When I was deciding which college to attend, I looked for three specific things: good academic programs, good weather and good bakeries. USC meets the first two criteria. The third one proved more of a challenge.
Carbs are my weakness, but even a carbaholic has her limit. In a crazed frenzy, I stumbled around the USC campus and found nothing but fluffy, anorexic bagels and naked cupcakes disguised as muffins.
Yes, Los Angeles has its share of famous bakeries, such as Sprinkles Cupcakes and La Brea Bakery. But as a freshman without a car, and neither time nor the budget to stand in line for hours to buy a $3.50 cupcake, I felt doomed to a soulless existence without my daily carbfest.
That all changed when I jettisoned my preconceived notion of what constitutes a good bakery and opened my mind (and stomach) to ethnic bakeries — tasty, hidden gems in close proximity to the USC campus.
Los Angeles might never be known for dense, chewy bagels, but it is known for its ethnic diversity. And every ethnic community has its own source for unique breads and pastries.
Superior Grocers at the University Village
You might be surprised, but Superior has an excellent bakery. Its frequently bruised produce might leave much to be desired, but its baked goods are always fresh, delicious and super, super cheap. Where else can you get a cream cheese muffin bigger than your fist for just 60 cents?
Its more familiar items, such as brownies, chocolate chip cookies and pound cakes, are all tasty and just as good as gourmet bakeries in Beverly Hills; but venture from the norm and try its Mexican pastries. What have you got to lose? None of the pastries cost more than a dollar.
In fact, conchas, a traditional Mexican bread, are just 25 cents each. They are round, fluffy rolls with a sugary, shortbread-like cookie crust that come in white, yellow, pink or brown. The white and yellow conchas have subtle vanilla tones, the pink a touch of strawberry and the brown a light chocolate flavor. The bottom roll is rich and soft, while the topping is sweet and crumbly, an altogether pleasant contrast. It makes the most “balanced” breakfast: rich yet light, with only a smattering of sweetness to satisfy the morning sweet tooth.
For sweeter pick-me-ups, try Superior’s sweet empanadas, a buttery pastry wrapped around different fruit fillings. Its capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding, is also a rich sticky delight, studded with raisins and punched with different spices. And you can never go wrong with its churros, deep-fried dough piped into a long, thin cylinder with a ridged surface crusted with cinnamon and sugar.
If you prefer more savory breads, get its bolillo, a salty sub that is reminiscent of French bread with its thick crust and soft insides. It gets a high turnout; I always see customers lining up with eight to 10 of these oval rolls, so you can be guaranteed that they are always baked fresh daily.
Tous Les Jours at Olympic Boulevard, Koreatown
As a Korean, I was thrilled to discover this famous Korean bakery chain just a 10-minute metro bus ride away from campus.
Tours Les Jours means “every day” in French, and its whole concept is based around an image of a mother cycling back home with a basket full of freshly baked goods. This concept might not apply to you, however, as you’re more likely to have nibbled whatever you bought on the way back home.
You will find deceptively French-looking items as you walk in. But on a closer look, you’ll discover that most items have an Asian twist, and at the same time sense a definite sweet potato and red bean fetish.
Embrace the fetish.
There is a reason why Asians love to inject these flavors into anything — the natural sugars in sweet potatoes infuse the baked good with an intense, caramelized sweetness that you cannot get from regular sugar. The red bean-paste that is stuffed into doughnuts, croissants and buns provides a smooth, slightly salty contrast, cutting the richness of the dough.
Its baguettes will never beat those of Paris, and its doughnuts will never surpass those sold at Dunkin’ Donuts, but it’s the unique interpretations of these traditional baked goods that will keep you coming back for more.
Treat yourself to its walnut cream baguette — an earthy, walnut-studded, half-sliced loaf filled with pillowy whipped cream between each crevice. Or sink your teeth into its sweet rice doughnut, a chewy, glutinous ball with — what else? — a red bean-paste filling.
Feeling a bit more adventurous? Tease your sweet and savory palate with the tuna croquette or sweet corn cream doughnut. You might wrinkle your nose right now, but one bite and I promise it’ll all make sense.
Hygge Bakery at 11th and Hope streets, Downtown
You know those Danish pastries you’ve been choking down for years with your morning coffee? Hygge Bakery snorts at them for being as Danish as French fries are French.
Hygge Bakery, located just a few minutes’ walk from L.A. Live, claims to be the first fully authentic Danish bakery in Los Angeles — and possibly in all of the United States. That is hefty bragging, but Hygge Bakery manages to deliver.
Forget cream cheese Danishes; the Danish never puts cream cheese into their pastries, and certainly not the shiny fruit-flavored jelly. Instead, think sweet, fragrant marzipan, creamy custard and chocolate.
This place will change your concept of pastries forever. Gone are the images of dense, doughy croissants. Real Danish pastries are delicate works of art — light, flaky puffs of delicate, buttery layers. Each spandauer (circular pastries with a marzipan or custard center) is composed of 27 feather-light layers.
Don’t go counting them though; instead, spend your time just relishing the airy flakes of dough melting on your tongue. Another favorite is the kringle bar, a slab of puff pastry slathered with marzipan and a buttercream called remonce, topped with crunchy almond slices.
If you love cinnamon rolls, you’ll go ga-ga over this version of a cinnamon roll, which is mostly buttery cinnamon filling with less dough. Each pastry, ranging from $1.95 to $2.25, is not exactly cheap, but for the quality you get, the price is reasonable.
Or splurge and spend a dollar more on the fancy petite cakes, such as the Sarah Bernhardt, which consists of a luscious chocolate mousse set on top of a thin crispy cookie and covered with dark chocolate ganache. You cannot go wrong with good quality chocolate covered with more chocolate.
“Good” is such an ambiguous term with bakeries. You can get a good bagel at a bagel store in Brooklyn, but you’re unlikely to find good croissants at the same store.
Thus, leave the bagels to New Yorkers and the sourdough bread to San Franciscans. Embrace what Los Angeles has to offer: an ethnic mosaic of individual cultures and traditions, preferably while carb-feasting at its authentic ethnic bakeries.
Sophia Lee is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “That’s What She Ate,” runs Mondays.