Amid the coffee buyouts of late, it seems as though independent cafe frontrunners are gradually being absorbed into bigger industrial operations. We are not here to discuss whether that’s for the best, but whether there is a resistance movement. If there is, it is surely embodied in Jack Benchakul’s Endorffeine Coffee Bar in Chinatown, Los Angeles.
The one-man show inhabits a muted box with an atmosphere notable for its beguiling lack of decorations and under-designed interior. Though the shop is small and minimalistic, it shines in the calm atmosphere and personable interactions customers can enjoy with Benchakul himself.
Endorffeine is only one of the many new restaurants and food retailers that have permanently “popped up” inside the Far East Plaza Building: Chego!, Pok Pok Phat Thai, Ramen Champ, and Scoops Ice Cream are all within a few steps. Outside, Chinatown is crowded: the streets are busy with a motley slew of pedestrians, and corner shops sell everything from two-dollar umbrellas to bonsai trees and imitation nunchaku (and if you ask nicely, real ones too!). Despite the over-stimulating exterior, the interior of the Far East Plaza has attracted retailers with a common mindset: do one thing and do it well. Jack Benchakul does coffee really well.
Seven or eight years ago, Benchakul was working in the biotech industry. Realizing he had a greater interest in small business, Benchakul made a leap and started culinary school. From there he staged in a restaurant and a patisserie where he realized that the hectic life of a chef was not for him. While working at Miette Patisserie in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, a fellow chef returned with a tray of Blue Bottle coffee, which would prove to be the “ah-ha!” moment that sparked the next leg of his journey. Benchkul immediately reached for cream, to the dismay of his colleague who smacked his hand away, asking him why he'd add an ingredient to something without first knowing its base flavor. “As a chef or a cook, it’s rather embarrassing to know that’s something you do instinctually,” says Benchakul. “That moment was my coffee epiphany, I realized you don’t have to add cream or sugar and the product can stand on its own.”
Benchakul then began what would become an expansive tour of the burgeoning Los Angeles coffee scene. He applied to several places (including Starbucks and Intelligentsia) that, despite his technical and culinary background, tuned him away or never returned his call. Bobby Roshan of Café Demitasse brought him on board as he opened the first Demitasse in Little Tokyo. Benchakul managed this location for a time and assisted Roshan in opening the Santa Monica location. He then met up with Cognoscenti founder Yeekai Lim, beginning another formative friendship.
Benchakul spent a year serving coffee under the Cognoscenti moniker from a pop-up cart at the Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park (which serves organic-homestyle Vietnamese classics from chef Diep Tran). From there Jack (and Yeekai) moved the Cognoscenti Modbar Cart into Scoops Ice Cream in Chinatown's Far East Plaza. After no more than a year in this location, he opted to venture on his own and made a split from Cognoscenti and Lim, moving into his own storefront next to Scoops Ice Cream. After a short construction hiatus, Benchakul opened up shop where he is now, under the name Endorffeine Coffee Bar.
“I was drawn by the similarity to Thai street vendors,” says Benchakul. “Each of them will sell maybe one or two things; maybe there’s one that just does a particular rice noodle soup, then there’s a vendor next to him that just does dry noodles, pork satay on skewers. People will come from all over Bangkok because they really execute.” He decided to open in the current plaza location with an emphasis on doing just one thing well.
With that attitude, Benchakul strives to serve—every time—a repeatable, fantastic drink. That means every drink coming out of the shop is made by Benchakul. To repeat: as of right now, there will be no other barista working the shop the six days a week they’re open. Benchakul is soft-spoken and thoughtful, laughs over his own puns, and takes time while running the shop to know regulars by name and build community. “My hope is that people will understand that it’s not a machine cranking out all of this stuff; it’s a person making each drink.”
Benchakul draws from his personal tastes to build the drink menu. The specialty drinks include a Pandan Vanilla Latte inspired by Thai flavors, and a palm sugar whiskey iced latte. Not all lattes are made equal, however. Hot lattes use espresso, but for cold drinks Benchakul switches to cold brew for the base. Another subtle variation on the norm is the substitution of steamed cold brew for hot drip coffee. A drip coffee receives the steam wand treatment, which interestingly creates a cascading layer of foam and a sweet malty taste. Not only does it taste good, but it minimizes waste—something Benchakul prioritizes. Throughout the shop you can see his less is more attitude.
The walls are sparse and the counters are big and flat, but by no means is this shop lacking design details. The grinders (Mahlkönig EK 43 for coffee and Mazzer for espresso) are set like turrets into recessed corner slots and the counters are masterly constructed. Benchakul’s brewing artillery includes dual Modbar drip heads when he’s firing shots and another Modbar pour-over setup for individual brews. All coffee is supplied through Heart Roasters of Portland. Benchakul is happy to remain faithful to the roaster and as business expands, he may add another if volume necessitates.
Today, foot traffic is growing, and Benchakul is content with the volume he’s receiving. “It’s been nice to grow organically,” he says. “I think these personal connections we make in the hospitality industry really make us better people.”
Someday he might have to scale up and hire additional employees, but for now? He's more than happy to be that person, making each drink.
Mackenzie Champlin is a freelance journalist based in Southern California. Read more Mackenzie Champlin on Sprudge.