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Cafe Ole: L.A. Blend

Though Spanish predominates, the ambience is fluid at three uniquely home-grown, Eastside coffeehouses

September 03, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like the aroma from a hundred cafes con leche, the sentimental strains of an old Mexican ballad hang in the air outside Angeles Bohemios Cafe and Gallery. It's Tuesday, Spanish-language open-mike night, and the regulars sit tapping their feet and quietly humming along as another nostalgic aria pierces the dull roar of Sunset Boulevard traffic.

Pedro, a big man with a thick mustache and beatific smile, caresses the mike and launches into a polyrhythmic lover's lament. Tonight nostalgia rules at this pan-Latino coffeehouse straddling the area between Echo Park and Silver Lake. In days to come, the prevailing mood will change many times, as Angeles Bohemios mixes poetry readings with flamenco classes, Andean folk music with an evening of protest songs. On Sunday morning you may encounter a religious group planning strategy. But the pressed sandwiches, fruit turnovers and rich, smooth coffee will be constants.

Bug-eyed from too much industrial-strength brew and working 14-hour days, it can be easy for Americans to forget that coffeehouses once were places to chill out and think, rather than places to get wired and plug in your laptop. They were warm, funky venues for connecting with long novels, politics, ideas and intellectual comrades-in-arms--or maybe just the morning crossword puzzle--versus today's soulless chain cafe-marts, with their warmed-over hipster attitude and prefab consumerist sophistication ("How about a World Beat CD compilation to go with your Sumatran skinny Frappuccino, sir?").

Thankfully, three home-grown Eastside coffeehouses--Angeles Bohemios, Espresso Mi Cultura Books and Coffee, and Luna Tierra Sol--stand apart from the generic mise-en-scenes and global ambitions of brand-name java joints. Not coincidentally, as their names indicate, all are places where Spanish is regularly spoken, but the sensibility is fluid and polyglot. (Translation: You'll find Al Borde stacked next to the L.A. Weekly, and the clientele at these cafes can be as mixed as the metropolis surrounding them.)

Espresso Mi Cultura Books and Coffee, on Hollywood Boulevard in Thai Town, just west of Western Avenue, might be described as an Eastside version of Dutton's Brentwood Books, a friendly, well-lighted hangout for segments of the city's growing Chicano intelligentsia.

Cartoonists and performance artists, writers and musicians are among the regulars there craving "Mexican Mocha," a chocolate drink with a shot of espresso topped with whipped cream, along with the addictive chocolate-chip biscotti and other baked goods.

Most nights you'll find a few people cruising the bookshelves, flipping through copies of Rudolfo Anaya's Chicano coming-of-age classic "Bless Me Ultima" or thumbing a packet of "Diego Rivera Art Stickers." In one corner a young couple make eyes at each other, oblivious to the older woman in the tan hat who's perusing a small memorial art exhibition, "Remembering the Riots," an assemblage of highly personal, somewhat chilling objects recalling L.A.'s 1992 conflagration.

Political consciousness forms part of the atmospheric substrata at Espresso Mi Cultura, as it does at the other two venues. But the emphasis is on empowerment and community-building, not dogma, so that politics becomes simply one more frothing ingredient in what Chicano essayist-social critic Richard Rodriguez has described as the browning of America. As Rodriguez might put it, "The message is the mocha."

Even activists, however, cannot live by coffee alone; the stomach needs sterner stuff. Luna Tierra Sol, at the edge of Lafayette Park, is happy to oblige with a menu that includes breakfast dishes such as chilaquiles and eggs for $2.75 and lunch and dinner options like vegetarian enchiladas, smothered in red or green sauce and dished up with rice and beans--for under five bucks.

"I don't really speak Spanish," says Priscilla, an upbeat, third-generation Latina Angeleno, as she slides me my generous plate of food, "but I dig accents."

At night there's a nice, slouchy, film-noir feel to this neighborhood, with its '20s and '30s vintage apartment towers and the venerable Park Plaza Hotel. Luna Tierra Sol reflects this mood, with its black and white photographs lining the walls of the small, homey dining area, industrial glass and dark hardwood floors--a decor not easily patented or franchised. Opposite the small kitchen, a group of female students chats quietly over a background pulse of rock en espanol.

A worker-owned business, Luna Tierra Sol keeps its prices low and its sympathies with L.A.'s working classes. It's in the process of opening a sister cafe near Cal State L.A., in the heart of the City Terrace neighborhood. For the Eastside's thirsting multitudes, it can't come soon enough.

Back at Angeles Bohemios, the karaoke crooners are departing for the night, with a ritual exchange of pleasantries and handshakes. Soon the metal awning will come down, a target for local taggers. No matter. Tomorrow, a dark, companionable fragrance will signal that Angeles Bohemios is again open for business, welcoming anyone who gets a caffeine rush from the sheer, unfiltered pleasures of city life.

*

Angeles Bohemios Cafe and Gallery, 3200 Sunset Blvd., (323) 667-1083.

Luna Tierra Sol, 2501 W. 6th St. (at Carondolet Street), (213) 380-4754.

Espresso Mi Cultura Books and Coffee, 5625 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 466-0481.

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