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Nostalgic Meets Modern in the Vegan Pan Dulce at this L.A. Bakery

Family-run Delicia's Bakery spent two years perfecting its vegan pan dulce. Now those Mexican treats are helping the 31-year-old bakery connect across generations and thrive in a gentrifying neighborhood.

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Delicia’s Bakery and Some has been serving conchas, pig-shaped chochinitos, and masa harina-based coricos for more than 30 years. As the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park has changed around the bakery, the family that runs it has found ways to adapt. When Roxanne Sanchez, youngest of the Delicia’s brook, went vegan and wanted to introduce vegan pan dulce and other offerings to the menu, it became a group effort.

Sanchez’s older sister, Emily Sanchez de la Torre, said in a phone interview with Vegetarian Times that she was supportive from the start. “She missed pan dulce so I wanted to accommodate her,” de la Torre explains. “[José Bran’s] background made it easier to do so.”

José Bran has been head baker Delicia’s for over 10 years and has been baking for almost 40. While not actually a relative, he’s among the people working there that have become honorary extensions of the family and integral parts of Delicia’s kin.

Armed with mastery and memorized technique, coupled with inspired airs of change brought on by Sanchez, made Bran the perfect shepherd of this endeavor. If any one was going to make vegan Mexican pan dulce that didn’t sacrifice flavor in its alchemization, it was him. “I’m accustomed to baking bread, and [veganizing] was something new and special,” Bran says. “From the start, the idea was to have it taste the same as what we’re used to.”

In the beginning there was sugar, the foundational key of any baked good, and Sanchez coming to realize it wasn’t always a vegan product.

Their first veganized offerings were agua frescas, like horchata. Since horchata is, in its purest form, rice water, one might suspect it’s vegan by default. But when Delicia’s began labeling their drinks as explicitly vegan, it sparked a lot of conversations with customers – some of them confused or put off.

“People started asking us why they’re vegan, and I let them know about the sugar,” Sanchez explains, referring to the charred animal bone used in the processing of some commercially-available sugar. “And people don’t believe that part, until you look at the ingredients. It’s in there.”

Customers were shocked and didn’t want to believe it, she says. Since, the bakery has switched completely to Zulka sugar, processed sans bone char. It’s a product that they had to first incorporate by bringing in small bags – no small feat for a full-service bakery that requires around two to three 50-pound bags of sugar a week.

But finding the right sugar was only the beginning to a two-year process that would lead to vegan pan dulce.

The bakery toyed with vegan options, led by Sanchez; mushroom, eggplant, jackfruit and soyrizo con papas tacos were sold for 99 cents a piece, flan and queso fresco became a mainstay in their to-go fridge, even mushroom pozole made appearances on the menu. In the background, Bran worked to perfect the beloved bread at the sweet center of Mexican homes.

Sanchez came to Bran with a vegan concha recipe she’d developed as a foundation for his testing, and let Bran build from there. Bran says butter was the first hurdle, “[approximating] butter was hard, and without [dairy] milk even harder.” He says he made his butter from scratch, adjusting its recipe depending on which pan dulce he was working on. Bran says he’d make vegan butter based off vegan nut milks in the same manner one would to make dairy butter, while trying to keep the costs low to make this scratch-made pan dulce affordable for patrons.

Bran says it was a lot of trial and error, but when the vegan pan dulce finally debuted in 2018, it was an immediate hit. All of a sudden, the Delicia’s Instagram account boomed with followers. “[The vegan pan dulce] helped us get more customers and our vegan customers have been so supportive,” De la Torre says. “It’s helped because we were struggling.”

De la Torre says that some of their long-time clients weren’t so receptive at first, but they won them over by offering tastes of the veganized bread, watching those customers’ positions change, and hearing them say they tasted no difference.

“We were embraced and we weren’t – but grandma and grandpa love it now,” de la Torre says over Zoom, adding that now their older clientele will come in for the nostalgic brown paper bags of vegan conchas and coricos instead of the traditional dairy-based breads. Though some people remain in their ways and are attached to their non-vegan pan dulce, de la Torre says that offering both has been a way for them to survive in a changing, gentrified neighborhood.

“You still want to accommodate your original base and you want to accommodate the newcomers and also do better things for the community,” de la Torre explains.

“When we first put them on the menu, people were so happy because it had been years since they had any Mexican pan dulce,” Bran says. The warm reception from customers has been the most rewarding piece of this veganizing endeavor for the Delicia’s family, seeing people lighting up at pan dulce that tastes like their childhood. People who visited this very panadería as kids are now able to return to their place of nostalgia and break bread with the loved ones who took them there years ago, tasting the pan dulce as it always did, as if no time has passed at all. A rarity for so many vegan Mexican eaters, a luxury for these lucky few.

 


RELATED: Hongos Forever: Modern Vegan-Mexican Cuisine Chefs ‘Reawaken the Ancestral Memory’ with Mushrooms


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