Hollister’s best little Mexican-style
bakery is a long family tradition
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
Some people find their dream job after spending years at school or completing a fancy summer internship in one of the major cities, while others, like fourth-generation baker, Francisco “Frankie” Berlanga, are born into their vocation.
“My grandfather’s dad and all his brothers had bakeries in Mexico,” says Berlanga one busy Saturday morning at El Nopal Panaderia and Tortilla Factory on 3rd Street in Hollister. Berlanga, 34, operates both the flagship location and a second El Nopal bakery on 4th Street in San Benito County’s largest town.
Standing in front of a rotating commercial oven where a number of mini French loaves, known as bolillos, are baking and slowly turning a light golden color, Berlanga tells how a little pig helped shape the story of his family’s baking roots in the United States.
When Berlanga’s grandfather, also named Francisco, was a teenager, he worked at his father’s bakery in Nuevo Laredo, a town in Mexico located on the banks of the Rio Grande. There, as a young man he learned the family trade and more importantly, his father’s recipe for puerquitos, a soft gingerbread cookie that comes in the shape of a pig.
Mexican pan dulce (or sweet breads) are named after their shape. There are elote (corn), cuernos (horns) and conchas (shells)—a fluffy, slightly sweet yeast bread with a sugary topping in either pink, yellow, white or brown. All are perfect for dunking in coffee or champurrado, thick cinnamon-accented hot chocolate commonly served during the winter holidays, but it is puerquitos (pigs) that have the most distinct flavor, a mild ginger, not as spicy as a ginger snap.
When Berlanga’s grandfather moved to Laredo, Tex., his father’s gingerbread recipe helped him land his first job at a local bakery. From that first job, the elder Francisco took his trade from Texas to California, working in bakeries in San Jose and Salinas and finally Pajaro— a working-class neighborhood in North Monterey County—where he opened his first bakery, El Nopal, in 1967. Nearby canneries and food processing plants, which at the time operated 24 hours a day, supplied a steady stream of customers, quickly garnering it a reputation for making the best pan dulce around.
Today, that location is run by Berlanga’s uncle. In Hollister, Frankie runs the bakery opened by his father Adolfo, a Vietnam veteran, who was scouting for a new location when he saw a for rent sign at a shuttered dry cleaners in Hollister.
The space came with a little house in the back alley where the young family would live. “It was great,” says Frankie, who has two older sisters, one of whom sells bakery products. One day the owner of the building asked his dad if he wanted to buy the property and he said yes. They did the deal with a handshake.
Berlanga says he may well be the last of his family to continue in the baking business. The long hours can be tough, he says, and he credits his ability to sleep on command and his wife, Cherub, for support, “I think I’m the last one— the last generation. It’s good work, but it’s every day.”
Berlanga says he may
well be the last of his
family to continue in
the baking business.
On a typical day, Berlanga arrives at the bakery at 8:30pm to get things ready. Then he returns home, takes a nap and wakes up at 1:00am to get back to the bakery to start baking for the day.
Every day the bread and pastries are made freshly, because like his dad Berlanga uses no preservatives in his dough. If there are leftovers, the discounted day-old bread is gone by the following morning. “Some people prefer the day-old bread,” says Berlanga, who himself starts off his morning with six pieces of the fragrant pan. “They say it is better to dunk in their coffee.”
The bakery also produces flour and corn tortillas, corn chips for area restaurants and, during the holiday season, rosca de reyes, a ring-shaped pastry that is typically eaten to celebrate Epiphany in January, and dough (or masa) for tamales, a holiday staple filled with either savory meat or cheese or made sweet with sugar and ingredients like raisins and pineapple for Christmas and New Year’s family get-togethers.
Like in Mexico where people visit the neighborhood tortilleria and panaderia daily for their fresh tortillas and bread, El Nopal is a regular stop for many of Berlanga’s customers, some of whom have known him since he was a kid helping his dad in the bakery.
“We have customers whose grown children now come into the store,” he says. One of his longstanding customers regularly ships packets of El Nopal tortillas to her daughter who lives across the country.
“I think she pays more for the postage than she does for the tortillas!” he says with a laugh.
EL NOPAL PANADERIA AND TORTILLA FACTORY
216 3rd St.
1290 4th St.
Roseann Hernandez Cattani is a writer, editor and explorer, searching the globe and the Monterey Bay area for new tastes and treasures.