foothill Blvd. (at 34th Avenue), Oakland; and 3912 International Blvd. (at 39th Avenue), Oakland
Correction: This story was updated after publication with a correction. Mexico was colonized by Spain in the 1500s, not the 1800s.