Lesley Téllez is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. She writes about Mexican food and expat life on her blog, The Mija
Chronicles, and gives private tours of Mexico City tacos, street food and markets with her culinary tourism business, Eat Mexico. Lesley is currently studying Mexican gastronomy at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, located in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma. You can email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was a kid growing up outside Los Angeles, my family would buy pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) from Albertson’s grocery store. The pan dulce sat in the bakery department. It happened to be next to the fried chicken, which we often bought too.
My mom would let me choose one piece of sweet bread, and lots of times I would pick a concha – a puffy roll striped in hot-pink or yellow sugar. It was never the wisest choice once I got home: Each bite was dry, bland and crumbly – as if I were licking beach sand.
Even after I grew up and moved to Texas, I continued to buy conchas from Mexican panaderías, seduced by their bright sugared tops. Unfortunately the conchas weren’t very good in Texas, either. I became convinced that no matter how adorable they were, conchas were doomed to a bland, lowly station.
Then I moved to Mexico City.
Here, many people will eat conchas in the morning with a cup of coffee, then eat a heavier breakfast around 10:00 or 10:30 a.m. One morning, a friend recommended that we meet for breakfast at a restaurant called Bondy. When the waiter delivered our tray of sweet bread, my eyes nearly flew out of my head. Sitting in the middle of his tray was an immense, spherical concha, covered in a crispy baked-sugar crust. I took a bite, and the crust shattered over my plate. The buttery insides unfurled in my mouth, the same way they do when you’re eating the inner pearl of a cinnamon roll.
I couldn’t believe it. This was a concha? It couldn’t be.
That afternoon, I went home and wrote a poem about Bondy’s conchas and posted it on my blog. “Oh sweet concha pillow…” the poem began. My Mexican concha roll obsession was born.
The great thing about a well-made concha is that its ingredients are quite simple – the dough is a mix of fat, flour, sugar and salt – yet one bite manages to be both comforting and complex. It’s as if a hamburger bun, danish and a biscuit somehow married each other, leaving a fluffy, yeasty roll with a murmur of sweetness.
In the past one-and-a-half years since my concha obsession began, I’ve tried perhaps a dozen conchas from bakeries around Mexico City. There was Maque, a restaurant hyped by locals, but whose concha was dry and sandy. El Cardenal’s concha was luscious and perfect and came with a side of clotted cream. I held a concha taste test with a friend, featuring seven types of conchas and eating only lettuce and water for two days afterward. Our top winners were the still eye-opening Bondy and Da Silva Bakery in Polanco.
Once at 7 a.m. outside my house, I flagged down the bicycle-riding pan dulce vendor while still in my flannel pajama pants. Wearing your pajamas in the street isn’t done in Mexico City; I attracted stares. The roll was really good, though. It came from a bakery in the Centro Histórico. I’d flag down the vendor and buy it again, in the same pants if necessary.
I try not to discriminate when buying conchas – you truly never know where a good one will come from. Interestingly, most bakeries in Mexico tend to look the same, no matter what the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status. There will always be shelves with bread in the windows. There will always be metal trays and tongs. And it will always, always smell heavenly. It’s just so welcoming that I can’t help but go inside, even when I’m not even hungry for bread. I buy conchas from small bakeries and large ones, vendors on bikes, upscale restaurants and fondas, casual joints that may not offer seating, where one basket of sweet breads is usually passed from customer to customer. Since customers pay for their bread by the piece and not by the basket, it’s best to get to a fonda early, while the conchas are still fresh.
The concha I tried at El Popular recently — a cafe in the Centro Histórico — was the best I’ve had in a long time. El Popular makes its own pastries in-house, and so the roll arrived slightly misshapen and covered in a spotty, homemade-looking sugar crust. It was sweet and powdery, and the innards yeasty and soft. It gave me the same type of feeling as wearing socks on a cold day.
Recently, I made conchas for the first time during a cooking class at a Mexican culinary school. While preparing the crumbly topping, I realized that it didn’t contain any butter, as I’d always thought. The topping turned out to be a mix of confectioner’s sugar, flour and vegetable shortening – more than a pound of vegetable shortening.
The news that conchas were even more artery-clogging than I’d envisioned made me enjoy them even more. These crackly, misunderstood rolls defy us to love them. How could I say no?
Lesley’s Favorite Stops for Concha Rolls in Mexico City
Avenida 5 de Mayo 50 y 52
Oscar Wilde 12