By Gaige Davila
Reyes Bakery’s regulars know the familiar force of warm, sweet smelling air will greet them each time they pull open the bakery’s small wooden door. For some time, there was a quiet wonder if that unique, unreplicable salutation would ever return. Thankfully, it has, viral pandemic or not.
On Sept. 24, Reyes Bakery reopened, one of the last local businesses to do so after COVID-19 made its unwelcome presence in the area. But before COVID-19, the bakery’s doors were intermittently closed from 2018 to 2019, after Prospero De Leon, the bakery’s original baker, was unable to work.
Julie Rios, Reyes Bakery’s third-generation owner, said getting the bakery and its bread back to its original quality took time, delayed further by COVID-19, forcing Reyes Bakery to close again earlier this year.
Rios’ great grandfather, Tomas Reyes, with baker Prospero De Leon, opened Reyes Bakery more than 50 years ago. When Tomas died in 1984, the business was passed to Librada Reyes, Rios’ aunt.
Librada Reyes died in 2018, passing the bakery to Rios, who has operated it since. Rios remembered how she stood near the donut fryer, watching De Leon glaze the donuts when she was a child, as she moved donuts out of the same fryer onto a pan to drain.
“I never thought I’d go from eating the donuts to making the donuts,” Rios said.
Other than the people who are making the bread in Reyes Bakery, few things have changed. The original cash boxes, oven, automatic and manual dough mixers and the donut press are still used today. Inside, the bakery feels like the home of a family member, adorned with relics of Port Isabel’s past: model shrimp boats; photos of customers; a box for fundraising for the Boys and Girls Club building (now the Laguna Madre Youth Center). Librada added another wing to the bakery in 1988, where the current bread counter lays. The original storefront was where the dining room is now, with the store’s shelves being the original location of the kitchen.
Rios learned the basics of breadmaking from De Leon in 2019, watching the baker, who swore he would never share his recipes, cut and form the dough by hand. Today, Rios, her father, Silvester Sr., and her brother, Silvester, Jr., make all the pastries by hand using the same tools and equipment De Leon did.
“When my aunt passed away, I had to swear to her up and down that I would keep this place open,” Rios said, promising she would keep the bakery the way Librada left it.
De Leon only made one batch of dough a day, with pastries available on a first-come-first served model that lasted until only recently with Rios’ ownership. The bakery would open early and sell out early, with only the earliest of risers having the chance at De Leon’s pastries. Now, the bakery is open until the afternoon, with Rios making batches throughout the day.
That being said, Rios said she understands De Leon’s philosophy now, after making the pastries herself.
“He made a lot of different varieties, and it is very tiring, because each piece is handmade,” Rios said.
The Rios’ start work at 2:30 a.m., with the first batches made just before 7 a.m. Rios makes multiple batches of donuts, depending on how many people visit the bakery, because they’re the easiest to make. Conchas, however, take up to two hours, from dough to shelf.
Reyes Bakery makes semitas, pumpkin empanadas, puros, puritos, pescados, cinnamon rolls, donuts and molletes (conchas), the basic pan dulce that Rios said she had to “nail down” before making more of the bakery’s staple pastries. Those recipes have never been written down, Rios said, having been committed to memory only.
Rios said they’ve discontinued some of the original pastries from years past, like the lemon horns, because brand-name ingredients used in the recipes were discontinued. But regulars learning of the bakery’s reopening are asking for staples of years past, like bolios and polvorones. Rios said these will phase back into the bread counter, too, once she perfects the recipes.
Reyes Bakery operates as a small grocery, too, with staples like instant coffee, salt and baking soda currently on its shelves. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the shelves were full with items, which Rios cleared after the bakery closed. Slowly, she plans to bring the groceries back on the shelves.
What has not gone away is the bakery’s warmth, along with the sunlight that pours into its open windows. It’s intentional: Reyes Bakery doesn’t have an air conditioner, as any cold air disrupts the bread from rising. On cold weather days, baking bread at Reyes Bakery is especially hard, Rios said. She learned how temperature affected the bread as a child, when De Leon would chastise her for leaving the door open on cold mornings.
Reyes Bakery is not selling out of bread as often as they used to, which Rios attributes to the pandemic, people not knowing they are open and people not having money to spare on sweet bread. Regulars are slowly returning, all exclaiming they didn’t know the bakery had reopened.
“We’ve been holding ground,” Rios said. That ground is revered in the neighborhood Reyes bakery lies in, near South Shore Drive and Garriga Elementary in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Port Isabel. Regulars come in and tell stories of walking to the bakery barefoot with their older relatives, or former residents who insist that no trip back home is complete without stopping there.
And when people are not telling stories, inside the original, six-feet-tall gas oven and the donut fryer source perpetual white noise interrupted only by dough being placed in or bread being removed from either.
Rios said, admittedly, that making pan dulce is hard, and that only a love for doing so can keep a person baking. Rios, fortunately, loves keeping this Port Isabel staple alive.
“There’s so many people that have fond memories of this place, and it would have been so sad just to leave it closed up,” she said.
Reyes Bakery is open Tuesday to Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 437 W. Monroe Street in Port Isabel.