I’m standing in a busy kitchen at a friend’s house in Huntington Park talking on a borrowed iPhone as I try to scribble fast enough to record a secret family recipe for what I’m assured is the “best café de olla in the world.” There are tias and tios everywhere, moms and grandmas running in and out of the cocina, and a majestic blue and yellow macaw holding down the back porch. It’s maddening but finding sublime café de olla is worth it.
Café de olla is more than coffee. Brewed with cinnamon and raw sugar, it’s a ritual that feeds the body and fortifies the soul. It’s grandma’s hands breaking up sticks of cinnamon. It’s the warmth emanating from an overused clay pot. It’s the smell of sugar and ground beans, bubbling together in a pot while La Sonora Dinamita bumps through your friend’s mom’s bluetooth speakers.
A confident voice comes through the phone, all the way from Jalisco: “Make sure you don’t add the coffee until the very end,” she says, “after it’s all boiled with cinnamon and everything.” She is concerned. In years past, good café de olla was hard to find in Los Angeles. My mom remembers these dark days. “We have it now,” I assure my friend’s aunt. Yes, we do.
THE HISTORY OF CAFÉ DE OLLA
At its most basic level, café de olla is a hundred-year-old way of making “cowboy coffee,” according to Chuy Tovar. He owns El Café by Primera Taza, a small artisan coffee stand inside a Boyle Heights art studio. Tovar is also the source of all coffee wisdom in Los Angeles. He doesn’t just make and sell coffee, he’s obsessed with it.
Before perfecting his take on the sweet drink, Tovar studied the origins of café de olla and found it was, like so many of the delicacies we now consume, born out of necessity.
During the Mexican Revolutionary War in the 1910s, it kept soldiers energized as they struggled to overthrow octogenarian autocrat Porfirio Díaz, whose policies mostly benefited foriegn investors and his wealthy friends. “You didn’t really have to eat anything, just a piece of bread and some café and you were ready to go. You’d grab your coffee and then go to war,” Tovar says.
Fought before modern conveniences like Postmates and commercial refrigeration made it easy for us to get sustenance, Mexico’s civil war required Emiliano Zapata’s generals to supply troops spread along the U.S.-Mexico border in Chihuahua.
Soldaderas or adelitas, female warriors often charged with maintaining the camp and supply lines, perfected a concoction that gave soldiers a quick boost of energy and a few calories. They did this by boiling water, coffee, chocolate, cinnamon sticks, cloves and piloncillo (raw cane sugar) in a clay pot. That’s where the “olla,” which means cooking pot in Spanish, comes from.
A STORY FOR EACH INGREDIENT
“Everything in café de olla was used for a purpose, especially during the Mexican Revolution,” Tovar explains.
- The cinnamon helps control your blood sugar. “With all the stress, it keeps you even keel,” he says.
- The molasses in the piloncillo can help settle your stomach. “It’s also sugar so it gives a little bit of energy.”
- Chocolate amps up the sugar and calories, and dark chocolate has antioxidants. “In my café de olla recipe, I use cacao beans because I don’t want to use another sugar and cacao is super high in antioxidants.”
- Cloves are also high in antioxidants. “Cloves are really good for everything. You can make a tea out of cloves, and it’ll get rid of the parasites in your system.”
- And, of course, there’s the caffeine, which provides energy and helps fight hunger pains.
“When you’re in war, all of those little aspects help you out,” Tovar says. “Grab your coffee, then go to war. Later, you can eat a regular meal.” If you survive the battle.
When Tovar was preparing, nearly a decade ago, to put café de olla on his menu, he made sure to taste the versions prepared by his competitors. “Everyone had a different take. They add their own small touches here and there,” he says.
Pan Y Leche in Wilmington roasts theirs with cinnamon, piloncillo and extra sugar, resulting in an extremely sweet drink that’s perfect if you’re a Zapatista who wants a rush before the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. Or maybe you’re a longshoreman who needs an extra kick as you work the Long Beach docks leading up to the Christmas season.
The café de olla at Café Oaxaca in Green Meadows, on the other hand, is much harsher and heavy on the cafeen. Made with rich Oaxacan coffee and cinnamon sticks, it has no piloncillo or sweet spices. It’s the sort of coffee you’d get in the ’90s, before every strip mall had a Starbucks, and you’d suck it down as you took drags on your Newport while arguing about whether or not Tupac was dead (he’s not, damn it).
Café de olla exists on a spectrum, not just of sweetness like Mama Licha’s classic take, but also in how it’s prepared. La Monarcha makes a slow drip version. Supermarket chains, like Vallarta and Northgate, mass produce it daily.
Once you get your café de olla, you can tweak it to suit your preferences. I take mine with a bit of milk or creamer. Some people add vanilla or a drop of honey. Others might throw in a splash of mezcal (how have more bars not caught onto this?). My father will only have café de olla if it comes with a toasted and buttered slice of bolillo.
Whatever your preference, there’s a chance you’ll find it in one of the Mexican restaurants, markets or strip malls of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles. Secret recipes aside, here’s where you can find great café de olla in Los Angeles.
