Meet 10 Of LA’s Best Asian-Owned Cafes
The stories behind some of our favorite Asian-owned coffee and tea shops across LA.
While many Asian cultures have deep histories with tea, coffee has become increasingly popular over the past few decades, particularly in big cities. Whether you’re in Seoul or Bangkok, Tokyo or Hanoi, there’s no shortage of aesthetically pleasing coffee shops that rival the likes of Alfred or Gget here in LA. And with more travel between Asia and California, along with growing populations of Asian diasporas and faster cultural exchange powered by technology, the influence travels fast in both directions.
These days many specialty coffee shops serve up traditionally Asian-influenced coffee drinks like cà phê đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) or Kyoto-style slow drip. But no matter how you take yours, you won’t need to travel far to support any of the Asian-owned spots in this guide. We spoke with owners about their backstories, running their businesses over the past year, and their visions for the future. Below, you’ll get to know the people behind some of our favorite Asian-owned cafes in the city and recommendations for what to order.
With Warm Welcome is a community organization that amplifies and humanizes Asian American chefs, restaurateurs, and founders by producing podcasts, crafting meaningful experiences, and collaborating with artists. It’s become ever more apparent that we need to find ways to advocate for Asian-owned small businesses as they’ve been the hardest hit during the pandemic. In partnership with The Infatuation, we’re spotlighting some of our favorite Asian-owned businesses to support now and forever.
Korean-American co-founders Joonmo Kim and Jacob Park named the cafe after the old Korean word for mountaintop (san ma ru), inspired by Jacob’s childhood growing up in a mountain temple in Korea. This Los Feliz cafe emulates that same tranquility, using lots of wood and neutral tones in the design complemented by plenty of natural light. Over the past year, with the support of the employees and the community, they were able to stay open, but Kim said it was hard seeing peers in the industry struggle, although he was able to use his background in finance to help friends and other small biz owners get loans early in the pandemic. Looking forward, he hopes to open up indoors and give customers the experience they’ve been craving for the past year: sitting in a coffee shop alone, but not alone, while creating a community space to be comfortable in - whether in Los Feliz, the Arts District, or a potential third location coming later this year.
Order this: For something sweet, go with a cream top, or opt for a classic espresso drink using their signature Ethiopian single-origin heirloom blend.
Owner Jack Benchakul thinks about Endorffeine primarily as a project, rather than a business, which is why the cafe is purposely small, and why he’s personally made every drink since it opened. The one-time biochemist-turned-pastry chef and wedding cake maker started doing coffee pop-ups around the city before landing at Scoops in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza in August 2015. At the time, the plaza wasn’t as full or busy, but Benchakul said he liked the hawker center feel and that the location was purposefully chosen to be a little hidden away so that Endorffeine would be more of a discovery. For a long time, he and his business partner had the idea to do ready-to-drink beverages, and last year they started canning them in-house. The pandemic offered the opportunity to have a development phase so they could self-finance and do a grassroots campaign to launch the new products. The flavors, which include things like vanilla pandan and matcha coconut tea, are drawn from flavors that Benchakul grew up with in a Thai family and by eating at local Asian restaurants.
Order this: Espresso for coffee purists, or a Thai iced coffee for a sweet option.
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Document Coffee Bar
Located right off Wilshire in Ktown, this former gallery space was taken over by Document co-owners and life partners Sojung Kwon and Byoungok Koh, which is also where they first met. With backgrounds in art, they initially imagined it would be a studio, but needed a source of income so they started studying coffee. They spent a year learning about third-wave coffee and going to Seoul to attend a coffee expo and bring in some of the influences of city’s vibrant coffee culture to their business, which opened in August 2014. At the time, the coffee scene in Koreatown was simpler and more focused on dark roasts, but Kwon and Koh wanted to create a specialty coffee experience with lighter roasts and use the space to bring artists and the neighborhood together. The past year has given Kwon newfound appreciation for socializing with the community, even if it’s just for a few minutes with customers at the counter, and she looks forward to holding events once again and bringing people back together through art and coffee.
Order this: The Document flat white (sweetened with maple syrup) and cafe horchata are both great.
CAFE IF started off as a blog run by Chinese Canadian owner Ai Zhang. After moving to the US, she yearned for somewhere to connect with like-minded people from different backgrounds, so she decided to create a virtual space for friends to embrace unfamiliar possibilities and share their own personal journeys. When she relocated to LA from New York in 2015, she needed to get to know another new place and carve out a social space. So in May of 2016, CAFE IF was reborn as a physical cafe in WeHo. Zhang said the neighborhood has been very supportive of the business, and she often discusses her personal thoughts about cultural differences and language barriers with her customers. In the past year, they’ve had to shorten hours and go from an afternoon gathering spot to a morning takeaway business, but she’s still found ways to foster connection, mostly through Instagram rather than at the cafe. Regardless of the pandemic, she said her business needs to catch up to thrive in an online-focused world, but she still values human interactions and hopes to stay true to her initial mission in whatever form it takes.
