By Brianna Chu
Tucked in amongst the shops and restaurants south of bustling Colorado Blvd. in Old Town Pasadena, Amara Chocolate and Coffee is a cozy little cafe serving up a slice of Venezuela’s unique flavors. The eponymous owner, Amara Barroeta, is a proud new mom, but still comes in when she can, and many customers on the warm Friday afternoon we met her greeted her fondly. Throughout the day, she stopped and chatted with patrons, even coming out from behind the counter to give hugs. The cafe itself is snug inside and out, an old-school kind of cafe that eschews laptops on their tables and Wi-Fi – which may be unpopular for some, but it’s a choice that struck me as a nice getaway for a lunch break.
Barroeta first came to California to pursue her Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at UCLA, commuting daily from Pasadena. She didn’t necessarily intend on staying in the United States; originally, she was going to return to Venezuela, where her family still was. After a day of classes and commuting, she would often call her husband, Alexander, at midnight, and they’d make churros together over Skype. But given the turbulent political climate of Venezuela, she decided to stay, and had even received a job offer upon graduating from UCLA. Her husband has since joined her here, and they own Amara Coffee and Chocolate together.
At the time the cafe opened – back in 2011 – Old Town looked a little different, and not as many people ventured to that side of Raymond Avenue. They started out with the basics: Venezuelan-style coffee, drinking chocolate, and of course, churros. This small menu was a direct reflection of the amount of money Barroeta could pour into the cafe; she didn’t have the money to buy any more specialized equipment. Since she first opened Amara, though, she has worked with the local Jones Coffee Roasters to create a uniquely Venezuelan blend for her customers. Barroeta had previously conducted research back in Venezuela in gluten-free flours, which was not common at the time, and that expertise reflects in the cafe’s specialty vegan and gluten-free churros. At Amara, she uses the freshest ingredients she can, making as much of the food from scratch and by hand. Her goal was to build a comfortable gathering-place for those in her local Pasadenan community, and she slowly built that space, seeing people come in for coffee, chocolate, and churros in the mornings and afternoons. It wasn’t until after they’d been open a full year that she could buy an oven to bake bread fresh every day, upon which she could serve sandwiches to attract the lunch crowd.
Now, eight years later, the much more extensive current menu reflects inspiration from Barroeta’s grandmother. Back in Venezuela, her grandmother was in charge of the chefs for the head of the Church, and this position was highly coveted, given their strongly religious community. Cooking for the head of the Church was like cooking for the President, and Barroeta remembers fondly growing up with her grandmother and mother in the kitchen. The bigger dishes now featured on Amara’s menu harken back to the food Barroeta grew up with.
Starting with appetizers, she recommended us a most beloved Venzuelan one: tequeños, or tekes for short. A fresh chunk of Venezuelan queso de mano – literally, hand cheese – wrapped in empanada dough, and deep fried. These treats were as wonderful and delicious as they sound: soft, warm, fluffy dough wrapped around a cheese that has the texture and consistency as a mozzarella, but with a slightly saltier flavor. At Amara, they’re served with a garlic cilantro sauce and/or a guava sauce. After hearing I am half-Filipino, she brought out an empanada, too, because Venezuelan empanadas are fried instead of baked, which she thought I would enjoy sampling. She was right! The empanada was delightfully crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and filled with tender, flavorful chunks of pork.
For the main course, the cachapas are especially dear to Barroeta, as her home state in Venezuela is well-known for them. When trying to make them for her menu here, she struggled to prepare the cachapas with the different types of corn available here. She worked on the recipe for over a year to make them what they are now. The llanera cachapas she recommended are unusual; unlike the traditional folded presentation, the llanera cachapas at Amara’s are served open-faced instead, proudly displaying its toppings. Barroeta was initially concerned about her unusual serving choice – “the toughest client is a Venezuelan, of course,” she said with a laugh – but happily, they were a hit with both her Venezuelan and non-Venezuelan customers. The cachapa itself was a sweet and slightly crumbly corn pancake upon which black beans, cheese, plantains, and soft, marinated pork (her recommendation of meat, but there are other choices as well!) sat. Each bite was an experience, moving from flavor to flavor, as if it had discrete levels of tastes building upon each other. Sweetness and savoriness moved to the forefront of the bite at different times. A word to the wise: it’s a solid, hearty plate of food, so if you’re in a hurry at lunch, this may not be the best time to give it a try!
Arepas are also a staple of the Amara menu, and to contrast with the pork, Barroeta suggested an asado negro arepa, which came served with a side salad. The arepa itself reminded me of the texture and structure of an English toasting muffin, but made of corn. The arepa itself held the caramelized beef and its juices, along with a generous portion of more queso de mano and some fresh slices of tomato. Every bite was a savory, cohesive symphony of well-suited flavors, and the portion size was perfect for lunch. Looking at the menu, too, there are many options for dishes to be made vegetarian or vegan-friendly, with a note offering a meat substitution.
For dessert, the Amara staple churros are a must – though churros and drinking chocolate are a classic Madrid breakfast, according to Barroeta. The six churros were each twisted into little ribbon-like shapes, and a dollop of vanilla ice cream was placed in each crook. We were able to try three dipping sauces: melted dark chocolate, dulche de leche, and the guava sauce. As an avid lover of guava, I hands-down recommend the guava sauce over the chocolate or the dulche de leche. To me, it was the perfect balance of sweet and a tiny bit of fruity tartness, and even after the rest of this enormous meal, I still devoured these churros with gusto. Our lattes were a perfect accompaniment: one a classic latte, which was smooth, mild, buttery, and overall easy to drink, and the other, an Aztec coffee, which sang wonderfully with the bittersweet dark chocolate and the warmth of the chile, blooming with flavor on the palate.
So if you’ve ever wanted to take a trip to Venezuela, you can take a flavor trip at Amara Chocolate and Coffee!
Amara Chocolate and Coffee
55 S. Raymond Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91105
Monday | Closed
Tuesday-Thursday | 8:30 am – 7:30 pm
Friday & Saturday | 8:30 am – 9:15 pm
Sunday | 8:30 am – 6:15 pm