The rituals of the bakeries in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago bring back the familiarity of home for Mexicans here in town — from the buttery aroma of the bread that lines up on trays, to the easily recognizable sweet and savory staples that disappear into paper bags as bakery workers tally them up for sale.
Pan dulce, the umbrella term for a multitude of sweet Mexican breads, has an inarguable place in the Mexican experience — one that is both collective and personal; one that is shared across time and space. In Mexico, pan dulce is as vast in its assortment as it is ubiquitous. The tradition of baking is equal parts legacy and ingenuity; a recipe that continues to repeat and rewrite itself every day. Its variety is a mix of legacy recipes, local ingredients, and personal touch.
It is easy to understand why Chicago has a handful of traditional style Mexican bakeries: It’s home to the second largest Mexican-born immigrant community in the U.S., including an especially strong representation from standout bread-focused states like Guanajuato and Michoacán.
Traditionally, Mexicans enjoy pan dulce during breakfast or as an early evening snack, but here in Chicago, pan dulce flies out the door at Pilsen panaderías at all hours of the day. Here’s a guide to some of the best of them and what to look for at each.
It is not even noon on a Saturday morning and this bakery’s third round of freshly baked conchas, a buttery Mexican sweet bread that’s named after a seashell, is almost gone. The storefront is buzzing with a flow of customers who called ahead to reserve their orders of chocolate or vanilla conchas as they mingle with walk-ins who are scooping up as much pan dulce — much of it pre-packaged in brown paper — as they can grab.
Conchas are named after the conch seashell because their crumbled sugar topping swirls like the center of a conch. They’re a headliner at most Mexican bakeries and here you can even get a vegan version made with vegetable shortening. But patrons of Pan Artesanal can also sample a variety of Mexican regional specialties by pastry chef and co-owner, Marisol Espinoza.
Inspired by the pan dulce her parents brought back from their native Michoacán, Espinoza applied her baking skills and training from the French Pastry School in Chicago to bring the pastries to life in her kitchen. Her creations were such a hit with her family and friends that Espinoza and her sister Lizette decided to open a bakery in July of 2018. They had great support from their uncle and father, who helped build furniture and set up the shop. Other family members work at the store as well.
Among other regional highlights are the firm and uniquely flavored pan de rancho — also known as pan fallo or “failed bread”, as it is not allowed to fully rise. The agave yeast used during baking brings forward a bit of sourness to its lightly sweet flavor.
There’s also pan de elote — a soft and sweet corn muffin, which pays homage to Michoacano uchepos — and pan de nata, a sweet, buttery roll named for the milk fat that is used to make it. Espinoza recently added the Oaxacan breakfast staple known as pan de yema to her pastry case too. It’s a sweet egg bread, a little drier than some of the other treats.
Espinoza transforms cacti, pink guava, and tejocote (a Mexican Christmas-time fruit) into sweet breads and even cheesecake, speaking to her bold creativity and connection to Mexico, and particularly, to Michoacán, The shop also offers café con leche and hot chocolate imported from Mexico to pair with the pastries.
Erika Beltrán smiles as her customers line up to pay for their purchases. Located in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, the town of Acámbaro is known for its bread. It’s headliner is the town’s (and the bakery’s) namesake pastry. Also known as pan grande or “big bread”, pan de Acámbaro is a critical element of the area’s economy and culinary tradition. Reminiscent of Jewish challah in both texture and flavor, the Beltrans’ version of pan grande — which is about the diameter of a soccer ball — is so popular, personal orders come in from as far away as California and Florida. Out of state customers can call the bakery to place an order.
Erika and her family are from Acámbaro, where bread permeates every aspect of life. So it’s not a huge surprise that the Beltran’s have been in the bakery business in Pilsen for more than a decade. In Acámbaro, locals hold the Festival de la Panificación (Festival of Baked Goods), “making it rain bread” to honor the town’s patron saint during the feast of la Vírgen del Refugio del Pecado. Town members throw more than a hundred thousand bread rolls into the air, while attendees flip their umbrellas inside out to catch the flying carbs. This is a way for merchants to show their gratitude for their year’s sales, while attracting business from locals and visitors.
Although it’s usually only prepared during the town’s festivities, pan de Acámbaro can be found year-round and all day long in Chicago.
Panadería Nuevo León
Like many immigrant stories, the one of 83-year-old Abel Sauceda, owner of Panadería Nuevo León, is forged by hardship. After losing his dad at age 14, Sauceda left his native Nuevo León in the northern Mexican state of Monterrey to pursue work in the area’s copper mines. A baker eventually took him under his wing, unknowingly igniting a career that would span two countries and nearly seven decades.
His expertise as a baker, along with his management skills, eventually landed him a job in Houston, Texas. Fascinated by the stories of a big city with a mythical sounding elevated train, Sauceda made his way to Chicago by getting a job through a connection. Once here, he declined more profitable job opportunities to settle for lower-paying ones. “My goal was to open a business,” Sauceda explained. “It is hard to find the guts to do it when you have to pass up a good salary.”
