Pan dulce—a category of colorful Mexican pastries—is as frequent a breakfast option for Texans as tacos and kolaches. Panaderías peddling seashell-stenciled conchas, pig-shaped marranitos, and pink cake (fluffy yellow sheet cake topped with pink icing and rainbow nonpareils) can be found in nearly every town. Most are easily recognizable by their colorful imagery and lettering, but San Antonio’s Alebrije Bakery has a subtler approach.
The panadería sits in a renovated corner building near the towering gates of Fort Sam Houston in the Government Hill neighborhood. The external structure has earthen hues, but a sign featuring a winged armadillo—a kaleidoscopic, otherworldly animal spirit known as an alebrije—will let you know you’re in the right place. Alebrije Bakery‘s interior is more vibrant, partly thanks to the vivid pan dulce options. As I sank into my seat, I easily pulled apart a cushion-soft concha without the pastel-hued topping crumbling off. It was one of the best conchas I’ve had in Texas or Mexico.
Opening a bakery wasn’t part of the plan for husband-and-wife owners Claudio Navarro and Christian Méndez. The couple met in Michoacán in 2017 and started a long-distance relationship. Navarro had a full-time job in San Antonio in video production at the nonprofit Yes! Our Kids Can. Méndez was a chef in Uruapan, Mexico. Méndez moved to San Antonio in 2018, and the two got married. Then Méndez mentioned to her husband that she was homesick for Mexican food, especially pan dulce. “I was depressed,” she admits. Navarro encouraged her to apply her culinary skills to baking pan dulce to alleviate some of her longing. She started by making conchas, and it eventually developed into more than just a hobby.
Word of Méndez’s baking made its way to local coffee-shop owners, and when they started stocking her goods, customers devoured them. “Two coffee shops became five, and ten, and then fifteen,” Navarro says. After the COVID-19 pandemic zapped funding for Navarro’s nonprofit work, he dedicated himself to assisting his wife. The operation quickly outgrew their apartment kitchen, so the couple moved the baking to a commissary. Nine months later, with successful wholesale accounts, Navarro and Méndez partnered with another business to share a non-retail brick-and-mortar on San Antonio’s South Side. Six months into that partnership, in March 2021, they decided to open the shop to the public. But Alebrije outgrew that kitchen in three months and closed while Navarro and Méndez looked for a proper space of their own. The decision to temporarily shut down was bittersweet. “It was a bummer,” Navarro says. “As a small business, putting money into opening your first location—even though it’s shared and the bills are shared—and then moving on in a short time, is disappointing.”
The couple found Alebrije’s current permanent location in the summer of 2021. They were smitten from the start. They had the stucco on the left wall removed, which exposed a black-and-yellow advertisement from the 1930s 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,” Navarro says. “It was very, very important for us to open as fast as possible.” Recouping the costs of kitchen construction and permitting was urgent. Alebrije announced its soft opening on December 11, 2021.
The couple had baked throughout the night and up until twenty minutes before the store opened. “I wasn’t expecting a lot of people,” Navarro recalls of that first day. He unlocked the door and turned the sign to Open, but no customers came in. Navarro eventually opened the curtains, shocked and gleeful to see a line of folks (who had assumed the bakery wasn’t open yet because the curtains were drawn) wrapped around the building. The stock of guava-filled, sprinkle-topped Garibaldis; conical, cream-stuffed barquillos; and pillowy, chocolate-flavored conchas were snatched up in under three hours. “It was overwhelming,” Navarro says.
The next day, when Navarro and Méndez were driving to the bakery at 2 a.m., they were rear-ended. Their vehicle spun across an intersection. First responders arrived and had to rip open the driver’s-side door of the other car. Navarro started thinking about how although he and his wife felt fine, the extent of their injuries had been masked by adrenaline. It was the day after the accident that the damages became apparent. “My head was killing me. My wife’s head was killing her,” Navarro says. Alebrije’s grand opening would have to wait. The business closed until Méndez completed physical therapy, and it reopened on January 23, 2022.
The customer response was incredible. The line was longer the second time around, and the cases were emptied in no time. “We sold out very, very fast,” Navarro says, noting that from that day one, he and Méndez have been very blessed to have a lot of support from the community.
The panaderia’s ever-changing menu continues to sell out daily. One morning, a customer might see sugar-dusted, fruit-filled empanadas in the case. On another visit, that pastry will have been replaced by pink cake (known as cortadillo in Mexico). Seeing what’s available is as exciting as biting into the first pan dulce, which I felt while sitting on the rainbow-hued chairs under iridescent cut-out cellophane banners.
Many of the current offerings started as requests from friends and customers. Méndez recalled a woman who had recently moved from Las Vegas and was having difficulty finding pink cake she liked. Now, it’s one of the most popular items at Alebrije. “Our pan dulce always starts as a story,” Méndez says. For her, pan dulce is rooted in childhood nostalgia. “People come to my bakery and I get to see the exact moment when they become a child again,” Méndez says.