Restaurants come and go like sunsets, but few made me sadder than the shuttering of Ruben’s Panaderia, a Fullerton institution that served an entire generation of North County Mexicans. Families visited every weekend morning to stock up on freshly baked pan dulce and fluffy bolillos, as well as to put in orders for custom-made cakes that served every occasion from baptisms to weddings. It was small, it was boisterous, and you had to duck underneath dozens of piñatas or push them aside to get at your bread.
But the place closed earlier this year and stayed vacant for months. I feared it would become another victim of downtown Fullerton’s continued gentrification, another misunderstood civic gem like the Chicano murals on the Lemon Street overpass. But a couple of weeks ago, a faithful reader said the space had reopened as PLAZA BAKERY. He claimed the pan dulce was as delicious as ever—especially the empanadas, which he tried specifically because they’re my favorite pastry.
I visited the new panadería and found it better than its previous incarnation. Gone were the piñatas, the stains on the floor and the unhelpful staff. The massive coolers that kept the pan dulce fresh were still there, but the windows weren’t scratched. Plazy Bakery not only maintained the Ruben’s quality, but it also improved on it. Key to a great panadería are two pan dulces, empanadas and conchas, and Plaza Bakery masters both. They sell five empanadas—pumpkin (earthy), pineapple (refreshing), cherry (tart, with chunks of the fruit included), apple (very sweet) and a light vanilla cream. The bakers don’t cheat—while other panaderías fill the inside of their empanadas only halfway like Frito-Lay does with its bags of chips, Plaza crams stuffing into each empanada until it oozes slightly from the edges.
Just as good are the conchas, circular mounds of bread featuring granulated-sugar bumps on the outside that are the mainstay of any Hispanic Heritage Month event. The key to a good concha is that the sweet spots stay put and don’t crumble onto your clothes, and Plaza Bakery accomplishes this feat. Within the spots are concentrated flavors denoted by color—brown is chocolate, pink is strawberry, white is vanilla, and yellow is pineapple. Plaza sells dozens of other pan dulces—flaky orejas, gingerbread cookies called cochinitos because they’re shaped like a pig—all obscenely cheap. And if you’re in the mood for a quick snack, Plaza also kept the Ruben’s tradition of selling hollowed-out bolillos stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeños, a Mexican bagel that both your bubbe and abuelita can love.
Plaza Bakery, 438 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 992-0414.