Drive through the tranquil neighborhood of East Compton at 5 a.m. and you might stumble upon a garage illuminated at the end of a long driveway with pleasantly malty aromas wafting from within. Inside, you’ll find Aniceto Polanco and his wife, Nolberta, filling commercial ovens with batches of conchas, cuernitos, and other Guerrero-style pan dulce for the morning rush. In small towns across Mexico, bakers have produced pastries and bread from garages and homes for generations, and the Polancos reflect that tradition with their bakery Pan Estilo Copala, one of the few artisan panaderías in Southern California.
The full-fledged bakery includes commercial Hobart floor mixers, Vulcan and Wolf ovens, and refrigerated proofing chambers that transform flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, and lard into dreamy pan dulce. Unlike most pan dulce, crumbly toppings accent the deliciousness of the pastries instead of overwhelming them. Tanned conchas (shells) comaltecas are wider than the standard concha, and covered in a cream-colored swirl of flour, confectioner’s sugar, and lard. Pan de yema, also called pan de huevo (egg bread), are dark brown, and smaller than the Valles Centrales version from Oaxaca. They come with a hint of sweetness and are perfect for dunking in coffee or hot chocolate.
Both Anticeto, who goes by Cheto, and Nolberta come from families of panaderos back in Copala, who also ran bakeries out of their homes. “The secret ingredient is love,” says Cheto, who perpetually smiles as he bounces between ovens and bakery racks to chat with customers.
“Well, it’s about quality control,” says master baker Nolberta, who started the business six years ago. “We ferment our dough for at least 24 hours in a proofing chamber, we use high-quality ingredients, but it’s our attention to every step of the process that makes the difference.” There are no shortcuts, or cost-cutting measures, making each bite special.
The couple, assisted by their son Sergio, use six different doughs to make their pan dulces. Using various doughs is another practice that is often too costly and time-consuming for commercial panaderías. “We came here with nothing, as immigrants around ’88 or ’89, but never imagined we’d open a panadería,” says Cheto. Nolberta, who has been working at Windsor Convalescent Hospital in Long Beach for the past 17 years as a nursing assistant, began baking from her garage in 2016, joined by her husband two years later as the panadería grew. Cheto had worked as a cook at La Pizza Loca, at bars, and in construction, but now dedicates his time to the panadería, which serves customers from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eating pan dulce is fashionable all day and night.
Last year, on the Saturday morning before Dia de Los Muertos, several street vendors were waiting in the driveway to fill large wicker baskets of Pan Estilo Copala’s pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread) for altars to honor family and friends who have passed on. The vendors will then distribute Pan Estilo Copala’s pastries to communities across Southern California, from locally in South Central Los Angeles all the way out to Oxnard and Inland Empire. Meanwhile, Afromexicanos from Guerrero wait for the vendors before filling boxes of pan dulce to eat with coffee or Coke. “You have to try some pan dulce with Coca-Cola,” says Cheto.
People travel to Pan Estilo Copala from great distances to try their fresh pastries. “I used to come every month only for this pan dulce,” says Uriel Lujan, a Costeño who lives in Las Vegas. “Now I’ve gotten busier, so maybe every other month, because I can’t get this anywhere else.” Customers Javier and Rocio Alvarez, who live in LA but hail from Tierra Colorada and Buenavista de Allende, respectively, giddily fill a paper box with carefully selected pan dulce from Pan Estilo Copala’s displays. For LA’s handful of regional home-based bakeries, loyalty from regular customers goes beyond the comfort of pan dulce still warm from the oven — this is about hometown pride.
Los Angeles has some regional Mexican panaderías, like Panadería y Restaurante Tlacolula, and Panadería Santo Domingo, both of which are very popular within the Oaxacan community. The former supplies Comedor Tenchita, a popular weekend brunch destination tucked into a Mid-City backyard. But still, the majority of panaderías in Los Angeles bake pan dulce like conchas, puerquitos (little pigs), and orejas (ears) that seem to be the same version of overly sweet toppings placed over somewhat bland bread. Pan Estilo Copala’s regionally specific pastries typically only found in Costa Chica de Guerrero cater to LA’s Afromexicano community centered around Compton, Watts, and South Central.
Unique to Copala, borrachitos (little drunks), or borrachos are shaped like conchas with red streaks on top, as opposed to the typical loaves in Mexico, while gusanitos, cylindrical grub-shaped breads, are lined with a row of dark frosting-capped ovals. There are also bear claw-like peinetas, thick oblong loaves called empanochadas, cracker-thin elongated rectangles known as doraditas, and delicate cuernitos, all mounted with fresh, powdery icing, offering a soft crunch with every bite. Copala is unlike any panadería in Los Angeles: delicious and complex, with a real sense of place.
Just walk up the driveway, line up, then grab a paper box and plastic gloves to select pan dulce from the garage for $2 apiece. Panaderías in small towns across Mexico are just like this — warm, welcoming, and full of fiercely loyal customers. This is one dynamic that Mexicans dearly miss when they come to the U.S. Mexicans in LA from Oaxaca, Jalisco, Sinaloa, and other parts of their home country will bring back cookies, sweets, and a few pieces of pan dulce from their town to share. Afromexicanos from Costa Chica de Guerrero just need to find a parking space in the Polanco’s tranquil, residential pocket of Compton.
Pan Estilo Copala is located at 14423 S. Castlegate Ave. Compton, (310) 292-5096, Tuesday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.