CYNTHIA REBOLLEDO traces their continued rise in 25 Magazine, Issue 5.
It goes without saying that the story of today’s new wave entrepreneurs in Los Angeles begins with Tierra Mia and La Monarca drawing on culinary traditions to influence and re-shape the tastes of Los Angeles’ specialty coffee scene.
At the forefront of this movement was Ulysses Romero, who opened his first Tierra Mia Coffee in South Gate in 2008, seeing the opportunity to meet the rising demand for third wave coffee houses while serving the Latino community. Since then Romero, a Stanford MBA graduate and former business consultant, has opened thirteen cafés in Southern and Northern California.
“We’ve done really well in Latino neighborhoods,” Romero told Los Angeles Magazine. “We’ve been well-received because of our decor, our music, environment, and, obviously, the core of everything we do, which is our Latin-inspired coffee menu and pastry offerings.” The menu consists of espressos and pour-over coffees, as well as specialty drinks such as the mocha Mexicano, horchata latte, coco loco latte, Cubano con leche, horchata frappe, and rice and beans frappe. And with the same hands-on approach and attention to detail in all that they do, the company roasts all of its beans, and bakes all of its delectable pastries sold in its stores.
La Monarca, a traditional Mexican bakery created by Ricardo Cervantes, born in the city of Monterrey in Mexico and his business partner, Alfredo Livas, reflects the multi-cultural foodways that are defining the future of food in Los Angeles. They represent the waves of Mexican immigrants who’ve come to Los Angeles drawing from traditional flavors and techniques to create innovative dishes, in this case pan dulce (“sweet bread,” or Mexican pastries), and growing them into restaurant models.
“When we moved to Los Angeles, we always looked for the best Mexican food,” Cervantes told KCRW. We were trying to find good food, and pan dulce is one of those things that you grow up with. So when we tried the pan dulce that we could find, we always missed the flavor of back home. And we said why don t we do something? If we miss it so much, other people do, too.”
Though there are a great deal of panaderias (Mexican bakeries) throughout Los Angeles, none lived up to the pastries they’d experienced while growing up in Monterrey, Mexico. This inspired the friends and Stanford graduates to open a bakery.
In 2006, they opened the first Monarca bakery in Huntington Park, specializing in traditional Mexican baked goods and sweets like pan dulce, tres leches cake (a sponge cake soaked with a mixture of three milks: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream), and café de olla (a traditional Mexican coffee beverage). All breads and pastries are made from scratch with the highest-quality ingredients, and without the use of artificial ingredients, preservatives, lard, trans-fats, or any ready-made mixes. They’re also the first to do agave-sweetened pastries and cookies. La Monarca offers Mexican coffees to go with their baked goods, including café Oaxaca, which is Mexican hot chocolate with a shot of espresso, and lattes all made with organic coffee from Oaxaca. They source their single-origin Oaxacan Dark Roast from a single grower in Oaxaca to emphasize the high quality.
A Showcase for Mexican Coffee
Chuy Tovar’s coffee shop, Primera Taza in Boyle Heights, is one of the few coffee houses in Los Angeles committed to sourcing all its coffee beans from Mexico. It was also with these beans that he was able to draw in the (predominantly Latino) older generation of the neighborhood.
“I started telling customers about the Mexican beans, and people would come in specifically just to try coffee from their state,” he says. “I would have people tell me, ‘Oh, you bring stuff from Michoacán’ and I’d tell them from what region and they would puff up with pride. I think when I started doing that, it erased that barrier.”
This bi-national interconnection would not exist if it weren’t for Tovar’s fully realized vision of Mexico’s reputation for quality regional coffees.
To make this all possible, he partnered up with Fabian Sanchez Arreola of Tijuana-based Tostadores Baristi. Arreola’s company works closely with small and medium Mexican coffee producers to ensure Baristi’s beans are known for their exceptional quality. Mexican baristas and roasters have a more direct connection to producers and can easily visit farms and learn in greater depth, as well as offer vital feedback to the farmers.
Trying to educate producers to change the way they cultivate their land and farm their product hasn’t been easy for people like us in the specialty coffee business,” says Arreola. Sometimes they’re not willing to take the chance to experiment. The 39 year-old has witnessed the transformation of Tijuana’s burgeoning coffee scene – saying that, in 2005, cafés would always serve coffee from other regions. “It was rare to see Mexican coffee, he says. “Now, the majority of cafés in TJ only serve quality Mexican coffee.”
