For decades, Jesse Bocanegra and his family made leche quemada, the milk candy famous at restaurants like Monterey House. Now, another generation is working on its return.

Houstonians of a certain age may remember restaurants that have long since closed for good, including the Monterey House chain of Mexican food restaurants.

While the food was memorable, the complimentary Mexican milk candy known as leche quemada may have been most sought after. Restaurant workers would place the candy inside wax paper and tuck it beneath the corn chips served to each table.

The only Monterey House left is located in Beaumont. The man behind La Colmena is 84 years old now.

Jesse Bocanegra remembers his family’s company fondly.

“We made the pumpkin candy, sweet potato candy, coconut candy and milk candy,” Bocanegra recalled. “Everybody loved that milk candy.”

Jesse Bocanegra mixing ingredients for leche quemada several years ago.
Image source: Gina Bocanegra

While Monterey House was well known for the treat, Bocanegra and his company delivered the treat to dozens of restaurants across Houston for years.

“They came back to pick up candy and when they opened some others, we started delivering to everybody else,” Bocanegra remembered.

Bocanegra grew up in the candy business along with his brother, Mike. Their father and grandfather were confectioners too.

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Jesse Bocanegra is second from left and was 14 or 15 at the time this image was captured.
From left to right. Mike Bocanegra (dads brother. Jesse Bocanegra (dad), Pilar Miranda (my great-grandfather), Ignacio Bocanegra (my grandfather), Laurenzo Miranda (dad’s cousin) and Pete Maldonado (family friend). Image source: Gina Bocanegra

By the time his daughter Gina Bocanegra was born, Jesse was out of the business, and the popularity of the milk candy was unknown to her. Until nearly a decade ago, Gina only knew the treat from family gatherings like Christmas and Thanksgiving, where Jesse would revive the practice for eager relatives.

Once she discovered the tradition had fans, Gina said she felt like God was pulling her to revive the business. But first, she had to learn how to make it. The recipe is closely guarded by her father.

“It was something that he’s very much been protective about,” Gina said. “He would not allow anyone outside of the immediate family to be in here when we were making candy. Let me tell you, there’s a reason why no one has been able to duplicate it. Because it’s not easy.”

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The author asking Jesse Bocanegra whether his youngest daughter, Gina, can make the candy as well as he can. (He says yes.)

Gina went on to sell the candy at farmer’s markets and through mail-order. But family illness, crises like Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters and her role as Jesse’s full-time caregiver have made the candy business revival all but impossible.

“If I were to hear this story, I don’t even know I would believe it if it were somebody else, because it’s been non-stop,” Gina said.

Dementia is slowly taking her father’s memory from him, but they both know that soon, her full-time role as his caregiver won’t be enough, a decision she says is as heartbreaking as it sounds.

“Once Dad is placed in a nursing home, that’ll free up 24 hours a day,” Gina said. “I can’t sink my teeth into anything right now.”

Until then, there’s time to remember.

“She makes the candy good,” Jesse said. “She’s gonna bring it back.”