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This Old School Panaderia in Highland Park Is Making L.A.’s First Vegan Pan Dulce

2:15 AM PDT on March 14, 2018

    If you’ve walked down the avenues on Figueroa Street in Highland Park, perhaps with a cappuccino from Civil Coffee in hand or perhaps while a little buzzed and taking a selfie in front of Chicken Boy, you may have noticed some new signage at Delicia’s Bakery that stopped you in your tracks: “Vegan Pan Dulce.”

    Buttery, tender, decadent conchas (including strawberry-flavored ones made with natural beet-derived food coloring), elotitos, cuernitos, cochinitos, and bizcochos — all without an ounce of dairy or a single egg. It was only a matter of time until it happened in Los Angeles, especially in a neighborhood that is changing as fast as Highland Park.

    However, the baker of these new-school Mexican pastries is not a classically trained pastry chef getting in touch with their roots, and Delicias — open and owned by the same Mexican family since 1990 — is not becoming a boutique panaderia. This new assortment of plant-based pan dulce is baked by the same panadero, Jose Casimiro Bran Ramirez originally from Romita, Guanajuato, Mexico, who has worked there for a decade.  

    Delicia's Panadero, Jose Casimiro Bran Ramirez

    It all started with a request from Roxanne Sanchez, the daughter of owners Ramon and Maria Sanchez who switched to a vegan diet six years ago. According to her sister, Emily, who kindly showed me the premises during the evening rush of loyal customers coming in to catch the rest of their pan dulce hot out of the oven. Her sister really missed pan dulce, so she asked Ramirez if he can try a batch made without any animal products. Ramirez never heard of a vegan diet before but since he came from a family of panaderos, he didn’t think twice and was up for the challenge.

    The next day, on January 12th, the vegan concha was born.

    Delicias stands out among the newer businesses opening on Figueroa Street and York Boulevard for catering to both of the neighborhood’s demographics — equally.

    “The hardest part was finding the substitutes for our traditional recipes,” Ramirez tells me in a soft-spoken tone in Spanish. Roxanne helped along the way, but “more than anything, it was all about finding the right ratio of milk.” Ramirez shares that he uses a blend of soy and almond milk and Emily chimes in, in English: “We also found a vegan sugar that works for us and only uses a Rainforest Alliance Certified palm oil. It happened from one day to the other.”

    Emily, Jose, and Stephanie

    In just two months, Ramirez has devised seven pan dulce varieties and more are in the works. Each piece of vegan pan dulce is about two to three times the price of a regular piece of pan dulce, going for $3 each and the cuernito (Mexican croissant) going for $4. This cost reflects the higher cost of the vegan ingredients.  

    Vegan flan

    On the day that I visited, they were perfecting their vegan flan, made with agar-agar seaweed instead of gelatin. It was creamy and not cloyingly sweet. In the refrigerated shelves next to the cashier where panaderias usually stock individual slices of tres leches cakes and other by-the-slice Mexican desserts, one shelf is filled with new takeout offerings like vegan taquitos and chiles rellenos stuffed with a housemade soyrizo. There are also deli containers filled with vegan versions, Texas-style queso, and vegetable-stuffed empanadas. The bakery's vegan savory options in the bakery were developed by Stephanie Rush of VIDA Vegan. She is a family friend who also handles their marketing.

    “We get people who come in just to tell us ‘thank you’ since they haven’t had a pan dulce in forever,” says Emily. Their Instagram account, where they post photos of their latest vegan Mexican offerings, echoes this sentiment. It is filled with heartfelt testimonials from Latino customers who comment things like “@deliciasbakeryandsome SO GOOD!! I haven’t had elotitos in such a long time I almost cried lol.”

    Delicia's agua fresca lineup includes a vegan horchata

    For others, like @lxestrada, the emotional connection to being able to eat pan dulce again goes deeper: “@deliciasbakeryandsome picked up some elotitos and conchas this morning for my vegan mother and I. Today was my god fathers funeral and it’s funny how comforting the familiar taste of those things could be while we were at the cemetery. Thank you for the pan dulce.”

    Pre-dinner pan dulce rush at Delicias

    Despite Highland Park’s demographics changing from the neighborhood’s working-class Latino roots recently changing to a younger, more affluent one, Ramirez and Rush inform me that the majority of their customers are still Latino. They recognize that the neighborhood is changing and wanted to have options for everyone’s eating style. Delicias is the first traditional panaderia in the city to serve a complete menu of vegan pan dulce on a regular basis, but there have been others who offered it privately or at pop-ups. Still, it adds to the increasing amount of Latino vegan options that this part of town has to offer.

    They have no plans of completely turning into a vegan panaderia soon anytime soon and the majority of their shelves are still stocked with traditional pan dulce made with milk and eggs. Nonetheless, Delicias stands out among the newer businesses opening on Figueroa Street and York Boulevard for catering to both of the neighborhood’s demographics — equally. A lot of their customers use EBT to pay for bread. 

    They intend to keep it this way as long as they can.

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