Woman of La Concha

by Lesley Tellez on October 18, 2010 · 6 comments

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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 lesley.tellez@gmail.com.

Pan Dulce Tray - El Cardenal - Palma 23 - Col. Polanco - Mexico City
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.

Pan Dulce Tray - Bondy - Galileo 38 - Col. Polanco - Mexico City
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.

Concha - El Cardenal - Palma 23 - Col. Polanco - Mexico City
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.

Concha - El Popular - Avenida 5 de Mayo 50 Y 52 - Col. Centro - Mexico City
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?

Pan Dulce - Mexico City

Lesley’s Favorite Stops for Concha Rolls in Mexico City

Bondy
Galileo 38
Col. Polanco.
El Popular
Avenida 5 de Mayo 50 y 52
Col. Centro.
El Cardenal
Palma 23
Col. Centro.
Da Silva
Oscar Wilde 12
Col. Polanco
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Comments

Ning November 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

My favourite place of conchas is Matisse on Amsterdam, La Condesa. I think it’s even better than the ones from Bondy!

Patricia Macias February 9, 2011 at 4:06 pm

I can’t believe how well you’ve captured the “concha” experience. Everytime I try them, I’m disappointed. Guess I have to go to Mexico. I’ve nearly given up on bakery goods with the exception of empanadas. That might be a GOOD thing?

EatNopales February 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Leslie & Pat… fyi some back ground on the Concha. If you dig up recipes from 19th Century books and compare to more recent you will notice a difference what happened?

Price Controls happened. The geniuses working for Finance Ministry in the 50′s & onward learned the “virtues” of Price Ceilings at Harvard School of Public Administration.. leading to their unfortunate implementation in Mexico. They disrupted many things… but the biggest victim was the Mexican baking tradition… as ingredient prices went up over the years, the bakers were forced to change recipes of all the specific pastries under price controls or sell them below cost… and the concha was almost destroyed. The change in the recipes happened so gradually.. it was a Frog in a Pot scenario people kept buying Conchas & Pan Dulce mostly out of tradition.

Now we are seeing Mexican bakeries gradually going back to Pre-Price Control recipes.

Lesley February 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm

@Patricia — Yes, you need to come to Mexico! Although I hear some bakeries in South Texas do good conchas. I’m not sure where you live. I’m sure some bakeries in L.A. wouldn’t disappoint either, although you’d have to do your own taste test to be sure. It’s funny — after living here, I thought I’d given up on baked goods too, but my desire has only increased. I haven’t even tried all the ladrillos yet. Or the corbatas, or the cubiletes.

@EatNopales — Thanks for the background. I recently learned in cooking class that some DF bakers add an artificial leavening agent to their conchas and bolillos. It makes the bread cheaper to produce (you’re using less yeast), but the bread doesn’t taste like anything. It’s like paper. Sad shame, IMO.

Kristen August 18, 2012 at 10:12 am

You haven’t happened to try conchas in Guadalajara have you? I just moved here from California and there was a panaderia where I’m from that made the most amazing conchas! Since I’ve been here I’ve only found the dry and sandy ones :(

Lesley August 20, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Hi Kristen: Sadly, the only things I know in GDL are beer and birria. Maybe it’s worth asking around locally? Or asking folks at the Mercado La Libertad/San Juan de Dios? There are a ton of food stands on the second floor, and I’m sure someone there has an opinion. If El Globo exists in GDL I’d avoid it — in Mexico City their bread is consistently below average. Suerte!

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