In recent years, pastry chefs and home bakers have successfully mastered the art of vegan baking. Vegan bakeries have popped up in most metropolitan areas in the western world, and even a few small towns. From cupcakes to croissants, and even creme brûlée, vegans no longer lack for sweet options. However, there is one area of vegan baking that has been largely ignored - pan dulce --Mexican sweet bread. The goodies typically displayed in a traditional panederia (bakery) have eluded the attention of many, until now. A small family-run panederia in downtown Santa Ana, Calif., has taken on the challenge to veganize the most popular pan dulce, and in doing so, has been met with tremendous support from both the traditional Latin and vegan communities.
Vegan by Victorias has filled the void for vegan versions of the beloved conchas, tres leches, bolillios, and more. To learn more about these Mexican sweet treats, we sat down with the owner to chat about his business. Yes. His. Earvin Lopez, the man behind Vegan by Victoria’s, let us in on his vegan Victoria’s secret to creating phenomenal pain dulce.
Lopez is a quiet and demure young man who had no aspirations of becoming a baker, let alone a vegan one. When asked about his vegan journey, Lopez responded, “I went vegan two years ago. I was three hundred pounds and really unhappy. First I started focusing on making the ‘healthy stuff’ like chicken and broccoli, but then I found Brian Turner online. I thought, ‘He’s healthy. He’s fit. And he’s vegan.’ So I started looking into more vegan YouTubers and learned more about the nutrition aspects of veganism.”
Lopez toyed with the idea and told his sister he was considering a vegetarian diet. When she retorted, “That’s crazy. I don’t think you could do it,” Lopez retaliated in a classic sibling way. He didn’t just go vegetarian. He went vegan the next day.
“I have that side of me to try to prove people wrong,” Lopez admitted. He began cooking his own vegan food at home, and eventually lost one hundred and fifteen pounds over two years.
Growing up, Lopez worked in his parents’ panederias. “I hated it when I was little, but now I see that it’s like something you take for granted but learn the value of it later in life.” He noted, “I’m still not a professional, but I know my way around baking.” He also recalled a pleasant memory, “My favorite thing was waiting for the bread to come out of the oven and getting it when it’s warm.”
His parents sold their panederias, and Lopez took a job as a packer for a company that manufactured race car parts. When he told his father he was extremely unhappy, his father advised that he quit and do what makes him happy. Lopez, who had been baking as a hobby for the past four years, took the advice.
After a mini-vacation to Portland to “explore the vegan scene,” Lopez began to bake in earnest. SoCal Vegfest, Orange County’s only vegan festival, was coming up, and his father lent him the money to purchase a booth and test out his vegan pan dulce. His Mexican treats were a hit, and his business took off. “It was a crazy experience,” he said.
Lopez worked out a partnership with his sister, who owned Victoria’s panederia in Santa Ana. When she purchased the facility six years ago, the sign already said Victoria’s, so she stuck with the name. By coincidence, their grandmother was also named Victoria, which gave her decision justification. In October 2017, Lopez began selling his treats at Victoria’s in a small portable pastry case. However, in February of this year, the bakery underwent a renovation. Now, the vegan pan dulce is front and center, taking up a much larger display case that surrounds the cash register.
All the Pan Dulce
While waiting for Lopez to attend to a customer, we drooled in front of the pastry case, though to be honest, we had no idea what most of the pastries were. Lopez walked us through it. The most common pan dulce is the concha. “[It’s] a staple in Mexican families,” Lopez explained. “It’s like a Mexican version of a donut. It’s fluffy, and it’s baked, not fried, and it has a sugar paste on top. Like a sugar crust.” He let us sample one straight from the oven, and we inhaled it. Far better than a donut.
Lopez also bakes a variety of traditional Mexican cookies. There are tea cookies covered in chocolate chips or sprinkles, Marranitos (pig-shaped molasses cookies), and Happy Faces. Quite literally, the Happy Faces are tea cookies dusted with sugar and finished with a happy face design made with strawberry jam. It may sound simplistic, but these are Lopez’s favorite. “They’re great with coffee,” he noted.
In addition, Lopez also makes flan, bolillos (savory bread stuffed with vegan cream cheese and jalapeños), and a variety of tres leches cake flavors, including mixed berry, cookies and cream, and mocha. He creates his own vegan whipped cream, condensed milk, and evaporated milk to replicate the three milks that are essential to this moist, sweet sponge cake. Judging by the fact that these are always sold out, Lopez has nailed it.
That Panederia Life
Vegan by Victoria’s is practically a one-man show. Lopez gets assistance from his sister and brother-in-law, but he is in the shop Monday through Saturday, cranking out conchas at 4 a.m. (he is closed on Sundays). He bakes and attends to customers throughout the morning, and around noon he fires up the oven again to bake up fresh pan dulce for the afternoon and evening crowd.
When asked about his customer demographics, he said it is a mix. Local vegans come out of pure curiosity, fueled by a raging sweet tooth. Lopez has educated many of these customers on the delicious world of Mexican sweet bread and created regular customers in the process. Vegans from out of town as far as Arizona have also visited his shop, specifically on the hunt for vegan versions of their childhood food traditions. Finally, he has been able to convert omnivore customers who come in for the egg and butter pastries. He said these people are curious about the separate pastry case, and when he explains that the vegan versions do not contain animal products (or cholesterol), many will give it a try. And then, just like us, they’re hooked.
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