You may have heard that New York is a hub for continental American and international culture. Food and drink culture, to be sure, but most especially coffee culture: from Nordic transplants to high-end Greek coffee, to authentic Japanese kissaten-style service to recreations of the Melbourne coffee experience. Add to that list the newly opened Cafetería La Mejor, adding a splash of Miami color to the growing specialty coffee scene in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
Cafeteria La Mejor is the work of owner Jeremy Sapienza, who spent years wistfully imagining himself slinging the café con leches he missed from his childhood before finally ditching his desk job to open the spot. It turns out he wasn’t the alone in missing South Florida. “We ended up serving a huge expat community here that I didn’t really know existed,” Mr. Sapienza told Sprudge. “Hundreds of Miamians have come in and gushed over how nostalgic it makes them. That was sort of the point, so it makes me happy.” The reception has been so enthusiastic that Mr. Sapienza plans to open a second location, also in Bushwick. This space will be exclusively for takeaway coffee, though there will be a small bar for loitering with smaller drinks.
Mr. Sapienza knew that winning fans with a proper café con leche experience was going to be a challenge: on the one hand, he’d have to contend with Brooklyn’s growing preference for specialty coffee, and on the other, he’d have to capture the magical confluence of ingredients and place that makes the café con leche such an iconic part of the Miami experience.
Though there are as many variations as there are grandmas in Miami, in general the classic recipe involves Café Bustelo or another darkly-roasted, pre-ground coffee-in-a-can, prepared ‘espresso-style’ using a moka pot, combined with generous helpings of sugar and steamed or scalded milk. The traditional café con leche is sweet and creamy, like a light and sweet cup from a downmarket chain that graduated and really made something of itself. The stuff memories are made of, but not necessarily the most “specialty” of coffee beverages.
For La Mejor’s updated café con leche, Mr. Sapienza combines Stumptown espresso and steamed milk with sugar and a pinch of salt and butter. The result is alluringly rich and creamy, with a surprising depth of warm coffee flavors. The beverage is available in an equally addictive iced version as well.
Cafetería La Mejor is not a difficult café to spot. The exterior is bright teal with fuchsia accents, immediately transporting patrons a thousand-plus miles south. The exuberant, obsessively engaging design continues inside, from the fuchsia and teal water bottles all the way down to the fuchsia mini stereo. The stylish branding of the pink neon sign announcing the café is also found on the custom porcelain in the store. The lively decor doesn’t stop there, with a brass bar that’s almost subtle compared to the exterior. Even the bathroom’s black fixtures and neon color accents are a lively reminder of south Florida. It’s a very welcome departure from the marble and stained wood dominating many newer NYC cafes.
One very Miami aspect of the shop is the window service. “Mandatory in Florida,” we’re told. Perfect for a café con leche frío on the go–you don’t have to step into the shop, just tarry long enough for a quick chat with your barista before continuing on to the M train or whatever alternate-side parking spot you managed to find.
And it’s not just the café con leche giving the many happy former Floridians a taste of home. Nearly everyone who walked in during our delicious research for this feature ordered a cuban sandwich, which is available in either the traditional or a vegan version (“because it’s Bushwick”). A Cubano’s dreamy synthesis of meat, mustard, and pickles on pressed bread is a sandwich that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and a great one is truly worth seeking out–Stella di Sicilia in “East Williamsburg” may be the gold standard for the area, but La Mejor’s entrants demand consideration. Their traditional meaty version somehow escapes being greasy without sacrificing moisture. And this isn’t some northern bastardization, either – the bread itself is specially sourced from a bakery in New York City that specializes in pan Cubano.
Here’s the thing about all those “crossroads of the world” style coffee shops mentioned at the beginning of this article: they’re pulling it off. Transporting a foreign coffee culture to Midtown or Bushwick is easier said than done, and in the case of Cafeteria La Major, trying to capture the classic menu and laid-back Miami vibe could easily have veered into cheesy homage or tone-deaf imitation. But pull up a seat at Cafetería La Mejor’s cozy bar and tear into a cubano and a cafecito, or grab a café con leche to go from the friendly walk-up window, and you can tell there’s something special here. Mr. Sapienza and crew are bringing an authentic love to what they do, and it is clearly paying off.
A pinch more salt & butter please!