It's a Flaky, Gooey, Crusty, Sugary, Savory Morning

El Fenix Bakery
El Fenix Bakery (Photo By John Anderson)

Pan Dulce

In Mexico, eating sweet pastries for breakfast or late supper – known as merienda – is a tradition that dates back to the 16th century. Pastry-making became popular in Mexico with the arrival of the French during their brief attempt at occupation that ended with the battle of Cinco de Mayo. The French influence in Mexico peaked in the early 1900s during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, whose idea of modernizing and refining Mexico included a disdain for traditional Mexican cuisine in exchange for anything and everything French. Thus, bakeries appeared all over the cities, and Mexican bakers went to work, adopting French techniques and doughs such as puff pastry and meringue.

We Mexicans have a tendency to Mexicanize everything, and pan dulce, also known as bizcochos, were not the exception. Mexican ingredients such as corn flour, piloncillo (raw sugar), chocolate, and native fruits such as pineapple, sweet potato, and guava found their way into the bakeries in a classic example of culinary mestizaje, or mixing of cultures. New pastries were created in whimsical shapes and in a variety of doughs and textures, bearing colorful names often relating to their shape. For instance, in a Mexican bakery one can find marranitos (little pigs), conchas (seashells), moños (bows), or bigotes (moustaches). Even traditional French pastries such as palmiers adopted a Mexican name: orejas (ears).

In Austin, the best examples of pan dulce with exotic names and shapes are at El Fenix Bakery (6616 S. Congress, 445-5995). One step inside this tiny bakery, and you will buy everything you see just from the smell alone. Here one can find truly traditional, interior Mexican bizcochos – no pastel-colored pastries here – with names like biznaga (barrel cactus), elote (ear of corn), jaiba (crab), borracho (drunkard), and mano (hand), among many other delicious freshly baked treats.

At El Fenix, I buy their addictive cupcake-sized Mexican-style cheesecake decorated with toasted pecans. I also like the encocada, an incredibly soft coconut-flavored pastry with just the right touch of sweetness, topped with toasted coconut. The orejas are flaky, buttery, and downright perfect. Their fruit-filled empanadas are soft and crumbly, coated with granulated sugar. Their enormous bolillos, which are the best in town, are worth the drive alone.

For the largest selection of colorful and tasty pastries, look to La Mexicana (1924 S. First, 443-6369). The huge display case gleams with different colors, shapes, and textures 24 hours a day. I am absolutely partial to their ojos de toro (bull's eyes), a favorite of mine since childhood. Ojos de toro are soft pound cake rounds surrounded by a sugar-coated ring of flaky puff pastry. The combination of textures is amazing. The empanadas here are also excellent, with a dough completely different from those at El Fenix. At La Mexicana, they are golden brown and chewy, stuffed with homemade fruit fillings like pineapple, apple, and sweet potato. The conchas are pillow soft, with just the right amount of sugar icing to resemble the spiral pattern of yellow, brown, and pink seashells.

The amazing variety of Mexican pan dulce offers something for every taste, and all of them pair divinely with a cup of cafe con leche or hot chocolate. – Claudia Alarcón

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