This Mexican bakery is hidden along Fairfield's Route 4, but it won't remain a secret for long

Panaderia la Mexicana has 80 delectable offerings
Posted at 5:29 AM, May 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-01 09:05:26-04

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- French and Mexican history became forever intertwined on Cinco de Mayo, a date that commemorates the Mexican Army's victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Though the nations found themselves on opposite sides back then, both cultures can certainly agree today on their love for the boulangerie (bakery).

Panaderia la Mexicana, on Route 4 in Fairfield, offers 80 kinds of Mexican baked goods.

Tucked away in the suburb of Fairfield lies a boulangerie of a Mexican kind. Panaderia la Mexicana puts out an impressive spread of 80 different baked goods, ranging from breads and cakes to doughnuts and empanadas.

The bakery also rotates its lineup to include seasonal offerings.

"We start making cornbread around this time of year," Luis Leon said, referring to the summer corn harvest. Leon is the bakery manager and son of owners Adalberto and Lourdes Leon.

Leon's parents hail from Jalisco in the west central region in Mexico. But his parents didn't meet until after each had moved in 1980 to Chicago, where Leon was born and raised. The family relocated to Cincinnati in 1999 when Leon was 14 to pursue greener entrepreneurial pastures.

"It was my mother's dream to open a restaurant, market and bakery," Leon said.

That dream is alive and well today in a little strip mall off Dixie Highway. Panaderia la Mexicana occupies the end of a row of storefronts the Leon family owns, including Taqueria Mercado restaurant and a Mexican market.

Mexican churros are popular at Panaderia la Mexicana.

The bakery offers Latin-American staples like churros (long strips of fried dough dusted with sugar) and conchas (sweet-bread rolls topped with crumbly cookie dough shaped like a conch shell).

Panaderia la Mexicana also offers a few items that are regionally unique, such as aguacatas from Michoacan in western Mexico.

Conchas (sweet-bread rolls topped with crumbly cookie dough shaped like a conch shell) are Latin-American staples.

"One of our bakers is from Michoacan," Leon explained. "The bread is sprinkled with crushed piloncillo and baked until it melts over the bread."

Piloncillo is a type of dark, unrefined cane sugar that is usually shaped like small cones.

The bakery's sweet empanadas reflect the regional fare of Jalisco. The empanadas are baked and filled with pineapple, strawberry or cream. The bakery also offers squash-blossom empanadas in the fall, Leon said.

True to Mexican baked goods, many of the items at Panaderia la Mexicana are not very rich and are only mildly sweet compared to more mainstream bakeries. "Our products are made to be enjoyed by itself and can be eaten anytime," Leon said.

He noted that the only exception is bolillo bread, a baguette-like bread that is shorter and less crusty. The bakery supplies bolillo bread to Taqueria Mercado.

"We cut it open and use that to make tortas (sandwiches)," Leon said.

One of the bakery's most popular items is the tres leches cake, which is sponge cake soaked in three different kinds of milk -- typically condensed, evaporated and whole milk. The other crowd favorite is the mantecada, an orange-flavored sponge cake that resembles muffins.

For all the deliciousness that's on display in the storefront, the real magic happens in the back where bakers mix, shape and roll simple ingredients into golden beauties.

Panaderia la Mexicana bakers include, from left, Federico Dominguez, Martha Barrera, and Eduardo Lopez.

Eduardo Lopez, who serves as the head baker and kitchen manager, leads a small and conspicuously happy team of bakers. There were plenty of smiles to go around, and his assistant, Federico Dominguez, was often seen dancing and singing to music playing in the background.

By all accounts, the team is highly skilled and moves like a well-oiled machine.

"Most of these bakers' skills go back generations," Leon said. "A lot of them have parents or even grandparents who were bakers and they're simply keeping the tradition."

Leon said the bakery uses natural ingredients and nothing that's premade.

"We fresh-crack our eggs by hand and we use whole milk, not powdered milk or eggs," he added.

Martha Barrera cracks eggs for production.

In addition to its retail shop, the bakery also sells and delivers to roughly 15 other Hispanic markets in the region.

"We deliver to stores as far north as Springfield, Ohio, and as far south as Verona, Kentucky," Leon said.

The operation is truly a family affair. Leon's mother drives the business, and his uncles pitch in as well. Even his 80-something grandmother, Antonia Guzman, who's visiting from Jalisco, actively surveys the shop to ensure proper operation.

Four generations of the Leon family at Panaderia la Mexicana: Adalberto Leon (father), Antonia Guzman (grandmother), Luis and Carmen Leon, and their children.

Leon acknowledges the bakery is not the most visible, and people often drive by without even noticing.

"A lot of people pass through Route 4/Dixie Highway and don't even know we're here," he said. "But once they stop in, they keep coming back."

Panaderia la Mexicana

6503 Dixie Highway, Fairfield


Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.