Enjoying coffee and newspaper inside La Taza Cafe.
Nikki Kourmouzis, 36 sits next to her daughter Zoe, 6, while daughter Eva starts eating dinner.
Nikki Kourmouzis, 36 sits next to her daughter Zoe, 6, while daughter Eva starts eating dinner.
coffee sacks decorate La Taza

In a window-lit corner of La Taza Café sit a group of men from various parts of the Americas. They gather each morning to gossip about the latest happenings of San Francisco’s Mission District or to discuss politics of their home countries.

For the men, it is a way of maintaining a strong link to their home country, while creating a sense of camaraderie in their adoptive land.

The bright red, orange and beige walks, tall palm trees, coffee sacks decorating the walls, and colorful paintings create a warm and welcoming mood.

“I like the Latino atmosphere,” said Carlos Ernesto Arita, 55, one of the group, on a recent fall morning as he drank black coffee surrounded by his buddies. He said he has been going to La Taza for more than five years and has been living in the Mission for nearly 30 years, he said. “People are very welcoming here,” Arita said.

The men hail from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico. Most have lived in the Mission for one, two and even three decades. And like in many small towns across Latin America, they know their neighborhood well. Many end up in La Taza, where the wait can be up to 10 minutes in the morning with mothers, store attendees, painters, uniformed police officers, and sales clerks in line for their morning coffee.

“Rosie, how was your trip to Mexico?” David Gonzalez, 56, asked a woman in Spanish as she left the coffee shop.

The eight to 10 men—the number fluctuates if one is sick or another has to start work earlier—occupy five small round tables at the front of the coffee bar. Their voices get louder as the staff prepares lattes, cappuccinos and breakfast sandwiches for morning customers.

“On one block there’s a gang, and on another block there’s another gang,” Alfredo Gonzalez, 62, one of the men said of what he believes is “wrong with today’s youth.”

His brother David added, “people just don’t have respect for anyone now.”

The conversation moves to the U.S. economy, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and deportations.

“Why don’t police stop harassing people without driver’s licenses and go after drug dealers,” said Arita, referring to undocumented immigrants whose vehicles are impounded. “It pains me every time I see police taking people’s vehicles because they don’t have licenses.”

The clashing of the ceramic mugs and breakfast dishes due to morning rush hour compete with their voices.

“It all starts with a good cup of coffee,” said 28-year-old Carlos Martinez, whose parents own the shop. “Even in a bad economy everybody comes in for a cup of coffee.”

Martinez said his parents, who were born in Nicaragua, came from a family of coffee bean growers, so it was natural for them to open a coffee shop.

“My uncle has coffee bean fields (in Nicaragua),” Martinez said recently at La Taza on Mission Street. Martinez’s cousin owns and operates Martha & Brothers Coffee Co., a coffee roasting company in South San Francisco, which has allowed La Taza to supply the shop with freshly roasted coffee twice a week, Martinez said.

The 2,500-square foot coffee shop was less than half that size when it opened more than eight years ago, Martinez said. He attributed the growth of the family business to “good-tasting coffee.”

“We have a good eye for coffee,” Martinez said. “The good coffee helps wake up the customers so they can go out to work.”

On afternoons and evenings—when the men have left for their jobs or home—the shop is like any other, with limited interaction between customers.

“The food is really good here,” said Nikki Kourmouzis, 36, while sharing a fish and chips and a salad with her daughters Zoe, 6, and Eva Mederer, 8.

“It’s very much a family café,” she said.

But it’s the companionship the men find around a cup of coffee mug each morning that keeps them coming back. It’s also what gives the shop a sense of community, they say.

Carlos Velasquez Salaman, 45, stops regularly for coffee before heading to his job as a fitter at an upscale men’s suit store. In a three-hour time span at La Taza, at least four people walked over to his table to shake his hand.

“You see people from all walks of life come here,” said Salaman, who was born in El Salvador but has been living in San Francisco 34 years. “This is a very popular place.”

Rosa Ramirez

Rosa Ramirez grew up listening to stories about her father and uncles migrating from a small rural town in Mexico to work in the garment district in Los Angeles. Now, as a reporter for Mission Loc@l,...

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