December 4, 2023

Food Bazaar

Get In My Food Bazaar

This Melrose Coffee Shop Makes Some of LA’s Most Inventive Food

“One latte, an Americano, an omelet, and a croissant please.”

That’s a common order around Los Angeles these days, as more daytime restaurants and coffee shops blur their lines to offer a bit of both worlds — espresso drinks, an all-day menu, and maybe even some WiFi. The difference with an order like this at Melrose’s Coffee Coffee, though, is apparent as soon as the food hits the table.

Here, the omelet arrives with wavy edges that mimic Richard Serra’s large, curling steel structures housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The soft eggs twist along a bed of koshihikari rice seasoned with sesame soy dressing, studded with roasted seasonal vegetables, a mixed herb salad, and a side of chile crisp oil; the latte, Americano, and burnt cinnamon croissant complete the composition. This is Michelin-aspirational daytime eating straight out of a Copenhagen cafe playbook, available just steps from Paramount Studios and at the speed and cost of a Cafe Gratitude sandwich.

Coffee Coffee’s menu is an amalgamation of chef Adrian Castro’s personal perspective, from his formative years in the San Gabriel Valley to his Mexican, Peruvian, and Colombian heritage as well as extensive experience cooking in fine dining kitchens across Los Angeles. Elements of his journey are packed into dishes like roasted Japanese eggplant and a griddled roast pork sandwich with charred poblano peppers available for the weekday lunch crowd. Spices from chiles de arbol, guajillo, and red jalapenos highlight his Mexican heritage, while the addition of ginger, scallions, pepitas, sunflower seeds, and sesame pay homage to his childhood in the SGV. Castro credits his initial interest in cooking to his parents and their divergent cooking styles: Both worked full-time jobs, which, for his mother, meant fast, hearty meals. Castro’s father cooked less frequently, and when he did the evenings were memorable, filled with slow-cooked meats, family-sized portions, and lingering conversations.

“I’m extremely inspired by my parents and the way they were always able to have food on the table for us,” says Castro. “They were always working, in and out of the house, but there was always food.”

A spiral of creamy eggs in a bowl with lots of greens.

Egg omelette

Castro and his brother would help in the kitchen where they could, but for years Castro’s passion for precision and tinkering pushed him to want to become a mechanic, like his father. It wasn’t until high school that he ran into names like Gordon Ramsay and José Andrés, who showed on television what could be possible at the highest levels of cooking. After high school, Castro dedicated a year to a small culinary school, before ending up in dish pits and prep kitchens around greater Los Angeles. His first stop was Roy’s, the Hawaiian-Japanese-American fusion chain restaurant in Pasadena. Stints at an izakaya and a local Korean restaurant followed, but it was Downtown’s venerable Cafe Pinot that pulled Castro toward fine dining. The legendary Patina Restaurant Group spot ran for 25 years under chef/owner Joachim Splichal before closing in 2019, ending a generation of white-tablecloth, expense-account dining that kept Downtown’s Financial District afloat during the early 2000s.

“It was a completely different vibe,” Castro says. “It was more intense, and I had to learn how to focus in that environment. I took a lot of notes.” He went on to stage at Le Bernardin in New York City, an unpaid position that saw him working seven days straight, with 16 hour shifts. Undaunted by the demands of fine dining at the time, Castro says that Eric Ripert helped him solidify his career choice.

Back in Los Angeles, Castro hit the ground running, pushing through the ranks at Cafe Pinot before departing to the boundary-pushing modernist Bazaar on La Cienega, where he stayed for five years. It was a full-circle moment for the young chef, who still counts José Andrés as an inspiration. “At Cafe Pinot, there were six or seven chefs and 70 seats. The Bazaar had 25 cooks and 300 seats. It was extremely military-like, but I felt right at home.”

