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A skinny palm tree on Whittier Boulevard casts a shadow that bisects the short silhouette of a bench. On the sidewalk it forms a spectral cross, conjuring an image of the bottom of a vaso veladora hovering in front of Café Santo in Montebello. Originally used to hold prayer candles in Oaxaca’s Catholic churches, these votives – with a cross etched into the bottom – are commonplace mezcal drinking glasses in the Mexican state. They make a fitting symbol for the café’s Oaxaca-native proprietor Marlon Gonzales and Café Santo itself, L.A.’s premier Oaxacan coffee shop.

The best thing about coffee is that it’s never just coffee. Or actually, the best thing about coffee is caffeine. The second-best thing is that it’s never just coffee. Coffee shops – the good ones, at least – are neighborhood gathering places, a spot for friends to catch up, a creative hub for people to meet, an office for remote laptop workers, and a stage for skilled baristas to display their own art.

Creating that kind of space for community and artistic expression is what drove Marlon and his partner Pilar Castañeda to open Café Santo, a dedicated Oaxacan-style coffee shop. That inspiration powered them through the early days as a weekend pop-up while they worked other jobs, and now their adventurous, artistic and collaborative spirit has carried them into a full-time space at BLVD Market, a new-ish food hall in Montebello.

“Using an espresso machine for the first time, that was the moment I felt a connection with coffee,” Marlon tells us. “With coffee, I can express all the things that I really enjoy, music and art, everything, basically.”

When you walk up to Café Santo, it’s clear that this is an artfully designed operation. The graphics are creative and evocative, with a hand-drawn aesthetic featuring work from Oaxacan artist Mariana Rodriguez Fernandez, set off by the stark white of their shop. There are potted cacti, dried plants and a couple tables near the window, also a brilliant white. Their impeccable style comes in large part from Pilar and from the artist Juan Renteria – Pilar and Renteria do the design at Café Santo, and they also operate Cuarto Central, an art studio, workspace and gallery just a few doors down.

But it’s not all about aesthetics. It’s easy to see what Marlon means by expressing himself through the espresso machine – the coffee is excellent, perfectly pulled shots from quality beans. Marlon selects those beans in close collaboration with another friend, roaster Leo Chavez of Boyle Heights’ Casa Tostadora and Picaresca Barra De Café. They dial in roast profiles, figuring out the best choices for Café Santo, both for their espresso and to complement another piece of Marlon’s Oaxacan culture: chocolate.

“One of my goals is to really highlight my roots,” Marlon says, noting that “Oaxaca is a small town, but it’s really rich gastronomically, musically, all of those things.” He’s been in L.A, for about 12 years, working in restaurants and coffee shops for most of that time, and trying to find the best way to honor his hometown and the parts of Oaxaca he loves. In 2016, he and Pilar started Café Santo as a pop-up, first at farmers’ markets and then growing to events and catering, and now, finally, to this stationary spot. Though Marlon has been in L.A. for over a decade now, Oaxaca still influences everything that happens at Café Santo.

It’s easy to see what Marlon means by expressing himself through the espresso machine – the coffee is excellent, perfectly pulled shots from quality beans.

He gets his chocolate directly from Oaxaca City, via Reina Negra Chocolate and Rito Chocolateria. Flor Heras, chocolatier at Reina Negra and Rito, is an old friend of Marlon’s from junior high in Oaxaca. They reconnected through the serendipity of Instagram a few years ago, when Pilar happened to show Marlon a cool Oaxacan chocolateria. Marlon recognized Flor immediately. He sent her a message, and they’ve been collaborating ever since.

Right now, Café Santo has three drinking chocolates on the menu. One is a pure 100% cacao shot, punchy but not overwhelmingly bitter, with notes of sweet cherry. They also have a Semiamargo, 60% cacao with cinnamon, a gently spiced chocolate which pairs fantastically with espresso and milk. And there is the Chocolate de Nuez, 80% cacao blended with pecans for a rich and subtly nutty sip. The classic Oaxacan drink is chocolate brewed with water, and each of these is fantastic this way – it maintains all of the chocolate flavor but drinks lighter, almost like a chocolate tea when hot, or chocolate juice when poured over ice. The partnership between Café Santo and Rito/Reina Negra is a beautiful cross-border collaboration, exactly the type of thing Café Santo is about.

The café’s space is conceptually designed for more than coffee, and it has an important physical role too – it’s the only street-facing tenant at BLVD Market. Café Santo welcomes you in off Whittier Boulevard, a stylish symbol for the market behind them, and a warm and bright presence with killer coffee in a city not known for specialty beans.

“When I moved to Montebello, I was looking for a place to have a nice cup of coffee and a pastry… and you don’t really find those places in this area,” Marlon says, “so with Café Santo and Cuarto Central, we want to offer more experiences and products to our community. … It’s not just about coffee, it’s about offering an experience to make people feel special.”

First and foremost, those include the day-to-day experience of fantastic brews and their short menu of pastries and breakfast burritos. The burritos lean minimalist, skinny for the category but impeccably crafted and perfectly balanced, a light brunch to keep you going instead of sticking to your gut like a scuba diver’s weight belt. The salsa on the side, like the burrito itself, is bold and bright, a zing of acid. On weekends, the menu expands to include French toast and the Oaxacan fried masa discs called memelas. They are simply adorned with asiento (unrefined lard), black beans, salsa and cheese. Yet again they are straightforward, well-conceived and delicious – a microcosm of the shop itself.

Marlon and Pilar also want the Café Santo experience to include more elaborate events. The highlight is a chocolate and mezcal pairing and tasting series, put on in collaboration with Rito Chocolate, of course. Flor brings her favorite chocolates and mezcal from Oaxaca, pairing them up with both an educational and artistic bent. They have plans to expand the series later this year when it’s safe to do so, and to continue to grow their events.

Like we said, good coffee shops are more than just coffee – and Café Santo proves the axiom in the best way.

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