Together, Arreola and Tovar are challenging people to question their perceptions – or misconceptions – about Mexican coffee, by showcasing high quality Mexican coffee. Tovar currently offers coffee from eleven different states in Mexico that includes Chiapas, Nayarit, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Michoacán, Jalisco, Colima, Puebla, Estado de Mexico, and Hidalgo. Each variety of coffee bean gives off its own unique flavor profile specific to the terroir that surrounds that region. “We are proud of our Mexican coffee,” Arreola says. “And we’re grateful to have this collaboration with Chuy and bring our product to California.”
The Alta Cocina Influence
Here in Los Angeles, word has spread about Primera Taza’s menu, indicative of California’s “alta cocina” or “high kitchen” movement with re-imagined Mexican interpretations of classic coffee drinks. Tovar draws from a wide variety of Mexican ingredients like piloncillo (unrefined whole cane sugar) from Veracruz, canela (cinnamon), anise, and cacao to showcase traditional flavors. His café de olla – based on the historical coffee drink that dates back to the Mexican Revolution in 1910, created by the adelitas, the female soldiers, to keep the soldiers alert and their hunger suppressed – utilizes the same ingredients as the adelitas original to create a comforting vibrant spiced beverage. Another customer favorite is his taza de mocha latte, made with chocolate Ibarra, a Mexican chocolate made in Guadalajara, Jalisco.
In recent years, Mexican-American millennials have begun claiming their new place as drivers of Los Angeles’ coffee scene, using social media platforms like Instagram to feature stylistic photography, textures, and vibrant colors that evoke cultural identity and unapologetic Latino pride. Their coffee shops represent Mexican culture with colorful art and decor manifested loudly throughout the space – along with the latest coffee-brewing gear.
Juan and Paola Vega of Mi Cafecito (Image: Cynthia Rebolledo).
At Mi Cafecito in Pomona, husband and wife team Juan and Paola Vega have built their coffee shop to promote and celebrate diversity and inclusivity among Latino communities while serving up Mexi-style coffee creations.
“We knew we wanted to create something different and make it approachable especially for new coffee drinkers and customers that love their frozen drinks and iced flavored lattes, because that was me before I knew anything about coffee,” says Juan Vega. “In addition to that, we wanted to create solidarity through coffee and that’s why we like to showcase so many different countries and the different nationalities that Latinos represent.”
Due to this thoughtful approach they say their customers’ palates are changing to the flavor and profile of quality specialty coffee. Here, iced coffees are extremely popular, particularly their iced café de olla with house-made piloncillo syrup, infused with cinnamon and clavo (clove).
Mi Cafecito Iced Coffee (Image: Juan Vega).
When third wave coffee shops started opening up in Daniel Olivares neighborhood of Echo Park, it peaked his interest. “I would walk into these coffee shops and it was weird because I would expect to see a menu full of sugary drinks and instead it was lattes and pour-overs, and at the time I didn’t know what a pour-over was,” says Olivares. “Their bar set-ups reminded me of science, which I really enjoy so I would ask all kinds of questions and that’s how I got into coffee.”
While attending college, he enrolled himself into the Ivy League Barista Academy in San Diego and got a job with Tierra Mia so he could hone his skills and better understand what it took to run a successful coffee operation. And after saving up enough money, he decided to drop out of school to open up his own coffee shop. “I wanted to open up in Echo Park because that’s my hometown but it was too gentrified and prices were crazy,” he says. “I needed to go somewhere that had a Latino demographic but at the same time that wasn’t going to set me back with rent.”
Olivares opened the coffee shop El Cielito in South Gate, a Latino suburb of Los Angeles. Although it struggled to reach residents at first, it has since become a community gathering place, hosting poetry slams and Latino entrepreneur events, where people can sell artisanal goods, meet, and connect. He’s created a coffee shop that gives the community a platform and forum for discussion with his “Coffee with a Cop” events, inviting people of the community to meet local law enforcement, giving them the opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns, and get to know the officers in their neighborhood. “It’s heartwarming to see the community coming together and people expressing themselves and [the] smell of coffee all in one place.”
El Cielito, as the name suggests (it means “heaven” in Spanish), is an ode to Olivares commitment of elevating Latino culture through the art of specialty coffee. “I want to offer every Latino coffee under the heavens.”
CYNTHIA REBOLLEDO is freelance writer covering food, culture, and travel from her home-base in Orange County, California.
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