Panaderias are an institution in L.A.’s Mexican neighborhoods. It’s not rare to find multiple bakeries thriving just a few doors down from each other, but the truly stellar ones are harder to come by. This not-so-sweet truth (along with their own cravings for the pastries they’d experienced while growing up in Monterrey, Mexico) is exactly what prompted Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas to open the first La Monarca Bakery in Huntington Park back in 2006.
“People told us we were crazy when we did that,” says Cervantes. “They told us, and it’s true, that if you draw a circle of a three-block radius, we had 11 direct competitors. But, we said, ‘That’s fine.’ We really want people to compare and contrast immediately.”
Almost a decade later, Cervantes and Livas still have the same goal: stepping up L.A.’s pan dulce game. Their reach is wide, with locations from Boyle Heights to Santa Monica and the newest store in Highland Park is the seventh for the local chain. Situated on a corner of North Figueroa Boulevard, which is currently under heavy construction with businesses opening right and left, the bakery’s airy conchas and Selena-laced soundtrack have been drawing a crowd since soft opening a few weeks ago. As they expand throughout the county, the focus on from-scratch baking remains a priority.
“It’s the dough that makes the difference, not the look,” says Cervantes, who contends that much of L.A.’s pan dulce is made from processed mixes. This is why in some shops, all varieties, from elotitos to cochinitos, taste the same despite differences in color and shape. Creating distinctive flavors by incorporating ingredients like agave nectar, guava, tequila, dulce de leche, and coconut is what, he says, sets La Monarca’s pastries apart from each other and the rest of the market.
But the formula didn’t materialize overnight. For their first three years, Cervantes and Livas worked with a French chef from Mexico, but ultimately unsatisfied with what they described as the “lacking Mexican-ness” of the finished product, they decided to part ways. With no previous training, Cervantes himself took over the recipe development. He pored over pastry cookbooks and traveled back to Mexico to learn everything he could about baking techniques and ingredients in order to produce the most authentic pan dulce possible.
These days, Cervantes and Livas are also open to a bit of experimentation though their traditional items are still the heart and soul of the business and Mexican ingredients remain integral for even new products. They’ve recently introduced new conchas, including one inspired by Mexican wedding cookies, which has become a popular seller, and an agave-raisin variety. A horchata cake is in the works, too, and a cold-brewed version of their cinnamon and brown sugar-infused cafe de olla is currently available. They also do a quiche with vegetarian chorizo.
“We like to bring products that people expect, and flavors that people expect in other formats. With savory Mexican cuisine, you see more innovation from all these Mexican chefs here in L.A.—you see the taco that looks like a work of art—but with the bread part and the sweet part, it’s always been the same old thing,” Cervantes says.
They say that innovation has helped broaden their appeal among a larger demographic. While initially Livas and Cervantes sought spots only in Latino neighborhoods, the success of their westside and South Pasadena stores has been encouraging, proving that their evolving concept has the potential to do well in L.A.’s various corners and possibly beyond. Now, while their plan for continued expansion will still focus on the Latino enclaves that have always been crucial and welcoming to their business, finding vibrant neighborhoods with lots of foot traffic is just as important.
“The strip mall thing, people are tired of that. They want a street they can walk around with their kids—I want that—and so we’ve tried to look at places that have that,” says Livas, who adds that that’s what was part of the appeal of the new Highland Park store.
And if they can introduce more of L.A. to the wonders of pan dulce (and tortas and molettes, which they also sell), then they’re happy to do that, too. “In Santa Monica, out of ten people, seven would walk in [and ask], ‘Oh, what kind of bakery is this?’ They didn’t know. They thought first we were French because they saw the croissants, and so they didn’t know we were Mexican,” says Cervantes. “So, in our own small way, some people have gotten to know pan dulce by visiting our store, and we like that.”
La Monarca’s newest location is at 5835 North Figueroa Street. Find a list of their other locations on their website.