Mexican Coffee, Cheesecake, and Ham Sandwiches at Primera Taza

Owner Chuy Tovar wants his new Boyle Heights spot to be a place for good coffee and lively conversation

You might not notice Primera Taza Coffee House while driving down East 1st Street—across the way from Mariachi Plaza, the storefront is small and unassuming. Once inside, though, you’ll know you’ve come to the right place. Now under the new ownership of Chuy Tovar and his partner Antonio Segoviano, the Boyle Heights coffeehouse is serving an interesting mix of coffee sourced from Mexico (actually a rare find in L.A.) and food from local chefs while aiming to become a vibrant community hub.

Tovar, a restaurant consultant who developed his skills as a traveling manager with The Patina Group, recently purchased the location from a friend. A self-proclaimed coffee geek who had his first taste of “real coffee” about seven years ago at Seattle Coffee Works, Tovar says he always had it in the back of his mind to open a coffeehouse, but this opportunity took him by surprise.

“I thought one day I would get to it, but I was about to go take off to Mexico to work on a project with a top chef down there,” Tovar says. “Then this fell on my lap and kind of threw a screwball into it.”

Primera Taza is right across the street from Mariachi Plaza
Primera Taza is right across the way from Mariachi Plaza

Photograph by Valentina Silva

Once Tovar took over, he decided to change the coffee straightaway. He initially served Stumptown while looking to source the best Mexican beans he could find. As of this week, he’s now brewing coffee by Fabian Sanchez Arreola’s Tijuana-based Tostadores Baristi. Tovar says his most popular seller so far is the Guerrero Natural made from beans grown in the town of Atoyac in the Mexican state of Guerrero, which has notes of blueberry. Interestingly, Tovar says his is one of the only L.A. coffeehouse using Mexican beans at the moment, and that’s because the country has been slow to produce world-class varieties. However, that’s changing, according to Tovar, as Mexican coffee drinkers become more sophisticated and move away from the ever-popular Nescafe.

“I’m really happy that the Latin American coffee growers are coming out with phenomenal coffee beans,” says Tovar.

Tovar admits the neighborhood response to his initial changes were tepid at first due to gentrification concerns that have gripped many long-time Boyle Heights residents, but he says locals have gradually warmed up to the new Primera Taza.

“They were a little hesitant at first,” he says. “They wanted to see who was running it, but I grew up in the area and so did my partner—he’s actually a teacher in Boyle Heights, and I grew up in Lincoln Heights”

And good coffee is not the only way he’s attracting new customers—there’s also good food. Tovar is currently offering a house-made ham sandwich for lunch with meat sliced on the premises. He also serves cheesecake made by Brian “Chef Turok” Menendez. I’m not much a cheesecake fan, but Menendez’s marscapone base is irresistibly light, fluffy, and easily one of the better examples in town. Tovar says he soon plans to feature signature sandwiches from some of his favorite L.A. chefs, too, including a mini version of Eddie Ruiz’s (Corozon y Miel) famous Pan con Champipe sandwich, which in its full-size form includes a two-pound turkey leg.

Primera Taza's Patio with a mural by Ray Vargas
Primera Taza’s Patio with a mural by Ray Vargas

Photograph by Valentina Silva

Aside from being a solid destination for food and coffee, Tovar hopes that Primera Taza will also become an active gathering place for the neighborhood, complete with lively political and cultural discussions. He’s even thinking of hosting debates on the back patio, a nice little spot made colorful by a mural from local artist Ray Vargas.

“I tell people that everyone is welcome as long as you have an opinion,” he says. “I think that coffee shops should serve that purpose to become a voice for everybody—politicians, artists, musicians, everybody. It should give the community a forum for discussions.”

redarrowPrimera Taza Coffee House, 1850 E 1st St., 323-780-3923