In maybe the most frenetic phase of his career, Castro was splitting his time between Son of a Gun and the Bazaar, pushing through 18-hour days without a rest — the kind of exacting time commitment that is often said to be “required” to make it in the upper echelons of fine dining, but that notoriously comes at great cost to workers. In 2016, he moved on to Kali as a line cook, working his way through every station to become sous chef. When the chef de cuisine left, Castro was promoted to the role, working directly under chef-owner Kevin Meehan. He spent the next year pushing Kali from the kitchen, en route to the restaurant’s first Michelin star. “I brought an arsenal of knowledge based on my experience,” he says. “I prepped every day, worked service, and started new projects like fermentation and bread-making.”

Six months after that Michelin star, COVID-19 shut down restaurants across Los Angeles and the country.

“It was the best vacation I ever had,” says Castro. “I spent time with my wife, who was with me when I worked 18-hour days. We cooked dinner every night, watched movies, and hung out with the dogs.” With time to spare at home, he pushed deeper into bread-making and pastry work. Soon, 150-pound bags of flour turned into daily breads, which Castro sold around the city on the side. He would tinker with sourdoughs and ingredients, adding oats, sprouts, nori, and more to his bakes; he was always learning, always keeping his hands busy. In late 2020 Kali reopened, leaving a spot for Castro to return to the place he helped to build into a star. But instead of retreating into his previous work, the 31-year-old took on his coffee connoisseur friend Ricky Hernandez’s offer to open Coffee Coffee on Melrose.

A hand holds a recently finished latte in a glass.

Workers on laptops inside a wood-lined coffee shop.

A busy day at a coffee shop with customers in tall pink scooped stool seats.

The cafe, just steps from Kali, was planning to offer a more robust daytime food menu to its original Fairfax location, and Castro believed that he could marry his high-end cooking with the culture of casual daytime dining so prevalent in Los Angeles. Castro and Hernandez wanted this new venture to be approachable, cost-sensitive, and to carry excellent coffee all while making financial sense for the partners, too. Easier said than done.

“There is an extra labor and food cost that wouldn’t exist in a typical cafe,” says Castro, “but we offset that higher cost by being extremely vegetable-focused. We use a lot of grains, and treat them in the way one would [treat] protein.” Taking a cue from his mother’s cooking, Castro makes use of smaller green lentils (also known as French lentils) for some dishes, crediting their “beautiful texture” in helping to balance out certain foods. “Our dishes are prep heavy, technique driven, but familiar,” he adds. “We work with suppliers from the farmers markets, some the same as Kali, and check in with them every day.”

Take the papas y frijoles, a local favorite, created with black beans cooked with garlic and aromatics along with crispy potatoes from Weiser Farms and a poached egg. This dish fills the typical lunch crowd but is offered without meat. At $17, it’s not inexpensive by most standards, but the lack of animal protein — particularly the kind that Castro would source — helps to keep the cost more in line. The pricing is on par with other higher-end restaurants in the area that rely on similar ingredients and techniques; it differs only in its daytime menu format.

The sunlight work shifts and relaxed environment allowed Castro’s team at Coffee Coffee to pull in cooks from established kitchens like Kali, Somni, Craft, and the Bazaar. Here the hours are shorter and the pace slower, a far cry from Castro’s Le Bernardin stage. The intensity, extreme focus, and long, repetitive services are often said to be required of fine dining kitchens; Castro wants to think differently. He knows that kind of work often leads to burnout among the kitchen ranks, a feeling he’s personally familiar with. Coffee Coffee, Castro believes, gives promising young cooks an outlet to continue to work at a high level with ingredients, but with much less pressure.

A close up shot of an espresso drink in a green cup with a cactus on the outside.

Cortados on deck

Coffee Coffee delights in welcoming a sun-up customer base that comes in for caffeine and cafe bites. Castro and owner Hernandez run a sustainable, cost-effective operation, he believes, that still manages to push the limits on what some diners might think is possible for this stretch of Melrose. It has also freed up Castro and his crew to cook the kind of food that makes them happy, and still be home in time for dinner with their families.

Coffee Coffee keeps daily hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 5630 Melrose Avenue. The company also has a location on Fairfax, and is opening in Silver Lake soon.

A daytime photo from the street of a laid-back cafe.

The sunny vibes at Coffee Coffee

5630 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038