During Martha Valenzuela’s childhood growing up in Arizona, she remembers her mother taking trips back to Mexico. She’d often return with a yellow box of plastic wrapped peanut flavored De La Rosa Mazapan candy. At every birthday party and family gathering, she remembers eating tres leches cake, a moist sponge drizzled with the traditional combination of evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream.
She associates these flavors with times of celebration and reunion. And now, these memories inspire the menu at Deseo Coffee Shack, her tiny, but carefully thought out shop on McDowell Road near central Phoenix.
Housed in an old casita, the building offers plenty of its own history and exposed brick charm, as it once was part of a farm that has long been replaced by a shopping center. But the real nostalgia is on the menu, with specialty lattes such as the Canelita, inspired by cinnamon flavored cookies, and the Abuelita Mocha, an homage to the hot chocolate mix Valenzuela grew up drinking.
Valenzuela was far from the first to start serving Mexican-inspired coffees in metro Phoenix. The scene has been slowly growing over the last decade and Phoenix is now home to a diverse range of coffee shops serving drinks inspired by Mexican recipes and cuisine.
Some cafes celebrate the bright colors and flavors of Mexico, while others take a decidedly more modern approach. For nearly all the cafe owners, their creativity is driven by a passion for celebrating heritage and culture.
A brief history of Phoenix’s Mexican coffee shops
In 2014, José “ET” Rivera started slinging drinks from a coffee cart set up on his front porch. As his tres leches flavored drinks grew in popularity, Rivera founded Tres Leches Cafe and eventually settled on Van Buren Street a couple years later in 2018.
Around the same time, Jorge Ignacio Torres opened Futuro, an ultra modern downtown Phoenix coffee shop, in 2016.
A year later, Azukar, a family run coffee shop in South Phoenix began welcoming customers.
On Grand Avenue, GG Peralta and her parents Francisco and Azul opened El Charro Hipster Cafe, a coffee shop and restaurant designed to bring a slice of Mexico City to Phoenix, in 2018.
In 2019, La Bohemia, which started as a pop-up, joined the party on McDowell Road with a modern and bright cafe inspired by Mexican art and culture. The same year, Valenzuela opened Deseo Coffee Shack.
Celebrating traditional Mexican flavors in a new way
For Phoenix cafe owners, their journey to selling Mexican coffee drinks started differently. For Tres Leches Cafe owner Rivera, the drinks came first and influenced the rest of the cafe.
“All my drinks are Mexican flavors so I figured I’d just make that the theme of my whole coffee shop,” he says.
His cafe on Van Buren Street has three main rooms, each with a different theme. One room is styled to feel like Rivera’s grandmother’s house, he says, complete with pictures of his family among comfortable seating areas. The middle room is bright with a floor-to-ceiling mural that exclaims “Girls just wanna have pan.”
The third room is painted all black and celebrates Chicano culture, Rivera says. When the cafe hosts events, that room is where the DJs set up. The differences allow everyone to feel welcome, he says.
“Every room has its own vibe and the cafe does come alive,” he says.
A modern take on childhood classics
Futuro, located in downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row arts district, embodies the third-wave coffee aesthetic. The sleek space is almost entirely white, from the walls to the counters and furniture. Clean lines and minimalist decor define the space.
The drinks menu started out extremely simple, Torres says, featuring strong, unsweetened coffee. Then customers started asking for sweeter drinks.
“I didn’t want to do honey lattes, I wanted to do something pure and honest to us, that represented our culture,” Torres says.
So he designed a menu, completely in his first language of Spanish, and set out to educate his customers.
“We are paying homage to our culture with everything that we present,” Torres says. “We are inspired by my family, culture, history and it makes me more passionate about it.”
Futuro’s menu includes the Lechera, made with espresso, sweetened condensed milk and piloncillo, a type of pressed unrefined cane sugar popular in Mexico. He serves a Cafe de Olla with cinnamon, anise and citrus and fresh juices inspired by aguas frescas.
