At La Catrina, Coffee With a Nod Toward Mexico

photo by Mosum Shah

photo by Mosum Shah

The head of a smiling skeleton made famous in José Posada’s etching “La Calavera Catrina” graces the sign of La Catrina, a month-old coffee shop in Pilsen. Though Posada intended the etching to be a satire of Mexicans who too readily embraced European traditions in the early twentieth century, it appears the café shares a similar purpose: bringing Mexican culture back to its roots. Faded sepia photographs show scenes of daily life during the Mexican Revolution, and staff talk quietly, speaking in Spanish. Cushioned benches line the walls, and a bar-like seating area faces the street. Walking through a small hallway, a new space filled with loveseats and more tables creates the traditional coffee-shop seating, where couples quietly read as classical guitar music plays in the background.

What really ties La Catrina together is its clear emphasis on art and culture, engulfing the shop without being overbearing. Carefully chosen pictures by photographer Agustin V. Casasola line the walls, but the shop rotates art out every so often, showcasing the works of different local artists.

The menu, too, contains aspects of Mexican culture. Priced at under a dollar, the conchas de trigo–a sweet, dry bread with hints of cinnamon and vanilla–pairs well with La Catrina’s xocolatl. Pure, Aztec chocolate, the xocolatl is served in a tiny espresso shot glass, laced with spice to combine the bittersweet taste of chocolate with a light aftertaste of chili pepper. The menu also includes non-traditional items like mamouls, crescent-shaped Middle Eastern cookies with a colorful exterior and a nut filling. As all the baking occurs locally, variety is a key characteristic of La Catrina, and the baked goods on the menu often change.

In terms of the actual coffee, La Catrina hits the spot. The café brews Lavazza grounds, creating strong espresso shots in their caffeine drinks and other coffee products. Perhaps most unique is the dry cappuccino–a flavorful, sweet foam with very little milk–which mimics the taste of a cappuccino in a more unique and solid form. The tea selection also provides extensive options, with flower-based flavors including “Marigold Embrace” and “Rosebud Revealed.”

Overall, the store exudes a very home-like atmosphere. “We were just really lucky,” says store owner Salvador Galicia. “Everything just came together. My wife and I would visit coffee shops all the time; we really love them. The space opened up, and it just felt right.” Salvador and his wife, Diana, are originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, and its clear they wish to bring their home culture to Pilsen. Working previously as managers at Home Depot, she says, “Fifteen years in corporate america…I just couldn’t do it anymore. So I decided to relax and do what I like and bring my culture back.” With a regular bustle of customers taking advantage of closing hours that are later than most stores in the area (11pm all days but Sunday), the café has deservedly become a quick hit in the neighborhood. As Galacia calls after his customers, “Nos vemos”–”We’ll see you.”

La Catrina Cafe, 1011 W. 18th St. Monday-Saturday, 6am-11pm; Sunday, 8am-10pm. (312)434-4040.