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The Treat That Defines L.A.'s Day of the Dead

This Mexican holiday—and its foods—are anchors of tradition and identity across the border.  

AGCuesta/Shutterstock/Mapbox/Katie Martin/CityLab

For many people, pan de muerto, the spongy, sweet dome of bread traditionally eaten on the Mexican Día de los Muertos holiday, probably conjures visions of Mexico City. In the month of October, leading up to the huge city-wide celebration of the holiday on November 2, you can get the stuff on practically every corner—from street vendors, Starbucks, and traditional bakeries alike.

But as a second-generation Mexican immigrant to the U.S., I think about my home city of Los Angeles, which is full of places to find pan de muerto, too. In L.A.’s Mexican-American communities, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about as big a deal as it can be in the States. Near Halloween, the bread becomes a staple here, a crucial part of celebrating a people’s long Catholic and indigenous history across the border. It’s freshly made at panaderías all over the city, and usually paired with Mexican hot chocolate, a thick, frothy drink swirled with cinnamon, spicier than the American version.

Traditional pan de muerto is a slightly sweet bread flavored with orange flower water and anise seeds or cinnamon, and topped with sugar or sesame seeds. The best bread is spongy and dense, a lot like brioche—it tears off easily and the inside is soft, but it retains a bit of crunch, especially when there’s granulated sugar sprinkled over the top. Some places sell the bread with a cream or chocolate filling, but this is a variation on on the original recipe (and it doesn’t pair as well with hot chocolate).

Favorite time of year 💀☕️ 🌼#pandemuerto at #lamonarca the best in LA it's so delicious! This style of #pandulce is made to place on the altar as an #ofrenda for the #ancestors the decorative designs on top of the bread mimic human bones! It's a delicious egg bread lightly sweetened to perfection! I personally love the way @lamonarcabakery makes their pan it's light and airy and perfectly sweetened!

A photo posted by ⠀⠀⠀⠀💅🏾⠀⠀Cha Cha Covers⠀⠀💅🏽⠀⠀⠀⠀ (@chachacovers) on

The shape of the bread can vary by region, so you’ll see all different types in L.A.’s panaderías, including lots shaped like skeletons or people. But the most recognizable pan de muerto is shaped like a dome, representing a grave. Several longer pieces of bread are assembled over the top, with a round ball placed right in the middle, meant to represent the bones and skull of the dead peeking up out of their graves.

The recipe for pan de muerto is labor-intensive and, in my experience, very easy to get wrong. It sometimes turns out so dry that you can’t eat it without washing it down, and it can also get a little too crunchy. But Los Angeles is home to some of the best Mexican confections available on U.S. soil—you should be able to trust whatever is available in heavily Mexican-American pockets of the city.

That said, the giants in the pan de muerto game are unquestionably on the city’s east side. My mother’s side of the family has always gone to get pan dulce and other desserts at El Gallo Bakery on César Chavez, which opened in 1949. Their pan de muerto is simple, without the huge, eye-catching skull decorations you find at some other bakeries. But the bread is soft, with the exact right consistency and sweetness.

El Gallo Bakery. The best pan dulce of your life!! ❤💚 its a hidden gem👌 #picstitch #elgallobakery #pandulce #la #mexicansweetbread #losangeles #itsagooddaytobemexican #hiddengemsofla

A photo posted by Michaela Mayoral (@skinnystyx) on

La Favorita Bakery on 4th Street has been another east side staple since it opened in 1971. The pan de muerto here is soft and fresh (like all of their pastries), and you can choose between sesame seed and sugar-topped options.

If you find yourself stranded on the west side, La Monarca Bakery in Santa Monica is a good option. (This is where I used to get my fix when I was living far away from all other decent pan dulce spots.) La Monarca is a chain bakery with locations all over the L.A. metro area, so it doesn’t quite have the feel of the smaller panaderías, and it offers some colorful options not available at your more traditional immigrant-run establishments (vegan chorizo quiche, anyone?). That said, to my palate, the baked goods are fresh and they taste pretty much exactly right. This place also makes a mean café de olla and Mexican hot chocolate.

@Regrann from @shg1970 - #SelfHelpGraphics & 43rd Annual #NochedeOfrenda Saturday, October 29, 2016 | 7PM to 9PM at @grandpark_la . This is the longest running public #diadelosmuertos celebration in the country. . Bring a memento for the #communityaltar and experience over 30 #altars by #artists #community organizations, #collectives and many others. Performances by @music.la.victoria @cuicanimusic @casa0101 ++++ . Altar Makers @laloalcaraz1 @mujeresdemaiz @heartonarts @ctgla @germ_s @lataco @ni_santas @southcentralfarmers @betotlatoani @lasfotosproject @lurnetwork @latinoequalityalliance @culture_la @elawc @proyectopastoral @goeastlos @vyalone @entre.studio @mcmhandles @lalgbtcenter @svyacstonehouse @youthjusticela @celinajacquesart . @laopinionla @latimes @latimesevents @abc7la @univision34 @ladowntownnews @laweekly @boyleheightsbt @happeningindtla @dtla_everyday #diadelosmuertos #dayofthedead #altars #Regrann

A photo posted by Art of Mexico and the Americas (@mexican_and_latin_american_art) on

Regardless of where you are in L.A., chances are good you can find a place to celebrate the holiday. Each year, there are Day of the Dead events all over the city, from the annual celebration at Olvera Street to the ever-growing celebration put on by Self-Help Graphics and Art based in Boyle Heights, which just recently held a “Noche de Ofrenda,” or “Night of Offerings.” At the event, people constructed ofrendas (or ”altars”) centered around the political struggle of immigrant communities in the U.S. and the continuing fight against gentrification in Los Angeles neighborhoods.

We are not criminals #mdm #nochedeofrenda #selfhelpgraphics

A photo posted by dr. 321_love (@dr_321love) on

In Mexican-American communities, this day continues to be an anchor of tradition and identity, morphed just a little bit to accommodate all the worries and realities of life on this side of the border. It probably looks a little different from the celebrations in Mexico City, where the city constructs its own giant ofrenda in the zócalo and lines every avenue with cempasúchil flowers (marigolds, also used to decorate altars). But in Los Angeles, we have our calaveras catrina and our sugar skulls and our costumes and celebrations, too. And the pan de muerto still tastes like home.

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