Meet the alfajor, the French macaron of South America. The original alfajor - an ancient Spanish-Arabic pastry born in the Andalusian city of Medina Sidonia in the southernmost region of Spain - bears little resemblance to its South American counterpart. Derived from the Arabic alfahua, or "honeycomb," Spanish alfajores are long, cylindrical pastries filled with almonds, honey and various spices such as cinnamon, cloves and anise seed; South American alfajores consist of two delicate shortbread cookies filled with schmears of, most commonly, dulce de leche, but sometimes other sweet spreads. You can find them dipped in chocolate, smothered in coconut, or dusted with powdered sugar. Then there are the Argentine, Peruvian and Chilean prototypes, the latter sporting the thickest gobs of dulce de leche out of the pack - a very good thing indeed.
And don't confuse dulce de leche with caramel. Caramel is essentially burned sugar, whereas dulce de leche is burned sweetened condensed milk. You boil it in the can for hours, a long and irritating process, which requires constant attention lest the can explode.
Thanks to the strong South American presence in L.A., we have many bakeries and cafés that make these delightful sandwich cookies in-house, and some of these spots also import popular brands from Latin America. Here are our favorites.
6. Rincon Chileno:
This low-key Chilean restaurant and deli on Melrose near LACC sells some of the best empanadas in town, and certainly some of the best alfajores. The cookies in these Chilean-style alfajores have an unexpected texture more reminiscent of a cracker than a cookie - the result of rolling the dough out extremely thin. In addition, the dough is rolled only on one side, resulting in a lovely, rustic, curled-up appearance unlike any iterations you'll find outside of a Chilean's restaurant or home. At Rincon Chileno they sell them plain, covered in shaved coconut, or brushed with a light sugar glaze (we prefer the latter). This light and delicate cookie pairs well with the thick helping of dulce de leche they load between the cookies. 4354 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323-666-6075.
5. El Sanguchetto Bakery:
El Sanguchetto is a cozy bakery and café in a tiny strip mall off a residential road in Paramount. This welcoming spot serves up Argentine sandwiches, pizza (Italian food is extremely prevalent throughout Argentina) and empanadas, and also bakes off loads of Argentine pastries, including several varieties of the vigilante (similar to the Danish), sweet piononos (a roulade filled with dulce de leche and sliced into cookies), the Uruguayan meringue delight known as chaja, and alfajores Argentinos.
Argentina consumes more alfajores than any country on the planet, and this style utilizes fluffy, cakey cookies. Most often you find them rolled lightly in macaroon coconut (dried coconut) and filled with a nice bite of dulce de leche. The ones at El Sanguchetto are super soft, fresh, moist and wholly addictive. A small box of 12 will cost you $4.95. 8133 Alondra Blvd., Paramount; 562-790-8501.
4. Mercado Buenos Aires:
We've already raved about Mercado Buenos Aires, about its impressive yerba mate collection and its fantastic empanadas, but we can go ahead and add alfajores to the list. Lovely and pillowy, its alfajores Argentinos have a buttery flavor and heavenly texture. They also make Peruvian-style alfajores, which use a classic shortbread cookie instead of the cakier cookie you'll find in an Argentine alfajor.
In addition to the cookies made in-house, Mercado sells a huge selection of imported alfajores from Argentina, most notably the Havanna brand based out of Mar del Plata, Argentina, which is famous for being the best in the country. Havanna, like the other brands, sells chocolate-covered and white chocolate - covered cookies filled with dulce de leche, along with other fillings, such as chocolate. All of these imports are far pricier than the fresh alfajores (about $13 a box), but they're definitely worth sampling. 7542 Sepulveda Blvd., Van Nuys; 818-786-0522.
Mo-Chica is the only high-profile, chef-driven restaurant on this list, but it deserves a spot next to these masters of South American baking. Ricardo Zarate's riff on alfajores really isn't much of a riff - he stays close to the true Peruvian form, but with the modest ingenuity you'd expect from his kind of cooking. A thick layer of powdered sugar coats these shortbread cookies with the delicacy of a fresh snowfall - you know they were sugared up à la minute. The same deft hand pulls off the lightest, flakiest, most decadent shortbread cookie of all the alfajores on this list; with the accompanying filling of dulce de leche, it's a real knockout. A chocolate alfajor filled with rocoto (South American chile) chocolate ganache joins the classic on the plate. 514 W. Seventh St., dwntwn.; 213-622-3744.
2. Grand Casino Bakery
This Argentine fixture in Culver City has a bakery to be reckoned with. In addition to its airy and comfortable dining room, lovely weekend brunches, dynamite empanadas and relaxing sidewalk patio, it also bakes off loads of Argentinian and South American pastries along with many variations of alfajores. Alongside its classic alfajores Argentinos are larger, chocolate alfajores wrapped in silver and blue foil. These are stellar - extremely fresh cookies with a unique Graham cracker flavor and the signature softness you'll find in an Argentinian alfajor. Though they're dunked in chocolate and ooze with both chocolate and dulce de leche, these manage to not to be overwheming - you can finish the whole thing. Actually, you will have to finish it. Dunk one in a cafe con leche for added pleasure. 3826 Main St., Culver City; 310-202-6969.
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1. J. Mendoza Bakery:
Alfajores take center stage at this unassuming and super-small Peruvian bakery in Huntington Park. At 75 cents a pop, these are the cheapest cookies on the list and, as is often the case in Los Angeles, they are arguably some of the best. Though the bakery sells pan dulce and various other Peruvian sweets, its alfajores, which come in three sizes - including an extra-large version the size of a full-on cake - are extremely fresh, with a delectable ratio of filling to cookie to powdered sugar. This intense coat of powdered sugar cranks up the sweetness in a really good way - the standard shortbread cookies used in Peruvian alfajores are not very sweet and they definitely benefit from that extra kick. 2631 E. Gage Ave., Huntington Park; 323-582-4113.