From its colorful monarch butterfly sign outside to the tiles and pale woods inside, and the carefully executed cards identifying the pastries, it's clear that La Monarca is an upscale version of your neighborhood Mexican bakery. But the pastries taste much the same, from the giant sugar-sprinkled orejas that leave a dry feeling in your mouth (like they all do) to the polovorones (or Mexican sugar cookies) that crumble just so in your coffee. The puercito (piggie) muffins don't overdo the sugar, a good thing; and both the chocolate and the guayaba croissants offer a nice surprise in that the rich fillings reach the ends of the pastries.
La Monarca, which also has shops in Huntington Park, East L.A. and Santa Monica, offers breakfasts and tortas for lunch and dinner.
Molletes you could nosh on for any meal. It's the poor man's dish. At least it's this poor woman's dish, a bolillo halved lengthwise and toasted, then spread with beans and sprinkled with cheese. With ingredients from Super King, you can make these for less than 50 cents each. But you don't have La Monarca's overhead. And you probably don't infuse your pinto beans with chipotle. (Please, don't be offended if you do.) And do you use organic asadero cheese? La Monarca does. So La Monarca's molletes are five times more expensive than yours. But if you eat theirs, you don't have to figure out how to finish the rest of the can of beans or the remaining chipotles, which, if you used them all at once would eat a hole through your tongue.
Quiche ranchero is a little blander than expected. It's tasty, with a gorgeous, flaky crust and especially with the salsa verde served on the side. But that's a dish that deserves a little more chile action. The menu lists it as a “healthy take” on the salsa-fied egg dish. I'm still trying to figure out how cooking the ingredients for huevos rancheros in a pastry crust makes it healthier. Maybe more tasty, definitely more portable.
La Monarca offers trenzas, in this case rectangular pastries stuffed with savory goodies. Though the name confused me, because the trenzas I've had elsewhere were braided pastries, I would make them a staple, braid or no braid. The cheese and rajas trenza is filled with strips of roasted poblano chiles mixed with cream cheese and white corn kernels. The outside was crisp and light and the inside bursting with savory heat. Other versions include combinations of ham, cheese, jalapeño and chipotle.
For lunch, the bakery offers savory sandwiches and the miniature version in bolillo sliders. The vegetarian chorizo a la Mexicana is packed with onions, tomatoes and a soy chorizo that could have darn near fooled me. The sandwiches all include a thin spread of smushed beans on one slice of bread and a sprinkling of grated cotija cheese over the filling. The tomatillo salsa verde braised beef filling is moist and delicious, with the green salsa saturating the shredded meat.
The poblano chicken mole (MO-lay) torta is a find. Mole poblano (the style of mole from the town of Puebla, Mexico) is one of the most complicated dishes you can imagine, with an ingredient list as long as your arm; and when it's done right, it's magnificent. It tastes of cinnamon, chocolate, anise, peppercorn, garlic, coriander, tomatillos, chiles, with at least a dozen other parts thrown in the mix. It makes for a rich, fragrant sandwich filling, and I imagine La Monarca's version will become a hit.
The bakery, of course, offers cakes, tortes and flans. The espresso flan makes up for its unappealing greenish-brown hue with a slap of caramel and coffee bean to the taste buds. The tiramisu tastes of espresso and smoky rum, and the dark chocolate Mexican mocha cake is a wonder of cocoa and sugar, and just a bit dangerous. Many of the cakes are offered in ultra-miniature — tiny little circles for a buck fifty each — if you're in the mood for just a taste.
And then there's the tres leches cake. How many leches? Tres. That's condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream all soaked up into an airy, unsuspecting pound cake. Then there's the whipped-cream icing. So how many leches? Stop counting and eat. This version is so moist it actually squishes in your mouth, and I mean that in a good way.
La Monarca has the usual suspects, and some unusual ones, when it comes to coffee. The cafe crema, espresso with whipped cream, is perfect if you're trying to up your tally of leches. But if you're in a Mexican bakery, you really should order the cafe de olla, Mexican coffee brewed with cinnamon and brown sugar. Rich, delicious and strong, it's the perfect cup of coffee, especially with a tiny little circle of tres leches.
Where: 1001 Mission St., South Pasadena
Hours: Open daily, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Cost: Breads, pastries and cakes, from 60 cents; quequitos, $1.50; hot breakfast dishes $2.25 to $4; sliders and sandwiches, from $2.50
More info: (626) 403-6860, lamonarcabakery.com
REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and Caribbean Travel & Life.