As difficult as the last two years have been for food businesses, it has offered many establishments an opportunity to rethink how they do things and come back with a greater sense of purpose. Take the example of Oaxaca’s Oscuro Brebaje, a café that took a pause, only to emerge stronger and more inviting.
Founded in 2015 by a young barista, Andrés González Martell, Oscuro Brebaje started off serving artsy frappés, light breakfasts and unforgettable cakes – all of which have become the signature bites of this unassuming café located in the old neighborhood of La Noria. Here, locals and visitors interact in the peaceful and picturesque streets full of old houses and colorful facades.
Though it suits it well, this is not Oscuro Brebaje’s original location. Andrés first started working far away, in the upper end of downtown, inside a small garden surrounded by old adobe walls. His café still sported the name of the premise’s previous coffeehouse, Cafetería del Peñasco. After some months, Andrés, who wasn’t even 18 years old at the time, was asked to stop using the old café name.
“Everything I had at that moment was either borrowed, second hand or improvised,” he explains. “The new name came to me suddenly, after I read a book about coffee. According to ancient cultures, a brebaje [potion] is something bitter and intense. Besides medicine, beer and strong spirits, the only other potion with those features is the beautiful oscuro [dark] coffee. So there you have it: Oscuro Brebaje”
The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as there is something enticing and mystical about the new café, which attracts clients to its doors just as explorers speak of idyllic gardens brimming with delights. And that was the feeling we got during our first encounter with OB’s vegan chocolate cake almost seven years ago. Its fluffy texture and chocolatey, moist flavor captivated us in unexpected ways, since vegan desserts were not found – or even known – in Oaxaca City back then.
Oscuro Brebaje was without a doubt a pioneer, not only in serving vegan desserts and drinks, but also in representing a generation of entrepreneurs who believe that passion and meticulousness are key to every project. Before opening OB, Andrés used to work in a coffeehouse in the city of Queretaro, where he lived temporarily with his family during his high school years.
“I knew nothing about coffee, but I wanted to save so I could travel to Germany. I became a passionate barista, and when my family came back to Oaxaca, I joked that I would not come back unless I had my own cafeteria. To my surprise, my parents arranged for me a deal with the old Cafetería del Peñasco, with the condition that I had to continue the project on my own,” Andrés tells us.
This initial kick was everything he needed. His driven nature and talent for PR gave OB the opportunity to become a sort of cultural center offering healthy fruit-based bowls and drinks, sandwiches and specialty non-alcoholic drinks, as well as sponsoring little gigs, language clubs and open mic sessions.
After a long period of success, the youthful and restless Andrés felt he had the world in the palm of his hand and, according to him, he started making poor decisions in how he delegated his business. It started to wobble, rent increased and the income decayed, forcing OB to close its doors. Refusing to give up, he brought OB back to life at a different location, though it didn’t quite speak to him. It satisfied his devoted clients, however, – including us. We had been dreaming of his velvety smoothies, dark coffees and hearty sandwiches.
Andrés was very quickly contacted by his uncle, Gonzalo Algara Siller (now 33). He had returned from the jungle of the Mayan region, driving into Oaxaca in his Jeep and hoping to settle down. After visiting Andrés and getting to know his project, the excited Gonzalo sold his vintage 4×4 so that he could partner with his nephew. Gonzalo’s natural talent for human connection helped them find a bigger location with a stunning patio, and top-tier suppliers.
The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as there is something enticing and mystical about the new café, which attracts clients to its doors just as explorers speak of idyllic gardens brimming with delights.
“Oaxaca’s produce is unbelievably fresh and diverse,” Gonzalo tells us. “Literally, we have at hand all the ingredients we need to match the all-terrain spirit of OB, where fresh animal products as well as vegan and vegetarian options are always on our menu.” On top of the traditional chilaquiles (tortilla chips with tomato-guajillo salsa, salsa verde or black bean sauce) and molletes (crispy bread with grilled cheese, bean paste, guacamole and protein), the fearless duo improved their menu with unusual (for Oaxaca) drinks and dishes, like ceremonial matcha, guava punch, honey chicken waffles, vegan burgers, sandwiches with hummus or wok-style grilled vegetables. We also can’t forget their signature cakes and, last but not least, coffee in all forms and flavors – except decaf.
Beyond the spirit that Gonzalo brought with him from his adventurer days, another important element of this pair are their core values. “We have three crucial precepts,” Andrés says. “One: affordable prices for all. Two: 80% of our consumables should come from small farmers. For example, our coffee grains come from the family of the woman who used to babysit me. She sends it over, and I roast and grind it here. And three: Always trust people willing to learn, despite their lack of experience. I once was there and, thanks to my bosses’ trust, I found my passion.” Gonzalo puts an arm on his nephew’s shoulder as he says these final words.
OB’s story resembles ours in many ways – one moment we are enjoying ourselves and feeling on top of the world and, the next, we are being locked down and in crisis. Now, after two years of dormancy, we are having a second chance to reshape into a fresher, brighter version of ourselves. Luckily, we have OB’s flavorful treats and good disposition accompanying us along this new path.
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Published on March 16, 2022