Way south of the pure, unadulterated hustle and bustle of the historic center, east of refined and residential San Ángel, and northwest of Xochimilco and its colorful canals lies Coyoacán, a neighborhood unlike any other in the megalopolis that is Mexico City.
Once an artsy hangout for the movers and shakers of the day, like Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, as well as a refuge for exiled Communists like Leon Trotsky (all three have house museums dedicated to their honor in the barrio), Coyoacán is now a popular tourist hangout. However, you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to find remnants of Coyoacán’s traditional, if somewhat romanticized, past.
Take Café El Jarocho, one of the area’s most beloved businesses that, much like Kahlo’s legacy, has left an indelible mark on the area. As Mexico City local JP Toscano, who often stops by when he finds himself in Coyoacán, told us, “[El Jarocho has] been there forever, way, way before there were any big Starbucks-like chains throughout the city. At this point, it’s seen as an integral part of Coyoacán. Locals go there because they have been going for so long, it’s what they know, it’s local, and it’s a habit.”
It’s been 65 years since El Jarocho was founded, although it wasn’t a coffee shop to begin with. Owners Gil Romero and Bertha Paredes first worked selling seeds and fruits from Veracruz in a different store, before Paredes eventually took ownership of that business. They would later move to the corner of Calles Cuauhtémoc and Allende, the site of the original (and, we think, the best) El Jarocho Café.
It’s 8 p.m. and we’re taking some friends to that same El Jarocho location to sample their classic coffees. One asks us about the special spiced coffee and we look at her blankly until it dawns on us that she’s referring to the cinnamon-spiked café de olla. Traditionally made in an earthen clay pot, this coffee is one of the signature blends of any Mexican kitchen and an El Jarocho staple. Alongside black coffee and café con leche (coffee with milk), it was one of the original options offered up on the menu and remains a firm favorite.
“One of our main concerns is to always give the people the coffee they deserve.”
Nowadays though, there are more caffeine-filled choices to choose from and, despite the arrival of third wave coffee shops in and around Coyoacán’s central plaza, populated with tourists chattering loudly over cake and freelancers clack, clacking away on laptops, El Jarocho remains round-the-clock busy.
In fact, by the time we arrive, the queue is already wending its way down the block. Several passers-by linger by one of the two doorways – if you can call them that, they’re just massive holes in the wall that get shuttered up at night – browsing the menu for what to order. Regulars, however, don’t even need to look.
It’s best not to spend too much time pondering anyway. After all, the line moves quickly, thanks to the frightening efficiency (if not quite courtesy) of the baristas behind the counter. Vast jugs are filled with premade coffee. One worker is in the back, making the coffee, while another serves. This is no third wave coffee shop, where you awkwardly hover as they prepare your brew over a Bunsen burner and serve it up in a shot glass. This is honest coffee without the fuss, an in-and-out job.
Perhaps that’s why so many patrons choose to linger instead on the wrought-iron benches that surround the place. There may be no internet, or even actual chairs and tables, but there are elderly women gossiping in rapid fire Spanish, while tourists and locals alike snap photos of El Jarocho’s distinctive coffee cups for future Instagram posts.
“El Jarocho is part of day-to-day life for the people of Coyoacán and from there we get our opening hours of 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. We have lots of clients that wait for us to open to take coffee to their offices and homes,” says Romero, who works for the shop.
“One of our main concerns is to always give the people the coffee they deserve,” he adds. “On the one hand it should be quality and flavorful and on the other, it should be fairly priced.” For the record, prices hover somewhere either side of 20 pesos (around $1), depending on what you order.
As you might expect, anyone who’s anyone in Mexico City has heard of El Jarocho, whether they’ve sipped coffee from one of their trademark coffee cups – each one is decorated in the red, white and green of the Mexican flag – or not. And yet, despite finding fame amongst visitors too, taking someone there for the first time still feels like you’re letting them in on a local, insider secret. Kind of like Coyoacán itself, really.