Photo by Tenaya HillsIn a day devoted to venerating the Divine, my favorite Sunday rite remains the morning drive to Ruben's Bakery, a ramshackle panadería between Fullerton's Mexican barrio and the city's expanding hipster downtown. I try to visit Ruben's around 9:30—well enough into the day so that the bakers bring out the fresh pan dulces personally, but not so late that the pastries begin their inevitable hardening. Seemingly half of the Mexican world rushes to Ruben's at this time as well—many of them abuelitas that I curse quietly for stealing the last spot in Ruben's tiny parking lot. But resentment fades into the familiar scent of baked goodness that floats from Ruben's ovens, the scent of a thousand mornings spent baking a Mexican family's post-pozole dessert.
After passing the piñatas and the phone-card ads, I grab a silver tray and some tongs. Time to choose. There's about a dozen coolers, each containing multiple trays holding a specific pan dulce genus, each genus boasting mucho diversity, and so forth. But my family is stubborn—they demand the same pan dulce, week in, decade out. Mami likes the orejas (ears), a fried, crispy, horseshoe-shaped roll dusted with cinnamon and sugar; mipapáprefers polvorones, dry shortbread buns that crumble into manageable chunks ideal for hot-chocolate dunking. The younger sister swears by the cochinitos, giant gingerbread cookies shaped like a pig, while the other hermana favors something that looks like a red Zinger inflated to 36 psi. And my little brother, the budding iconoclast that he is, won't start his day without a campechana—no one else in the Arellano clan likes it, but he insists this pseudo-maple bar with as many syrupy layers of dough as baklava is his week's delight.
Those selections are all outstanding, but I stock up on empanadas, turnovers gorged with fillings and adorned with unique crusts. The camote empanada houses its sweet yam innards within a firm, buttery crust; the same crust also gives refuge to fillings of the lemon and cream variety. The ooze of each remains firmly inside rather than cascading out like so many empanada disasters, and Ruben's uses a flakier, smokier crust for the flan empanada, complementing the custard slab inside. Raspberry and apple empanadas come with a doughier, sweeter exterior sprinkled with about a billion sugar granules. Sometimes, they even bake a prickly-pear fruit empanada—tart, meaty, delicious.
Before I fork over the five bucks Ruben's asks for about a dozen pan dulces, I also buy lunch—a French roll hollowed out, toasted, fattened with pickled jalapeños, a smear of cream cheese and a length of salty Mexican cheese. Perhaps this is the long-awaited Mexican bagel to counter the long-ago Americanized breakfast burrito? I ponder this as the cursed abuelita waits patiently for the parking space I occupy every Sunday, ruining what remains of my culinary Mass.
RUBEN'S BAKERY, 438 S. HARBOR BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 992-0414.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.