Love in the Federal District: Getting a Feel For Mexico City’s Coffee Culture

Author’s note: This piece was originally written for specialty coffee magazine Fresh Cup but cancelled at the last minute when their competitor, Daily Coffee News, printed a different piece I wrote about Mexico City coffee. I spent way too much time on it not to share it somewhere. Here’ll do.

I stooped to peer through a jagged heart carved into the iron door. It was barely 7:00 a.m. and Mexico City’s 22 million people were on the move. Beyond the nonstop flow of backpacked pedestrians and bike commuters was a gridlocked wall of unmoving traffic with none of the typical aural accompaniment; no blaring horns, no screaming heads out of open windows. I dug out my heavy, antique key and released the bolt. Once on the sidewalk, two people greeted me buenos días. Low light illuminated Calle Pilares, setting everything aglow.

With one week remaining in my trip to the Federal District, I decided to use espresso as my strategy for visiting some neighborhoods in the megacity. A friend in the industry provided a list of must-see coffeehouses and I plotted them out on a free map I nabbed upon my arrival. As I walked to the Coyoacán district, I remembered what a Californian renting an adjacent flat told me about my first destination, Café Avellaneda. He knew the place, said it was a blink-and-miss-it sort of joint a few blocks past Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s house. His advice—keep a sharp eye out. Still, I walked right past it, distracted by a medley of restored Volkswagen vans I followed like breadcrumbs for two blocks beyond the café.

Garage-sized Avellaneda was a breeze away from a chaotic market where vendors sold everything from glow-in-the-dark cell phone cases to fried pork rinds doused in habanero sauce. The few folks sitting under a dingy awning smiled as I stepped inside. Dark trim offset sky blue walls and a narrow aisle divided the bar and a long bench. I ordered an americano, took a seat, and read the chalkboard menu that hung in full view. Thirty pesos (about US$1.50) halved what I’d pay in back home.

Avellaneda’s two baristas wore crisp, clean aprons—a minor detail that gave them instant credibility. Their light-hearted banter only briefly suspended to acknowledge entering customers. My americano arrived more watery than I prefer, but its barky color and sienna tufts set a high bar. The minuscule galleta on the side was a nice touch too, even though I assumed it was a sugar cube and dropped it in my cup with abandon. Only when it floated did I realize it was a cookie. So I scooped it out, tossed it in my mouth, and swallowed it.

I backtracked towards Casa Azul and buckled into the growing mob of tourists. Giant buses and countless taxis brought colorful Frida pilgrims to the cobalt museum, one of the most visited sites in the city. After standing in a snaking line for more than an hour, I sat on the revered artist’s garden bench and imagined her and Diego tossing fruit scraps to their pet monkey.

The next day I ventured to Colonia Roma, a district a brief train-ride away in the Cuauhtémoc borough. I had previously braved the city’s Metro system and was forced to learn the etiquette of cramming myself into a passenger car already stuffed with students, professionals, and hustlers pushing bubblegum and batteries. For five pesos, barely twenty-five American cents, I could be anywhere. Sometimes the train would grow so packed I’d be trapped. Other times, an on-board accordion or guitar-playing busker would be so talented that I’d purposely bypass my stop. Small moments made all the difference.

Roma was all skinny jeans, oversized glasses, and lumberjack beards. Fixed-gear bikes zipped by and luxury cars roared down narrow lanes. It didn’t take long to stumble upon an upscale outdoor market, a shaded stretch of calm just off the busy drag. I ordered espresso at a small coffee stand, Café Irecrís. The baristas, Cristobal and Denise, worked as a team. They moved in sync, a well-practiced choreograph, knowing that part of my experience was their overall performance. Cristobal handed me the shot like it was breakable. The first thing I noticed was the nose. A deep inhale relaxed my shoulders and suddenly all was right with the world. When looked up, Cristobal was giving me a look like I was in on a secret.

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Café Comuna had a booth across the aisle at the same mercado. I placed my order and confusion ensued, making me wonder about my so-so language skills. I overheard an employee explain that the main barista was on a smoke break and nobody else knew how to work the machine. The workers did their best to delay. Their tactic—small talk. I stuck around, but watched as less-patient customers left in a huff. And bummer for them because Comuna’s espresso was worth the wait—a dark chocolate aroma and a rich earthy mouthfeel. Comuna offered an extra-fine espresso that, unfortunately, was degraded by its untimely delivery and because it was unenthusiastically presented in a large paper cup (they’d run out of smalls). Such things differentiate craft coffee professionals from market greenhorns.

