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A New Kind of Watering Hole Is Brewing in Rowdy Ensenada

Trends: Coffeehouses are springing up in a city known for its raucous bar scene.

June 24, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENSENADA — Maria del Mar has a favorite table at a local cafe that she visits every night after work.

The ritual is simple. She sits down with a good book, orders a cappuccino and biscotti, then revels in what she describes as "the tranquillity of the place."

"I spend several hours each week there," said the 21-year-old real estate office manager. "I just enjoy cafes."

So do thousands of other Mexicans in this seaport community of 300,000, where coffeehouses are suddenly all the rage, injecting a new vibrancy into a place best known to Americans for its rowdy bars and nightclubs.

At least a dozen cafes--many of them brand new--dot downtown shopping centers and street corners. Many more are about to open, or are in the planning stages across town.

What's driving Ensenada's emerging cafe society?

Cafe operators say they are catering to the hordes of retired Americans who have relocated here in recent years, to thousands of tourists arriving daily on cruise ships, and to a burgeoning Mexican middle-class composed of students, professionals and business owners, many of them connected to the local university.

To hear cafe owners tell it, their clientele is not the least bit interested in the city's club scene, or in the antics of young Americans who arrive by the carload to run amok in such infamous downtown watering holes as Hussong's Cantina and Papas and Beer.

"Inside these cafes is the future of Ensenada," said Nancy Conroy, editor of the biweekly Baja California newspaper Gringo Gazette. "It's a generally young crowd, wearing black turtlenecks, playing chess, smoking fine cigars and arguing over revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata and international politics."

"Anymore, locals don't say, 'Meet me at the bar or disco.' They say, 'Let's get together over a cup of coffee.' "

In what some would call an already saturated market, they have plenty of places to do just that.

Often located only a few yards apart, Ensenada's cafes try to set themselves apart from the competition with clever names--Cafe Kaffa, Kaffe con K, Cafe Tomas, Cafe Topo, Cafe Pueblo--and flashy logos using bright colors and ultramodern designs.

Inside are gleaming wood floors, chess sets and magazine racks, and glass cases offering freshly baked fruit-and-nut bars, scones, cakes and submarine sandwiches. Soothing Brazilian jazz, blues and soft rock music issues from hidden speakers. Some include plush salons with huge sofas and potted plants. Others offer shady sidewalk tables.

"It's a movement that is starting to interest people--90% of them local," said Mariano Sanchez, co-owner of the gleaming Cafe Tomas, which opened three years ago just doors from Hussong's.

"I am even planning to open another cafe soon, also in the downtown area," Sanchez said. Hoping to cash in on the craze, even some well-established restaurants have recently posted signs and banners emblazoned with the words "coffeehouse."

No one can say whether the cafe movement will last.

After all, Ensenada is also known for its copycat business culture in which a successful venture can spark construction of others just like it right next door.

A few years ago, karaoke bars were hot. Then came fruit slush stands, which were followed by a citywide yen for frappes. Now, it's gourmet coffee bars.

Reclining on a big white couch in La Taza cafe and sipping an iced mocha, 25-year-old oceanography student Emmanuel de la Garza put it this way:

"I was in San Diego recently and visited a cafe in a Barnes & Noble bookstore. It reminded me of Ensenada."

In an Internet cafe a few blocks away, construction worker Jose Diaz, 30, said, "Everybody here wants exactly what Americans have. Right now, Americans see a Starbucks and it's like giving candy to a baby. Therefore, cafes are popping up all over Ensenada."

One of the newest--and tiniest--is Kaffe con K, which opened a week ago on a busy corner, where owners Alex and Vilka Rascon expect to attract locals racing between home and work.

Stationed behind the counter of her tiny blue-and-white cafe on a recent weekday, Vilka Rascon, 24, prepared a fresh Caesar salad for a local carpenter who had minutes to spare for lunch.

"These days, people are working harder and longer than ever--they don't have time for lunch breaks," said Rascon who, like her husband, was formerly employed in a maquiladora plant near the border.

"So we sell light, healthy things: salad, fruit plates, 'subwiches,' " she said. "And gourmet cappuccino."

Still, opening a cafe in Ensenada can be risky.

Nursing a cup of coffee at Cafe Kaffa, a tony coffee bar facing busy Calle Primera, Ensenada nightclub owner Tom Pearson recalled investing $15,000 in a cafe two years ago.

That business, which specialized in Costa Rican, Spanish and Mexican coffees, failed within a year.

"Advertising does nothing at all for you in this town," he said. "Unless you have a large circle of loyal friends to do business with, you're not going to make it in Ensenada."

Maria Madrigal and her son, Enrique, hope Pearson is wrong.

They recently built a chic cafe in a secluded Spanish-style plaza near the center of Ensenada's tourist sector. Called Cafe Ballesta, it features a 100-gallon saltwater aquarium, blond wood counters, light blue tile floors and soft jazz.

"What makes us different from all the others is our marine ambience, gourmet food and coffee, privacy and quiet," Enrique Madrigal said. "But like them, we reflect good taste, an appreciation for clean, healthy lifestyles and a positive future for Ensenada."

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