'Mija, how old are you?" manager Patricia Zarate calls out across Homegirl Cafe's new dining room in downtown L.A.
"Nineteen," Alma Cova, a petite mother with cat eyes, tosses back as she whips up a late breakfast for an assortment of city hall staffers, downtown professionals, families and neighborhood denizens. One of the first hires when the cafe opened this past October, Cova arrived with few honed skills. Two months later, Zarate is still amazed: "I had no idea how talented she was."
A division of Homeboy Industries -- founded by one of L.A.'s patron saints, Father Greg Boyle -- Homegirl Cafe employs tattooed ex-gang members, single mothers and other at-risk youth, teasing out their natural creativity as they earn some cash. As such, the real story is what these nascent chefs have conjured, though you wouldn't know that from talking to Cova. "We just make the food like Patty tells us to," she says with a shrug.
Imagination, vibrant colors and unvarnished textures go into constructing Zarate's trademark "Mexican fusion." "A lot of people say, 'This isn't Mexican food, '" the Guadalajara-born immigrant says. "That's fine. Call it whatever you want."
Deeply filling despite its lighter touch (vegetarian and vegan items get lots of play, as do liberal doses of olive oil and fresh chunks of cotija cheese over thick cheesy sauces), Zarate summons recipes with an enviable ingenuity -- think creamy jalapeno pesto and chilaquiles flecked with just enough mint to hint at Mumbai -- ensuring that though dishes may rely on refreshing simplicity, flavors never come out simplistic. Take the house coffee, a mellow homage to cafe de la olla, softened with cinnamon touches and a delicate blend of yesterday's dried orange peels, or how the Homegirls painstakingly compile artisan batches of their earthy, 37-ingredient moles.
The only hitch may come from the work-in-progress service. Those in a hurry can snag a sandwich or a freshly baked muffin from the display case. Only those with time to linger should settle in at a table. But then, the cafe itself is a testament to the rewards of patience.
"The police wouldn't come in our old place," says morning prep chef Dorene Macias. "I asked them why, and they said 'We don't know what you'd put in the food.' " But good food can eventually bring goodwill: "The sheriff's office comes in here now," Macias continues. "And they're grateful for the good service we provide them."