Pan dulce, a category of colorful Mexican pastries, is as prevalent a breakfast choice for Texans as tacos and kolaches. Bakeries selling seashell-stamped shells, pig-shaped little pigs, and pastel rosado (fluffy yellow-leaf cake covered in pink icing and no rainbow brackets) can be found in almost every town. Most are easily recognizable by their colorful images and lettering, but San Antonio’s Alebrije Bakery takes a more subtle approach.
The bakery is in a renovated corner building near the imposing gates of Fort Sam Houston in the Government Hill neighborhood. The external structure has earth tones, but a sign featuring a winged armadillo, an otherworldly kaleidoscopic spirit animal known as an alebrije, will let you know you’re in the right place. The interior of Alebrije Bakery is more vibrant, thanks in part to the vivid sweet bread options. As I sank into my seat, I easily disassembled a cushion-soft shell without the pastel top falling apart. It was some of the best concha I’ve had in Texas or Mexico.
Opening a bakery was not part of the plan for owners Claudio Navarro and Christian Méndez, husband and wife. The couple met in Michoacán in 2017 and began a long-distance relationship. Navarro had a full-time job in San Antonio producing videos for the nonprofit Yes! Our children can. Mendez was a chef in Uruapan, Mexico. Mendez moved to San Antonio in 2018 and the two got married. Mendez then mentioned to her husband that she longed for Mexican food, especially pan dulce. “She was depressed,” she admits. Navarro encouraged her to apply her culinary skills to baking pan dulce to ease her longing a bit. She started out making shells and it eventually became more than just a hobby.
Word of Mendez’s pastries reached local cafeteria owners, and when they began stocking their products, customers gobbled them up. “Two cafeterias became five, ten, and then fifteen,” says Navarro. After the COVID-19 pandemic defunded Navarro’s nonprofit work, he dedicated himself to helping his wife. The operation quickly outgrew the kitchen in his apartment, so the couple moved cooking to a commissary. Nine months later, with successful wholesale accounts, Navarro and Mendez partnered with another company to share a physical, non-retail store on the south side of San Antonio. Six months into that partnership, in March 2021, they decided to open the store to the public. But Alebrije outgrew that kitchen in three months and closed while Navarro and Méndez searched for their own space. The decision to temporarily close was bittersweet. “It was a bummer,” Navarro says. “As a small business, investing money in opening your first location, even if it’s shared and the bills are too, and then moving out quickly is disappointing.”
The couple found Alebrije’s current permanent location in the summer of 2021. They fell in love from the start. They had the stucco removed from the left wall, exposing a 1930s black-and-yellow ad that read “Are you a woman?” and touted the health benefits of a tonic. It was a quick renovation. “We didn’t have a lot to make it work, but I knew exactly how much I needed to make it work,” says Navarro. “It was very, very important for us to open as quickly as possible.” It was urgent to recover the costs of construction of kitchens and permits. Alebrije announced its soft opening on December 11, 2021.
The couple had baked all night and up to twenty minutes before the store opened. “I didn’t expect a lot of people,” Navarro recalls from that first day. He opened the door and turned the sign to Open, but no customers entered. Navarro finally opened the curtains, surprised and joyful to see a line of people (who had assumed the bakery wasn’t open yet because the curtains were closed) wrapped around the building. The garibaldis broth stuffed with guava and sprinkled; conical waffles filled with cream; and chocolate flavored padded shells were snapped up in less than three hours. “It was overwhelming,” says Navarro.
The next day, when Navarro and Mendez were on their way to the bakery at 2 am, they were rear-ended. Your vehicle turned at an intersection. First responders arrived and had to open the driver’s side door of the other car. Navarro began to think about how, although he and his wife felt fine, the adrenaline had masked the extent of their injuries. It was the day after the accident that the damage became evident. “My head was killing me. My wife’s head was killing her,” says Navarro. The grand opening of Alebrije would have to wait. The business closed until Mendez completed physical therapy and reopened on January 23, 2022.
The customer response was amazing. The line was longer the second time and the boxes were emptied in no time. “We sold out very, very quickly,” Navarro says, noting that since that day, he and Mendez have been very blessed to have a lot of community support.
The bakery’s ever-changing menu continues to sell out every day. One morning, a customer can see empanadas filled with fruit and sprinkled with sugar in the case. On another visit, that cake will have been replaced with pink cake (known as a cortadillo in Mexico). Seeing what’s available is as exciting as biting into your first shortbread, which I felt while sitting in the rainbow-colored chairs under iridescent cut-out cellophane banners.
Many of today’s offers began as requests from friends and customers. Mendez recalled a woman who had recently moved from Las Vegas and was having a hard time finding a pink cake she liked. Now, it is one of the most popular items in Alebrije. “Our pan dulce always begins as a story,” says Méndez. For her, pan dulce has its roots in childhood nostalgia. “People come to my bakery and I can see the exact moment when they go back to being kids,” Mendez says.
1931 N. New Braunfels Avenue, San Antonio
Hours: Wednesday–Friday 7–2, Saturday–Sunday 9–5