7 Takes On Pao Doce, The Portuguese Treat Also Known As Hawaiian Sweet Bread

People who extoll the influential dishes of Western Europe — paella, bouillabaisse, bolognese, strudel, goulash — rarely pay attention to the food of Portugal. It's a strange oversight. During more than 500 years of trade and colonialism, the Portugese left bites of their cuisine on almost every continent. One of these calling cards is pao doce, a simple leavened bread sweetened with milk and sometimes sugar. Portuguese laborers and traders brought pao doce to the world and the world has brought it to Los Angeles.

Here are seven great variations on pao doce in Southern California.

The Hawaiian breakfast at King's Hawaiian. (Christian Letourneau for LAist)

Hawaii

Several classic Hawaiian dishes originated with immigrants who came to labor in the kingdom's lucrative sugarcane plantations during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1876, King Kalakaua and a consortium of American plantation owners incentivized the immigration of European workers. Soon after, Portuguese residents of the Azores began making the four-month journey. They brought with them a four-stringed guitar that would become the ukulele and a leavened bread known as pao doce, which would become widely known as Hawaiian sweet bread.

In 1963, Robert Taira opened King's Bakery in Honolulu, where his sweet bread was a top seller. Twenty-five years later, he moved the business to Southern California (Torrance, to be precise) and King's Hawaiian went on to dominate grocery store shelves across the United States. The business remains a Torrance institution, with a bakery and two full-service restaurants. At the outpost on Sepulveda Boulevard, you can find a full range of sweet breads including classic domed loaves, sliced pullmans, sliders and hamburger buns. Need food now? Order the Big Island Breakfast with two eggs, coins of Portuguese sausage and three thick slices of French toast, made with King's Hawaiian bread, of course.
King's Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant: 2808 Sepulveda Blvd, Torrance. 310-530-0050.

Brazil

A pao de queijo and a cafézinho is a quintessential Brazilian breakfast. Before the dish was part of the national identity, it was a product of slavery. In the state of Minas Gerais, people forced to work at Portuguese-controlled mines and plantations began baking small buns with leftover yucca starch and water. As Minas Gerais became a hub of agriculture and dairy production, cheese became a regular addition to the dish. At Brasil Kiss, pao doce is made fresh daily with imported cassava (also known as mandioca) flour. Other Brazilian snacks include coxinha, a teardrop croquette of chicken and spices, and "Romeu e Julieta," a savory-sweet grilled sandwich of guava paste and catupiry cheese.
Brasil Kiss: 1010 Wilshire Blvd., downtown L.A. 213-785-5131.
Brasil Kiss: 6350 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323-498-6099.

The flavors of Minas Gerais have no better ambassador than Natalia Pereira, whose disarming DTLA restaurant, WOODSPOON, serves several specialties from her home state. Here, pao de queijo sits beside fresh biscuits and a sweet, flourless cornbread. Dig into the carby trinity as you sip the house sangria during one of the most charming brunches in the neighborhood.
Woodspoon: 107 W. 9th St., downtown L.A. 213-629-1765.

[Want to dive deeper into Brazilian food in Southern California? We've got you covered.]

Vada pav at Mumbai Ki Galliyon Se. (Christian Letourneau for LAist)

India

Portugese contact with the west coast of India began when Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar coast in 1498 and returned to his homeland with a lucrative cargo of spices. Portuguese colonialism in India finally ended in 1961, when the Indian government seized control of the state of Goa, but remnants of Portugal's influence linger. Over the centuries, pao doce, referred to as "pav," became integral to Indian street food, particularly in Goa and Maharashtra. In the city of Mumbai, a spiced potato fritter is pressed between sweet, hot, buttered bread then dressed with sweet and spicy condiments to create vada pav. Pav bhaji is a slick of comforting tomato-based curry accompanied by heavily buttered sweet rolls to sop it up.

To find them here, head to Southern California's epicenter of Indian fare, Artesia. "Pav bhaji is a lifestyle," says Sailesh Shah, standing in the sparely decorated dining room of his restaurant, Mumbai Ki Gallyon Se. Shah sees pav bhaji as the great unifier, beloved by Mumbai residents across lines of caste and taste. Although usually served with thick pats of butter, his version is so dense and complex you won't need it. Shah decorates his vada pav with an array of handmade chutneys. He'll dress it Gujurati style, Mumbai style or to your particular tastes and spice tolerance. All you have to do is ask.
Mumbai Ki Galliyon Se: 17705 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. 201-844-1515.

Vada pav and pav bhaji at Surati Farsan Mart. (Christian Letourneau for LAist)

Surati Farsan Mart, less than a mile down the street, makes the sweet bread for their pav bhaji and vada pav in-house. Here, you can adorn your vada pav with a slice of American cheese, which might make traditionalists balk but somehow kind of works.
Surati Farsan Mart: 11814 186th St., Artesia. 562-860-2310.

Pao doce at Portugal Imports. (Christian Letourneau for LAist)

Portugal

You could sail across the Indian Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope, or you could turn off Pioneer Boulevard and drive three blocks to Portugal Imports, a pastry shop, bakery and grocery store specializing in Portugese flavors. Marco and Melissa Costa bake a few different types of old world pao, which customers can pre-order or pick up in the shop. When asked about the distinctions between different types of pao, Marco suggests not getting too caught up in the semantics. "The Portugese love to have a million different words for the same thing," he says. The Costas have been running their bakery for 15 years, offering Portugese pastries while importing salt cod, packed sardines, vinho verde and linguica. Many of their clients are part of a Portugese community that traces its heritage to San Diego's whaling industry. The bakery specializes in pastel de nata, a custard-filled two-bite luxury ubiquitous across Portugal. Place a large order and pay cash, and they'll throw in one for free.
Portugal Imports: 11655 Artesia Blvd., Artesia. 562-809-702.

Custard tarts at Nata's Pastries in Sherman Oaks. (Christian Letourneau for LAist)

If you live at the other end of L.A. County, Nata's Pastries in Sherman Oaks also offers loaves of pao doce and cuts of salt cod to take home but you should stay for lunch. A kaleidoscope of pastries and cakes fills two cases in the tiny front room. The full menu features franceshina, a luxurious sandwich of various sausages, melted cheese and a tomato-and-beer gravy, and caldo verde, a simple soup built around collard greens. Nata's is suitable for a quick work lunch but you could also linger with a glass of white wine, then maybe another and a slice of lemon cake.
Nata's Pastries: 13317 Ventura Blvd., Suite D. Sherman Oaks. 818-788-8050.