WHERE TO FIND CAFÉ DE OLLA
El Café by Primera Taza
Chuy Tovar’s El Café by Primera Taza makes the best cup of café do olla I’ve tasted north of La Garita de Otay. It combines abuela’s special recipe and the brewing methodology of your Chipster dreams. This is the essence of L.A. food magic. You don’t need to add anything or have anything with it, although you can. It’s just you, the cup and maybe your abuelita’s specter smiling down at you with the wisdom of centuries.
“It’s kind of funny because [when] my customers bring their parents visiting from Mexico, the first thing I offer them is café de olla,” Tovar says. “Most of the time, they put a stink and say, ‘Nobody here knows how to make it.’ Then I give them some and they say, ‘Oh, this tastes like my mom’s.’ We’re talking about 60 to 80-year-old people who say it tastes like their mom used to make it.”
622 S. Anderson St., #107, Boyle Heights. 626-240-3682.
La Casita Mexicana
If you want to treat yourself, get a plate of chilaquiles rojos with a side of red beans and, instead of a dessert, the café de olla. At La Casita Mexicana, chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, in addition to making a killer ponche during the Christmas season, make a solid café de olla year-round. Their recipe includes orange rind. That hint of acidity sharpens the piloncillo. “That’s how we made it back home,” Arvizu says. “The oils from the peel add something special. I can still remember waking up to the smell of it from childhood. In fact, when I first moved to Los Angeles, the only place I could get something like it was in my home kitchen.”
4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell. 323-773-1898.
The Lopez family, which owns and run acclaimed restaurant Guelaguetza, just released Oaxaca, a cookbook featuring dozens of their family recipes, among them café de olla. “One of my favorite eating rituals to partake while in Oaxaca is the noble act of dunking pan dulce into a chocolate de agua or café de olla,” says the cookbook’s co-author and Las Crónicas Del Taco scout, Javier Cabral. “There are probably a few ways to trick out a café de olla but in a land dominated by instant coffee, we keep it simple and real.”
Guelaguetza uses Oaxacan coffee brewed with cinnamon and piloncillo. Nothing else. You can ask for some milk and additional sweetener if you like, but the cup comes almost perfect as is. I’m not sure why, but it feels healthy, almost tea-like. Magic of Oaxaca, I guess.
3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown. 213-427-0608.
The café de olla at Cafécafé, a hip little coffeehouse that sits next to a busy tire shop, would probably be my grandma Lorre’s worst nightmare. Cold-brewed and served unstirred over ice in a clear plastic cup, it looks a little like a black and tan. A full-sized café racer motorcycle sits elevated in the middle of the coffee shop and adds to the place’s vibe, a word (and an aesthetic) nana Lorre would’ve also despised. But damn, this is a decadent and delicious coffee.
Cafécafé also sell a traditional cup of café de olla. And it’s fine. But the iced variety tastes all kinds of better. It’s sweeter and requires a more precise technique, resulting in better balance between the beans and the canela (cinnamon).
1330 W. Pacific Coast Hwy., Wilmington. 424-570-0142.
Café de Olla
A place named Café de Olla better make a good one. Fortunately, this trendy Burbank restaurant does. Diner-style coffee is dispensed from a pourover decanter by an overworked server who’ll keep it coming as long as you keep drinking. Café de Olla seems like it’s never not busy and the staff appears to defy the law that says nothing can exist in a state of perpetual motion.
The coffee is made, according to a server, “exactly like it’s been made for a hundred years in Mexico. It is prepared in a clay pot by boiling cinnamon sticks, piloncillo, spices and ground coffee.” The spices include calvo (clove), which shines in each sip and hammers home the flatness of diner coffee without actually succumbing to it. It’s too easy to fall into a bottomless pit of caffeine consumption.
2315 W. Victory Blvd., Ste. A, Burbank. 818-588-3684.
Mama Licha’s Kitchen
13867 Foothill Blvd, Sylmar. 818-367-0752.
Horchateria Rio Luna
15729 Downey Ave, Paramount. 310-933-8894.
231 N Maclay Ave, San Fernando. 818-403-6167
51 locations including Anaheim, Pasadena and Downey.
Northgate Gonzalez Markets
40 locations including Compton, Macarthur Park and West Covina.
Super A Foods
8 locations including Bell Gardens, Highland Park and Temple City.
La Mascota Bakery
2715 Whittier Blvd, Boyle Heights. 323-263-5513
Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen
7891 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens. 562-659-7800.
7840 Firestone Blvd., Downey. 562-923-4649.
La Monarca Bakery & Cafe
12 locations including Hollywood, Huntington Park and Santa Monica.
1211 E. Century Blvd., Green Meadows. 323-249-0292.
Pan Y Leche Bakery
713 W. Anaheim St., Wilmington. 310-518-9935.
Lola’s Mexican Cuisine
2030 E. 4th St., Long Beach. 562-343-5506.
4140 Atlantic Ave, Long Beach. 562-349-0100.