Originally emerging from the mid-1800s French occupation of Mexico, pan dulce (literally “sweet bread”) is a term than encompasses an extensive list of Mexican pastries ranging from sprinkle cookies to brilliantly colored conchas. Though many differences exist between the seemingly endless array of forms, pan dulce can be recognized as being bread-like, lightly sweetened, and much more laid back than French viennoiserie.
Whereas in Mexico pan dulce is an element of quotidian living, Seattle panaderias are often harder to find. Here’s our list to help you get started exploring the city’s best Mexican (and Salvadoran) pan dulce.
17034 Aurora Avenue, Shoreline
La Plaza Latina has everything you’d want from a Mexican grocery: meats, fruits, pinatas, a half aisle of devotional Catholic candles, and, most importantly, a colorful assortment of pan dulce. While the lack of labels or prices might be off-putting for newcomers, the best bet is to sample the concha assortment. The backbone of most panaderias, a concha is a fluffy brioche-style bread with a lightly flavored crunchy topping decorated to look like a wavy shell. A white topping is usually vanilla, brown is chocolate, and pink can be strawberry (or just a rose-colored sugar topping). And since pan dulce is normally quite affordable, there’s no reason not to try a little bit of everything. Grab a tray, a pair of tongs, and go to town.
7811 Aurora Avenue, Seattle
Pan dulce and coffee isn’t just a great pairing, it’s a ritual as vital as the food itself: an invitation to slow down, relax, and enjoy oneself. Mendoza’s is the ideal place to enjoy pan dulce. Pan de muerto, orejas (a ear-shaped crunchy puff pastry topped with sugar), or even galletas grageas (a sprinkle-covered sugar cookie) pair effortlessly with a Jarritos and a tamal de pollo from the store’s hot bar. Though the selection is considerably smaller than La Plaza Latina, Mendoza’s appeal is derived from its good vibes. Cheaper prices are listed for friendlier phrasing (“buen dia, un guisado por favor” is apparently $4 cheaper than a guisado sans pleasantries), and the sign near the seating area tells customers there’s no Wi-Fi password; instead they should just talk to each other.
8909 14th Avenue South, Seattle
Located in South Park, a historically Latine neighborhood home to the state’s only Chicano/a museum, this little bakery boasts a pan dulce assortment large enough to leave any patron momentarily mesmerized by a surplus of choice. For pan dulce on the sweeter side of the spectrum, try the nino envuelto (literally “swaddled child”), a bright strawberry swiss roll sprinkled with shredded coconut. Want something more mellow? A bigote (mustache) is like a silly sugar-topped croissant, but significantly more bready. As you may have figured out by now, Mexican/Latin American sweets, in their form and name, are characteristically playful. Orejas dipped in chocolate are “elephant feet,” “volcanoes’’ use the same dough as conchas but are shaped with cracks that resemble glutinous eruptions, and “little pigs” are gingerbread cookies cut to look like — you guessed it — little piggies.
20028 International Boulevard, SeaTac
With a storefront so discreet you’ll probably smell it before you spot it, Las Delicias sets the standard for traditional pan dulce. Exploring the shelves you’ll find jelly-filled empanaditas, swirling puff pastry barquillos stuffed with creamy custard, a massive sprawling pan de muerto perfect for an ofrenda or for with breakfast, as well as other pan dulce staples at Las Delicias which might seem slightly out of place. Do banana nut muffins really belong in a Mexican panaderia?
Short answer: yes. “Sweet bread” is a decidedly broad term that includes a concha or even a raised brioche donut. Pan dulce is not about drawing lines, it’s about filling up your tray with starchy-sweet pan de elote, a strawberry smiley-face cookie, and the simple pleasure of cheap snacks.
1719 Roxbury Street, Seattle
Easily recognizable by the loud and proud “White Center, Washington’’ mural plastered on the building’s side wall, Salvadorean Bakery is a neighborhood institution. Opened in 1996 by sisters Aminta Elgin and Ana Castro, it’s a bakery that turns out pan dulce and popular Salvadoran pastries that may be unbeknownst to many pastry aficionados. Examples include the pacha de pina semita — similar to a tropical raw sugar Pop-Tart — and iluciones, flaky, stick-shaped pastries topped with the deep, sweet-slightly smoky taste of sugar cane. Besides pan dulce and cakes, Salvadorean Bakery also makes sopas, tamales, and some of Seattle’s best pupusas. If you haven’t yet been, this is a plea to go south, tour the neighborhood, and eat everything on the menu.
Side note: If you can, prepare yourself to use basic Spanish — it doesn’t have to be perfect, but the effort is usually appreciated.
West Seattle Farmers Market
Based at the West Seattle Farmers Market (plus every second Friday of the month in Colombia City), owner Mayra Sibrian uses well known forms of Mexican and Salvadoran pan dulce paired with creative flavors that won’t be found anywhere else in the city. Menu highlights include a concha with a swirl-patterned exterior housing an expertly spiced apple ponche compote; semita, a traditional salvadoran pie-like pastry with a luscious guava pluot filling; and a velvety, light honey quesadilla that could be best described as a sweetened cornbread. For updates on pop-up dates and menu changes be sure to follow La Selva’s instagram.