This Santa Ana panadería has easily the best adornment of any Orange County restaurant: a massive bull’s head, complete with neck, mounted on a plaque behind the old-school register. It’s big enough to hide a child in and comes with a history revealed in small bronze plates: the matador who killed it, where, during what festival. Battered bullfighter swords line each side of the head, and pictures and posters of past events adorn the walls.
Sí, the owner hails from Spain. But this isn’t a Spanish bakery—the focus here for the past 30 years has been on Mexican pan dulce, and you gotta be good to last that long in a city where panaderías are as ubiquitous as gas stations. Chelo’s has succeeded with service—a friendly staff who answer all questions, put out samples of pan dulce for patrons to taste, and politely inform you that you can flag them down in the kitchen when you’re ready to purchase your goods—and quality. The usual suspects of a panadería are available, and you should give them all a try—sugary conchas, flaky orejas, the bright-red one with strawberry jam and coconut shavings on the outside. But I’ve always been an empanada fiend, so forgive my focus on the turnover: These are the biggest I’ve encountered—as long as the length from an outstretched thumb to pinky and thick. They’re a bit more expensive than usual, but you can cut them into thirds to share or keep for another day. Chelo’s doesn’t deviate from the Holy Trinity of Mexican dessert-empanada fillings—pumpkin, pineapple and vanilla cream. And each is a fine representative of its genus—the pumpkin empanada features a dense, earthy sweetness, the pineapple version is buttery and slightly tart, and the vanilla-cream one covers your hands with sugar and spills forth with its creamy surprise. Just as big are the bolillos, but those aren’t sweet—save them for weekend torta making.
Chelo’s also makes cakes, and generations of santaneros have gorged on them at parties ranging from baptisms to carne asada Sundays. I’m an Anaheimer, so I can’t comment on the worth of that product, but I can report that Chelo’s also sells what Mexicans call candies (dulces) but are really confections—blocks of cajeta, suffocatingly thick once they begin melting in your mouth, and others created with everything from sweet potato to chocolate. I do wish there was a least one Spanish foodstuff available, but that bull will suffice for my Hispanic needs—seriously, the toro must’ve been huge.
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Chelo’s Bakery, 5403 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 554-8686.
This column appeared in print as "Bullish On Bread."