Order this: The charcoal latte, or go classic and get a flat white.
Cognoscenti Coffee Bar
While it’s now recognized as one of the best cafes in the city, Cognoscenti had humble beginnings, starting in 2008 as a pop-up before partnering with Proof Bakery. While Chinese American founder Yeekai Lim previously had a career in architecture, he became obsessed with coffee - from the origins and histories to the complex flavors - after first experiencing it at Intelligentsia. Wanting to try as much coffee as possible, he decided to do a coffee pop-up, and four years later, he opened the first shop in Culver City and later two more locations downtown, designing each of them himself. Last year, Cognoscenti launched an online ordering service and streamlined the delivery process. With more people working from home, Lim said he plans to continue to focus on home coffee brewing and educating homebrewers. And in the future, he also wants to spend more time engaging with producers and optimizing vertical sustainability from farm to shop.
Order this: The batch brew - they cycle through different origins throughout the week.
Andante Coffee Roasters
Andante Coffee Roasters has been a longtime favorite in the local third-wave coffee scene, with its original location on Beverly Blvd right across from the traffic hazard we call Erewhon. Steve Hyun, Tommy Kim, and Jacob Park took over this location in 2012, and have since grown the business to Echo Park and DTLA, each maintaining the industrial minimal aesthetic. All of the coffee is locally roasted in Koreatown.
Order this: The sweet cold brew or a honey lavender latte.
Newer to the East Side coffee world, Laveta was opened by the same team behind Andante in the summer of 2019. Despite being on the other side of the 101 from the coffee shop epicenter that is Echo Park, Laveta has quickly become aesthetically famous through social media. The small standalone structure houses a seamless polished concrete interior that flows throughout, complemented by simple wood furnishings while the window offers dramatic golden hour patches of light into the room. All of this is to say, it’s a beautiful spot to drink something with caffeine.
Order this: The signature Laveta (double espresso, maple syrup, oat milk).
SACHI.LA in Del Rey is part coffee shop, part plant and retail shop. Opened by sisters Sachi and Chiyo in August 2018 on a quiet strip of Centinela, it features local artisan products and a generous selection of coffee and tea drinks. It’s also always been a shared dream for the family - when they were growing up, Chiyo said they’d always bring coffee from her mom’s favorite roaster in Oakland to Japan for friends and family. Sachi always had a green thumb and Chiyo worked in retail, so together they came up with a concept for a multi-use space for coffee, plants, and recycled clothing, but the past year, in particular, has called for a lot of improvisation. From turning an old drawer and some stools into a makeshift takeout counter to creating their first website, they’ve been able to survive with the support of their loyal customers. Looking forward, they’re expanding the retail side into the space next door where they hope to grow the brand, taking the wabi-sabi nature of their operation to explore new ideas and products.
Order this: The Dirty Earl, anearl grey lavender latte with a shot of espresso.
15 years ago, Korean-American owner Frank Kim was training to be a firefighter when he first tried coffee. It quickly became a hobby as he began to search for different kinds, eventually leading him to become a manager at Demitasse. Long story short, firefighting didn’t work out and Kim became interested in not only the coffee part of the business, but also the hospitality aspect: creating a space that brings people together and a product that he’s proud to serve. He grew up helping his immigrant parents with their retail business, which made him initially rebel against that kind of work, but the influence ultimately came back around with Highlight. The first location opened in Glendale in 2015 in the corner of a historic 1920s hotel, and in late 2019, he launched a second location in Pasadena. Over the course of the past year, Kim felt like he was going from being an expert at running coffee shops to feeling like it’s all new again. And while the regulars have helped him stay open, he said it’s hard to imagine things bouncing back to the way they were before, but he’s optimistic that his customers will continue to support Highlight both as a business and a welcoming community space.
Order this: Either a butterscotch latte or an orange-vanilla latte, both of which use homemade syrups.
Highland Park has no shortage of picture-perfect cafés, and Kumquat is a relative newcomer, landing on York Blvd in November 2018. Co-owners AJ Kim and Scott Sohn both have backgrounds in coffee and wanted to simplify the business when they opened so they could focus on the essentials - like the origin of each ingredient, sourcing syrups directly from farms around the US, and offering coffee from a dozen different roasters around the world. They chose the name Kumquat because it felt unexpected for a coffee shop, but it also relates to their Asian American identity as something that hails from Asia, and their experiences of coffee culture in places like Korea and Japan. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve continued thinking about and focusing on what their customers are looking for: quality home brewing (they increased the variety of coffee beans and gear), refreshing drinks during warm months (they’re currently doing a cold brew fest with nine different types) and shorter wait times (there are plans for a second location in Cypress Park).
Order this: A cold brew from their seasonal selection, or a hojicha latte.