After securing a loan, Sauceda opened Panadería Nuevo León in Pilsen in 1973. He’s stayed true to himself since then by sticking to traditional techniques. “We never rush the process,” he said. Panadería Nuevo León also employs several members of his family.
From crumbly, shortbread-like polvorones to the candy-sprinkled butter cookies called grageas, at Panadería Nuevo León, customers can find their favorite pan dulce staples along with some specialties, including a wide selection of gorditas, a creamy and sweet pastry with the texture of a biscuit that’s usually prepared in rural areas where fresh milk abounds and needs to be preserved. Patrons can also find regional bread like the northern-Mexican pan semita, a sweet flaky wheat roll, and a nod to the Jewish influence in northern Mexico’s gastronomy.
As the faces of Pilsen continue to change throughout the years, Sauceda has added products to his assortment to cater to a more diverse crowd. For example, a refrigerator featuring flour tortillas flavored with avocado, habanero, and jalapeño is prominently located by the check-out area. Vegan pastry options are also available.
More recently, this bakery proved its ability to straddle generations and cultures by jumping on the craze recently born in Mexico and fueled by the internet: a concha-muffin hybrid known as the manteconcha. Xiomara Casas, Sauceda’s grand-daughter, who also manages the store’s social media, remembers lines out the door when they first announced the manteconcha on Instagram. How else does Don Abel stay current with the times? The octogenarian said he will never stop baking and he “does not plan on getting old.”
Artemio Cancino, owner of Artemio’s Bakery, hails from the bread-conscious state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Cancino opened this Lakeview bakery in 1988. His first establishment, a few miles southwest in Wicker Park, opened eight years earlier. The store is reminiscent of a panadería de barrio — the kind of place that people visit almost every day, where the staff knows you by name, and you might even run into a friend. Originally created to cater to a primarily Mexican clientele, Artemio’s Bakery has adapted and changed along with the neighborhood.
“Lakeview is different today,” says Cancino. “Many of our long-time clients have moved away, but still come back to visit. There are a lot of new customers. Many people of different backgrounds enjoy our pan dulce.”
Maybe the selection speaks directly to the make-up of this neighborhood. From the traditional orejas (ear-shaped puffed pastry) and ojo de buey (biscuit-like pastries named for their ox eye shape) to the increasingly omnipresent tres leches (a sponge cake that is soaked in three different kinds of milk) to brownies and cupcakes.
Cancino also serves regional specialties which depend on the bakers. “Some of them come from Guerrero, Puebla, or Michoacán,” explains Cancino. “They are excited to prepare their regional specialties, so from time to time we might feature them.”
Although these particular pastries might not necessarily always be available, Cancino says it is not uncommon for his team to receive special requests, particularly for a sweet roll made with brown sugar called pan de pueblo, which finds its roots in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Also of note: Cancino sells pan de muerto, a semi-sweet bread specifically baked for Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. You can never find it in Mexico outside of October, but at Artemio’s Bakery it’s featured it year-round, only without the sprinkled sugar that traditionally covers it.
At Don Churro el Moro de Letran, patrons enjoy creative twists on the traditional churro, a deep-fried tube of dough sprinkled in cinnamon sugar that’s beloved in many countries. The traditional sweet is usually paired with hot chocolate. Here, they also come with a different twist: piped with fillings ranging from guava, cream cheese, or Bavarian cream to strawberry or chocolate. Churros are best enjoyed fresh and hot from the fryer. At Don Churro, they are made every hour. Hot chocolate is also available.
The origin of churros is uncertain. While some believe the pastry can be attributed to China, others argue that the roots of this delicacy can be traced to the Middle East. When it comes to Pilsen, though, it is clear that this popular treat arrived via Mexico City.
With its name, Don Churro el Moro de Letrán, pays homage to an iconic churrería located in the Mexican capital. Churros are part of the life of citadinos so much so that they have permeated language. The expression, “de puro churro”, for example, is used to speak of a fortunate or coincidental event.
But there is more hard work than luck behind this shop’s story of success. The Molinas family opened the shop in 1990. According to their matriarch, María, the family left their home in Mexico City to follow her husband, who was already in Chicago. An entrepreneur at heart, while working labor-intensive jobs, María knew she wanted to open a business. Her dream came true, but the family had to push to stay afloat. In the beginning, María would peddle the churros on her bicycle.
Fast-forward nearly three decades, and Don Churro is producing 7,000 churros a day to fulfill in-store and wholesale requests that come from Indiana and Wisconsin. Always innovating, the family developed a process to freeze churros in bulk so customers can defrost and cook them while retaining their freshly-made qualities. Don Churro fulfills orders of their frozen product from restaurants as far away as the East Coast.