The Alhambra Source is entering its fifth year producing stories. To celebrate, we’re publishing a retrospective of the stories that reflect our spirit and mission.
In 2011 Javier Cabral answered an urgent question: does the Alhambra food-scene go beyond Asian restaurants? He dropped in on La Cafeina and found his answer. These days Cabral has continued to freelance for various publications, both print and online. He earned the title of "restaurant scout" for Jonathan Gold at the Los Angeles Times, and is the staff Metro Fellow at Zocalo Public Square, spearheading the #MyLACommute storytelling series. Cabral wrote to us saying he "returns to Alhambra at least once a week for groceries at 168 Market, dim sum at Shanghai No.1 Seafood, cold Szechuan noodles at Spicy City and a young coconut milk tapioca drink at Phoenix Desserts."
Contrary to popular belief, Alhambra is not just noodles and dumplings. Ok, ok, it might be 53% Asian noodle soups and rice-flour dumplings, but if you look beyond the soy and fish sauce, you will find La Cafeina Cafe & Taqueria.
Even the most skilled taco hunter would have trouble finding La Cafeina. My game was off until la jefa (Alhambra Source's editor Daniela Gerson), tipped me off to it. La Cafeina's on a street you probably always pass to buy your economy sized containers of granola, but if you don't work around the area, chances are you would never think twice about the nopal facade.
But if you go in you'll be rewarded. At La Cafeina, you will finally find a decent sope, thick, golden-brown maize boats fried until crispy then topped with a thin spread of seasoned beans, charred meat, chopped cabbage, dry crumbled cheese, sour cream and a fresh salsa. You will also find wholesome huaraches, "sandal-sized" thin cakes of chewy griddled masa that are browned at the edges and topped similarly to sopes. And amidst these Mexicanantojitos (corn-masa based wholesome snacks), you will find a taqueria-style taco in Alhambra at last.
Maria and Eric Hernandez, the mother and son team behind La Cafeina, have been bringing tacos to Mexican-food-starved Alhambran's since 2007. Maria is from the Mexican coastal city of Acapulco, hence her awesome seafood dishes. Even the excellent (according to la jefa) chicken pozole is done in the coastal style. Street food inspires Eric — born and raised in Alhambra, but influenced by his many childhood forays to all parts of Mexico with his family.
Since he was young, Eric always had dreams of opening up a restaurant one day, and Maria never failed to support his vision. Now, they work together every day — with son in charge of cooking and mother behind the cash register — and "get along finely," Maria asserts.
They both acknowledge Alhambra is not be the best place for authentic Mexican food, but that may be working in their favor. "Its not like East LA where you could find a taco anywhere you go, but I feel we are definitely building our niche for that here." Eric says.
Now, what makes a taqueria-style taco? For starters it has not been anywhere near a deep fryer nor is it associated with ground beef. Instead, they are light, delicate corn creatures, pliable mini-tortillas minimally topped with a controlled amount of grilled meat, a tablespoon or two of salsa, and raw minced herbs and vegetables on top. At Cafeina, the taqueria-style tacos are even more pristine, each staggered at least an inch apart from each other and presented in an utmost disciplinarian fashion. No messy meat to eat with your fingers afterwards.
I went on a Friday during peak lunch hours and it was pretty empty inside. But it also happened to be the last drag of lent season, so maybe that's why. Even though I have not been to a Sunday mass in about four years, I chose to go with the whole religious theme for the hell of it. I'll take any excuse to eat more ceviche and seafood tacos in my life!
The ceviche tasted just as as it looks. Basically a chunky pico de gallo glorified with extra-large hunks of meaty Swai filet layed atop a flash-fried corn tostada. I prefer my ceviches to be a little more on the acidic side and this one was lacking that, but nothing a squeeze of a quartered lemon can't fix.
My table-mate seemed to enjoy the carne asada sopes too, although she found the charred nubs of meat a bit "hamburger-tasting" for her liking.
The seafood tacos were unique, with the unusual presence of bottled tartar sauce in lieu of crema mexicana. I'm a mayonnaise head so I actually liked this touch. I opted with uno de pescado y uno de camaron, con todo, of course, and found the seared seafood nuggets quite tasty.
There was just one thing that seemed to be missing from the menu of an Alhambra taqueria. When I ask Eric the inevitable question: "Will you ever have an Asian fusion taco?" He simply answers, "Maybe in the near future, but most Asian people I know love Mexican food so I don't see why it's necessary."
La Cafeina is located at 408 S. Palm Ave, Alhambra, Calif. It's open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.