“It was originally created during the Mexican Revolution by the adelitas, the ones who would set up camp and so forth. It was, I think, the first instance of grab-and-go coffee,” says Chuy Tovar, co-owner of Boyle Height’s Primera Taza coffee house.
The O.G. commuter coffee he’s referring to is cafe de olla, a traditional Mexican drink that’s boiled in a clay pot—that’s where the “olla” comes from—along with piloncillo, unrefined cane sugar that, these days, usually comes pressed in cone-shaped portions or weighty bricks. Spices, like cinnamon, are added to the pot to create a sweet, rich drink that goes perfectly with your morning pan.
While cafe de olla isn’t too hard to find in Los Angeles’ Latino neighborhoods, finding one with deep, complex flavor isn’t easy. That’s why when customers started asking Tovar to make his own, he took the challenge seriously. “I’m really picky on the ingredients. If I don’t get the right piloncillo, if I don’t get the right canela, and definitely if it doesn’t have the right coffee, I’m not going to make it,” he says.
And that’s the thing. The coffee used in too many cafe de ollas is a secondary concern with makers assuming that the spices will do all the work. They don’t, and the result is often flat flavor that doesn’t quite go anywhere beyond sweet and cinnamon-y. For Tovar, the coffee is paramount. “I’ve been playing around with a lot of coffees. I’m really happy with one from Mexico, which is a mixture from Guerrero.”
The blend uses coffee from two beans, which are essentially the same, but one is washed processed while the other is natural. One tastes like butter, he says, and the other like blueberries. According to Tovar, Latin American coffees, which often have chocolate notes, work best for the drink, whereas African coffees tend to be too tea-like to create the depth he’s after. “You need a rich coffee because the cinnamon by itself is very strong,” he says, pointing out that he uses less cinnamon than most makers because he likes to let the coffee shine.
Currently, Tovar is making his cafe de olla, which is really delicious hot or iced and rather addictive, in small batches because big batches, he says, “take forever.” A new addition to his growing menu (which also includes lonches, a sandwich popular in Mexico’s Jalisco region), the drink has proved popular, selling out frequently. Encouraged by the reception, Tovar is considering bottling it if he can figure out how to do it without adding preservatives. In the meantime, get there early if you want some.
Primera Taza, 1850 E 1st St., 323-780-3923