Forty years after he first put on a white apron, Abel Salgado remains an anomaly in the Jewish bakery world, but not for reasons one might expect. Sure, when he joined Local 453 of the Hebrew Master Bakers and Confectioners Union in 1963, the Chihuahua native was maybe the second or third Latino ever to join the union, then 2,000 strong. And even today, Salgado is one of the few non-Jews involved in the Jewish bakery business, a profession that occupies a particularly sacred -- not to mention delicious -- place in the religion. But, Salgado noted, ethnicity and theology were the least controversial issues when he originally applied to join the union.
"Most of the other members couldn't stand that I was so young," reminisces the Mexican Mormon, with a cement-mixer laugh that jiggles his friendly jowls. "Most of the bakers in the union were older men from the mother countries -- Germany, Russia, Poland -- and would give me the cold treatment at meetings, since you had to be 18 at the time to join the union, and I joined at 17."
He quickly won over skeptics the same way he persuaded the union president to let a young Latino join the big-fisted union -- baking the best damn challah bread in the Southland, loaves so wondrously plump no one could deny him acceptance.
"After a couple of years," Salgado boasted, "I was considered one of the tribe."
But the baker nevertheless remains a curiosity in his job, now for more disturbing reasons. Salgado is one of the Southland's last makers of Jewish pastries, a quickly disappearing craft that Salgado freely admits will probably perish within the next generation or two. The AFL-CIO swallowed HMBC No. 453 years ago, and union bakers are as rare as communists.
Salgado is a large, tubby gentleman who keeps his ink-black mustache impeccably groomed and possesses gnarled hands marked with ancient burns -- the man looks as if he emerged from the womb wearing a flour-dusted apron. He moved to Irvine in 1987, retiring after two decades of owning and operating Jewish bakeries around Los Angeles' Fairfax district. But the allure of dough -- and a community of 60,000 Orange County Jews forced to visit Los Angeles for their weekly bread needs -- convinced Salgado to come out of retirement and open Abel's Bakery in 1997.
Although he hadn't baked anything in almost a decade, Salgado began preparing the meticulously presented Jewish baked goods again as if he'd been away for the weekend.
"If you're a master baker, it's not something you forget," said Salgado, who pronounces words like mandelbrot and challah with the Yiddish comfort of a rabbi. "You just pick up where you started. And I know everything there is to know about Jewish pastries."
He's not kidding -- in addition to loyal and walk-in customers, Salgado maintains lucrative ties with local synagogues and Jewish organizations for their unleavened needs.
The doors of Abel's Bakery are always swung open, the better to allow the shop's sweet scents to entice gourmands. A large tray holds made-every-morning plain, pumpernickel and seeded rye bread, their slightly dull crusts encasing soft but firm loaves. Trays buckle with rugala, small cookies moist with chocolate chips and the holy hamantashen, a fruity triangle-shaped turnover sold by the thousands during the festival of Purim and by the hundreds the rest of the year. Abel's even sells pan dulces the size of footballs -- Salgado originally hired other Mexican bakers to bake them since he didn't know how.
But the biggest seller -- and Salgado's finest creation -- remains that beautiful challah, prominently displayed behind the main counter and as imposing as a toolbox. Jewish families line up en masse outside Abel's every Friday to order their challah loaves in preparation for Shabbat dinner, in which challah plays the lead role. The challah possesses a full, thick body and the slightest hint of egg. It's best for French toast, but it's good for sandwiches, too.
Salgado is so proud of his challah that he frequently puts on the following show: he'll get a slice of challah, suddenly crush it as if it were worthless paper and place it on the counter. Rather than remain a crumbled bread ball, the challah slowly springs back to life like a flower blooming on high speed, with nary a crumb to suggest any abuse.
"See that?" Salgado said. "Let's see Weber's do that."
Abel's Bakery, located at 24601 Raymond Way, No. 7, Lake Forest, is open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call (949) 699-0930.