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Roma was a bustling yet foot-friendly district that reminded me of Portland or Seattle. I hoofed it north on Calle Orizaba for ten minutes and found Cardinal, Casa de Café, where I was promptly greeted by an employee who introduced himself as Shak. He asked some basic questions: where was I from, how long was I staying, what brought me to Cardinal. Then he said Cardinal’s vision is simple: they strive to be all-inclusive. The sort of place where people spend time together. “Like a living room,” he said.

Shak clasped his hands, invited me to make myself at home, and returned to the bar to work on my double. I took a seat and disappeared into the music filling the space, Charlie Parker’s A Night in Tunisia. Cardinal’s spacious, yet simple interior reminded me of my grandfather’s den: a shelf of ancient hardbacks, dusty globes, model airplanes. Ample seating allowed for a gathering of friends or private time alone.

Shak’s pull was magic. My lip brushed through toasty froth, and a warm blanket stroked my tongue. A creamy finish left behind a memory I couldn’t quite pinpoint, an amorous nostalgia. Afterwards, I was coffee drunk. Proof—I left without paying. When I returned with thirty pesos, Shak said it was no big deal. People do it all the time. My experience at Cardinal made me forget I was a customer, made me feel like I was at home.

A few days later I took the Metro back to Roma to find another place on my list, Gradios Deli-Café. At the top of stairs emerging from the subway, I was overwhelmed by a mixture of smells: fried bread, grilled meat, cigarettes, and heavy perfume. I got my bearings and zigzagged through thick crowds, across streets and down uneven sidewalks, paying particular attention not to gash my head on low-hanging tarps draped from makeshift PVC frames. I found my left turn at Luis Moya and saw my destination ahead.

Gradios reminded me of a cozy, 200-square-foot house with zero wasted space. Its compressed arrangement of tables, chairs, pastry closets, and a cash wrap was like an architectural hug. It was empty except for two young men with brooms who bussed stacks of ceramic cups and an older barista who shined the espresso machine. Their movement was comforting and I took a seat. Felt nice to have the place to myself.

My Gradios double shot carried hints of canela and a bold, graham cracker finish. It transformed as it cooled, making each sip a new discovery. The last taste was pudding-heavy and reminded me of a cinnamon churro. As the place cleaned up, I let the shot’s final notes linger on my tongue—cool and bitter. Which was how the space was starting to feel, too. Once Gradios was reset, its employees stopped paying me any attention. At the register, the woman taking my money didn’t look up as she said gracias. As for my experience there—one and done.

I decided to try one last café before calling it a day. I entered Espressarte’s propped-open door and was quietly greeted by a barista meticulously weighing cups of water and scoops of finely ground beans. Mesmerized customers wearing fancy suits and shiny shoes studied her every move. Her relaxed intensity set the vibe. Her conversation was genuine, not canned or sales-driven. Nobody messed with their devices as they patiently waited for artful drinks to come to life.

The room was filled with coffee-related items serving more practical purpose than decoration: glass vessels with spiraling tubes, shelves of mineral water, colorful Acme cups and saucers, unmarked transparent bags of beans. I sat with a professor who told me the barista, Abríl Solis, is a famous coffee master. When my doppio arrived, I told the professor I wanted to take a photograph of the shots before tasting. Claro, she said, of course.

The pull seemed to embody the room’s anticipation. Swirling amber foam and an aroma that erased street sounds. A taste that gave full body chills. When Abríl checked in with me, I was speechless. I bought some beans thinking I’d recreate the experience upon my return to the States. But really, who was I kidding?

On the crowded train back to my flat, I struck up a conversation with a guy I was mashed up against. I told him I’d just purchased some coffee beans. He leaned toward my messenger bag, took a whiff and said, “Yeah, no kidding.” Passengers standing nearby inhaled deeply, breathing in notes of a honey-processed bourbon varietal. For a moment, everyone on that train was overcome by something I often experienced during my visits to Mexico City coffeehouses—feeling right at home in an unlikely refuge surrounded by people I suddenly love.

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