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Need a fresh cup? At Mariposa, it's a pleasure

January 03, 2008|Jessica Gelt

Emilio Aguilera, owner of Echo Park's Cafe Mariposa, believes in the power of "the little things." The 38-year-old San Fernando Valley native has long dreamed of opening a coffeehouse, so when he finally accomplished his goal in November, he treated his customers as his most valuable consultants. "A regular from Naples said we should serve our espresso with a little piece of chocolate and a shot of palette-cleansing sparkling mineral water on the side," Aguilera says. "It's really caught on."

Another customer-suggested "little thing" that keeps coffee hounds coming back is the cortadito, a Venezuelan-style coffee made with three shots of espresso and condensed milk that is popular in Miami.

Then there are the pastries, spicy jalapeno croissants, sweet cheese rolls and buttery cookies as well as salads and sandwiches made by Homeboy and Homegirl Industries (which help former gang-involved youth get back on their feet). In tough Echo Park, that's a little thing that stands for much more.

"Every single pastry has extra love in it," says Missy Neff, a hair and makeup artist who has worked behind the counter since the writers strike put her out of business. The spunky 30-year-old attributes Mariposa's success with the community to Aguilera's warm energy and "incredible optimism."

That optimism was hard won. The single father of two joined the Marines in the mid-'90s and served in South Korea and Okinawa, Japan. When he got out he was 29 and had nowhere to go.

"I was living out of my car and showering at the YMCA," Aguilera recalls. "I stood on street corners with migrant workers. I'd pick 450 pounds of avocados one day and pour concrete the next."

Eventually he got a job temping and saved up to start his own private investigation firm (which he still runs). It wasn't until he started a wholesale coffee business that he allowed himself to dream about a coffee shop again.

That dream is quickly expanding.

Two weeks ago Aguilera signed a lease on the space next door to Cafe Mariposa and plans to open it as Mariposa's on Sunset. It will serve as a showcase for music, art exhibits and book signings, and an interior doorway will lead directly into the cafe. The effort will be Herculean but, for Aguilera, it will be worth it.

"Even if I were to lose everything right now, it would be OK," says Aguilera. "I made people happy every day serving coffee." 1547 W. Sunset Blvd., (213) 481-9917

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Jessica.Gelt@latimes.com

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