Alchemy isn’t a word that often gets used when talking about coffee and pastries. But what Christian Soto and José Rodriguez are doing at Calaca Coffee — a formerly abandoned lot they’ve turned into a Latinx-owned coffee garden in Crockett — feels almost magical.
Their approach to running a coffee business has resulted in hybridized offerings like mochi concha cookies, jamaica-brewed soda, churro mochi muffins, and the Caramelita — a variation of cold brew mixed with oat milk, cinnamon, and caramel. The cafe de olla cold brew is a must-sip, a chilled take on the popular Mexican-style coffee that’s traditionally brewed in a massive pot and infused with ingredients like cinnamon, anise, citrus, or raw cane sugar called piloncillo — though at Calaca, they offer homemade agave syrup, rather than sugar, for those who want a sweetened kick.
If you’ve never tasted items like these before, that’s likely because they’re pioneered by Soto and Rodriguez, sons of Mexican immigrants who became friends in middle school and have since launched a business that highlights their U.S. upbringing and Mexican heritage. Especially for those who grew up in Latinx culture, or have families on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Calaca feels genuine and homely — built in an unlikely location and offering unconventional flavor combinations. With a surprising range of beverages and rotating pastries being served from inside a small trailer the owners spent their life savings on, Calaca punches above its weight class with Latinx flare, turning little into something — in the way many immigrant families do upon arriving in California.
With the rise of places like Hasta Muerte, Zocalo, Excelsior Coffee, La Lucha, Cafe con Carino, and Tierra Mia Coffee, the Bay Area is experiencing a growing wave of Latinx-owned cafeterías, or coffee shops, and pop ups during the past few years. And in some ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise; Latin America cultivates the most coffee in the world and Latinx consumers are the largest group of coffee drinkers globally. “Latino businesses are usually thought of as landscaping and construction but we also are known for coffee,” Soto says. “We aren’t bean snobs though. We are just providing good vibes and trying to help the community.”
This isn’t the pair’s first shot at offering the Bay Area something special. Their initial attempt at an independent drink-based pop up, La Vida Boba, garnered some attention, but they eventually decided to move away from that venture to lean further into their cultural roots. That’s when they took the leap of faith by leasing a vacant lot to open Calaca Coffee in 2020. “We wanted to bring this experience to a mostly deserted area,” Soto says. “We heard of Crockett but there wasn’t a lot of coffee options. So we built and painted everything with our bare hands.”
Now, they’re serving Proyecto Diez-sourced coffee (a Mexican-owned coffee supplier based in San Leandro) and baked treats (predominantly from businesses owned by people of color, including Mimi’s Sweet Life in San Pablo and Bakin’ Vegan in Richmond) to lines of customers. A quick Instagram scroll will reveal a flow of customers posting pictures of their time in the garden, which is spacious and airy, offering views of the sleepy Carquinez Strait before it flows into the San Pablo Bay. For most Bay Area residents, Crockett isn’t on the radar as a food and drink destination. But Soto and Rodriguez firmly believe they can change that by offering some of the best and most inventive coffee and pastries right underneath the Carquinez Bridge.
It’s a decision they had to weigh when first opening, and one they’ve utilized social media to help address. “We don’t get any foot traffic here,” Rodriguez says. “But we had a TikTok go viral this year and that helped us blow up online. Most of our customers know about us from social media. We’ve had returning visitors from Stockton, Palo Alto, Sonoma, San Francisco, all over the Bay.”
Soto and Rodriguez take their craft seriously, as evidenced by their inventiveness: They’re constantly experimenting not only with coffee, but also with beverages like tepache, a fermented pineapple drink that originated in central Mexico with the Aztecs. These aren’t corny renditions of trendy flavors; they are nostalgic imprints from childhood and a direct lens to understanding their family histories. “My dad is from Mexico City and my mom and [Christian’s] parents are all from Guadalajara,” Rodriguez says. “Those are rich cultures. We’ve also lived in the Mission, where there’s lots of murals and cafes. That’s where our love comes from. Our drinks and mural are an ode to that.”
He’s referencing a hand-painted mural the friends produced from scratch — with the help of their families — that depicts a desert sunset. The brown and orange hues wrap around their quaint outdoor space, which is neighbored by old brick and dilapidated wood in a working-class area that used to be known for factories and river exports. It adds to the DIY charm behind the whole operation, where you’ll find “the home of vegan horchata cold foam.” In true first-generation fashion, Soto and Rodriguez are making do with whatever space and ingredients they have.
The co-owners center the community at Calaca by hosting events to support small businesses while serving some of the most delicious coffee around. Most recently, they launched Makers at the Garden, a craft fair for artisans, vendors, and small shops like Kuali Salsas and Viva Frida to gain exposure in a new space. According to Rodriguez, they plan to host the event regularly during the summer and are focused on “Latino-owned, woman-owned, and POC-owned” business amplification.
When it comes to what they pour at these gatherings, the Mexican American business owners are artists (Rodriguez attended the San Francisco Art Institute at one point), each creating original menu items like the Mexican Mocha, a cafe de olla variant that includes mocha sauce, and horchata foam, a whipped cream-like topping made from oat milk. Their organic blend features notes of chocolate, malt, berries, and oak, but is well-balanced with an 18-hour overnight cold-brew process, during which they add cinnamon to their base.
For a small operation that’s currently open only on weekends — starting on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and closing when they sell out, usually around 2 p.m. on Sundays — Calaca’s success is affirming. Most recently, they received a grant from the Small Business Development Center in Contra Costa, where they use a commercial kitchen provided by 812, an incubator for underfunded businesses. There, they mingle with other food entrepreneurs from often-marginalized communities, like a Chicanx duo making kombucha. It’s an opportunity for collaborators to socialize and expand their ideas together; it’s how Soto and Rodriguez birthed some of their quirkiest menu items, like tamarindo and hibiscus sodas.
In many ways, Soto and Rodriguez represent the quintessential Latinx millennials: local kids who found their groove as a full-time restaurant worker and a customer support employee before investing in Calaca as a passion project in their spare time. Currently, both owners maintain day jobs, which is why Calaca is only open on weekends. But with an increasing clientele and encouragement from city officials, they’re preparing to expand and add new menu items inspired by Korean, Japanese, and other cultures they’ve grown to appreciate living in the Bay. “What if we made matcha?” Soto says. “We want to emphasize Mexican culture but it doesn’t have to exclusively be only that. We’re trying to figure out how to expand into something bigger.”
Calaca Coffee (649 Loring Avenue, Crockett) is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.