If you get off the bus at 24th and Mission streets in the early morning hours, you are almost sure to smell the freshly baked pan dulce. In a neighborhood that has seen the effects of gentrification it is a welcomed smell, which serves as a sign that culture is still alive here in the heart of the Mission. And if you follow it, you will find a small colorful shop nestled between Mission and Bartlett streets. This panaderia is appropriately named La Mejor Bakery (The Best Bakery). It certainly is one of the best, and not just because of the delicious bread.
When I visited La Mejor for the first time, I was instantly brought back to memories of my childhood home. Spanish was being spoken all around me. A television positioned in a high corner was set to a soccer game. And of course the sight of pink, orange and white conchas caught my eye. I ordered a concha, a cup of “Abuelita’s hot chocolate” and a tamale.
Sitting at a table in the back of the shop, I couldn’t help but feel that being there was very different from being at a typical coffee shop in San Francisco. No one was on their laptop or distracted by their phone. The customers and employees all seemed to know each other well. They were engulfed in the soccer game, laughing, yelling, chatting with each other over cups of coffee and treats. The sense of community was undeniable. But even more than that, there was a sense of home.
On Christmas Eve 2015, I went to pick up an order of tamales at La Mejor. I asked the owner, Carmen Elias, if she was going to be closed on Christmas Day.
“Mamita, I’m open seven days a week,” she replied. “I’m open on Thanksgiving, too. Some people have nowhere to go for the holidays.”
I remember my first few visits there. The sense of community and home was real and it was Carmen’s intentions to create it. Carmen emigrated from Mexico when she was a teenager with her five siblings. She’d had a career in banking, but 23 years ago she decided to take on the challenge of opening an authentic Mexican bakery in the Mission.
“I had no bakery experience,” she said. “But I was retired and a friend told me I should do it. I had the funds to take it on, so I did.”
Since then she has kept the bakery running seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. By the end of the night, the bread is sold out and there are still a few customers sitting waiting until the last minute to leave. They wait because some of them do not have beds to sleep in for the night. They retreat to the streets.
Most of Carmen’s regulars are Latino and many are here in the United States alone working to support their families who are living in Latin America. Some are homeless; others rent rooms in houses from owners they barely know. Oftentimes, they don’t have access to kitchens or TVs where they live. They might have roofs over their heads, but they don’t have homes.
Carmen tells me that this is the inspiration behind why she opted to get the necessary permit to allow seating in the bakery. There are five tables and they seem to always be occupied, but somehow everyone makes room for one another, pulling up chairs or sharing if necessary.
The space is open and people aren’t turned away. This is a special community for Latinos who don’t have family here. It’s a connection to the culture that they have left behind, to the language that they understand and to the foods they knew as children. They have some sense of family, because family is everything in Latino culture.
And there’s a love story too. Carmen met her sweetheart while working. He was a regular who would come in every morning for a cup of coffee and pan dulce. Now he helps her by working behind the counter in the evenings. They’ve been together for 10 years.
Love, friendship and family are all things that can be found at La Mejor. Carmen’s heart and work ethic embody what the Mission is all about: not just working for profit, but for the love of people and sustaining a community. To visit La Mejor is to be welcomed with open arms into that community whether you are Latino or not. And, in all seriousness, the pan dulce really is perfection.