The challenge at Futuro is to marry the drinks with the ultra-modern space and the perceptions people have, Torres says.
“We’ve had to face the stereotype of the aesthetic and there being a person of color behind it,” he says. “Yes, it’s a beautiful space, but it’s not pretentious. It’s pure. It’s not fancy coffee, it’s clean and it’s modern.”
Most of Futuro’s customers are urbanites who live or work in downtown Phoenix, Torres says. But one of his favorite things is when young customers bring older generations to show them how Mexican culture is being celebrated.
“When youth bring their parents in, to me, that’s a beautiful transition,” he says.
He sees the nostalgia for ingredients like mazapan and cajeta wash over people and suddenly the modern space feels more welcoming, he says.
“It’s nostalgic and it feels honest,” Torres says. “It’s of the utmost importance to me to put our culture on a pedestal.”
Mexican-American culture in a cup
Aesthetically, Deseo Coffee Shack falls somewhere in between the bright colors of Tres Leches and the ultra-modern and sleek vibe at Futuro. Valenzuela says she tried to combine a love for the history of Mexico with her upbringing in the U.S.
“I’m really proud of where I came from and it’s important to hold on to our culture” she says. “But I tried to modernize it and not be the same kitschy Mexican culture.”
At the tiny shop, a mural of Pedro Infante, a Mexican movie star and singer from the 1940s, takes up a whole wall. Bright serape blankets rest on the backs of the bar stools.
But Valenzuela stuck true to her mission to blend the two cultures. Before opening her cafe, she traveled throughout Mexico City and Puebla to visit cafes and also went to Portland and Seattle to study the cutting-edge of American coffee culture.
“We are not here to reinvent the coffee wheel,” Valenzuela says. “We just wanted to provide something the community can be proud of.”
Is Phoenix having a Mexican coffee moment?
Coffee shops celebrating Mexican flavors are becoming increasingly popular in Phoenix. According to the 2019 U.S. Census, 42.6% of people counted in metro Phoenix identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, as compared to 18.5% nationwide, but other communities are also embracing the Mexican coffee trend.
As more Mexican coffee shops open across the Valley, Torres says he’s cautiously optimistic about the growth of small businesses, though he does hope Mexican coffee drinks won’t be appropriated.
“Phoenix is big enough, so the more the merrier,” he says. “It’s important to me that it’s not just being utilized for profit.”
Valenzuela is excited for the growth. More coffee shops selling drinks inspired by Mexican recipes means more people will be familiar and seek out items she sells, she says. Plus, as a Hispanic woman business owner, showing others that they can do it, too, is important to her.
“It’s good for communities that have a lot of Hispanic people to see an example that people can follow,” she says.
Rivera says he finds the concept of tres leches, as a flavor and as a dessert, has become well-known and popular outside of Mexican culture at this point. He credits that familiarity with helping bring customers in and persuading them to try other drinks.
“There’s so many Mexican restaurants in Phoenix and Arizona and the drinks are inspired by popular Mexican desserts,” Rivera says. “This gives people a different approach to coffee.”
When customers tell him stories of how his drinks bring back memories of childhood visits to grandparents’ houses, it makes Rivera feel proud. Other customers tell him they’ve never had horchata or a churro, and even though he finds that shocking, Rivera says he’s excited to share his culture with a broader crowd.
“It’s fun to see new people and to bring that to them, all of the elements create something exciting,” he says.
For Valenzuela, Mexican coffee shops are about celebrating culture and uniting past and future.
“As a culture, we have always had coffee,” Valenzuela says. “Now people are embracing and accepting it even if they are not familiar.”
Mexican coffee shops to try in Phoenix
Deseo Coffee Shack: 2330 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix. 602-275-3155, deseoacoffeeshack.com.
Tres Leches Cafe: 1714 W. Van Buren Street, Phoenix. 602-368-1804, treslechesaz.com.
Futuro: 909 N First Street, Phoenix. 602-730-3227, palabraphx.com.
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