Nestled high in the misty central highlands of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas is a feast for the eyes. The red-tiled buildings of its historic center are laid out in a classic colonial grid, radiating out from the town’s central plaza, the Zocalo. Tourists rove the adjacent streets, making their way past street sellers and buskers. There’s a chill in the air. In contrast to many of the more-touristed parts of Mexico, Sancris, as the locals call it, can get downright cold, a nasty surprise for tourists expecting Coronas and palm trees.
These days, Sancris has a bit of a hippie vibe going on. The backpacking crowd here trends older, and dreadlocked. Once outside the impeccably clean, UNESCO-protected city center, wheatpastes and other street art gradually emerge along walls and side streets. The town now boasts more than one green juice bar. It was along one of these decorated lanes that Paul Perezgrovas, owner and proprietor of Frontera Cafe, grew up.
Frontera Cafe occupies the northeastern corner of a square-shaped building at the northern end of Avenida Belisario Dominguez. It’s a beautiful building. Meter-thick whitewashed walls draped in charmingly warped tiles surround a courtyard built around an ancient well. Small flowerpots and garden patches add color. An awning around the interior edge of the courtyard is supported by beautifully carved wooden pillars, all original.
When I visit the cafe one frosty morning, Perezgrovas explains to me how the building was built as a stable more than 300 years ago, pointing out details as he goes: ancient straps of donkey skin holding the roof’s venerable timber beams together, the uneven flagstones underneath the retrofitted wooden floors. “When I saw this building was available, I knew I had to do something with it,” Perezgrovas explains.
Three years ago, Perezgrovas returned to his native Sancris after 15 years living abroad and working as a coffee buyer with Root Capital, Cafe Direct, and others. But after all that time, he was tired. Tired of flying all over the place in search of the newest coffee. As he prepared a pour-over for me, he explained he was ready to reconnect with San Cristobal again, and hoped to bring a little bit of what he had learned in his years away back to the city.
Perezgrovas’ method is intensely terroir-forward: when ordering, you select a specific coffee and your brewing method of choice, choosing between the usual suspects: French press, AeroPress, and Chemex. On my visit I select one called Reserva del Triunfo, grown in the hills near Jaltenango, Chiapas, in the southern part of the state. The pour-over was bracing, sweet-scented, and nutty. Each coffee is served with a small card with quick facts about the coffee you’re drinking, detailing information about the coffee’s producer, altitude, process, and variety.
A perennial tragedy of many coffee-producing regions is that the best coffees tend to be exported, leaving the locals with whatever is left. Perezgrovas was never comfortable with this paradigm and set out to change it. To that end, almost all the coffees on offer at Frontera are grown in Chiapas by growers that Perezgrovas knows personally (one selection, Finca Las Nieves, is grown by a friend in the neighboring state of Oaxaca). He visits the farms directly and roasts all the beans here in San Cristobal. It’s important to Perezgrovas that he maintains a personal connection with his suppliers.
As I sipped my second cup, another pour-over, this time a buttery light roast called Tacana Sierra Madre, Perezgrovas talked about future goals. He’s working to expand Frontera’s reach. Recently, he started supplying coffee to a few cafes in Mexico City and heavily-touristed Puerto Escondido. He has his sights set on Oaxaca City as a next venue for expansion. But he maintains that it’s important not to lose sight of the details.
“In the end, Frontera Cafe is about community,” he says. Taking in the quietly buzzing courtyard, I’m inclined to agree. Children play around the area’s central well, young people tap at phones or laptops and talk quietly. A music event was scheduled for later the same evening, hosted by one of Frontera’s neighboring shops. Each of the doors on the courtyard leads to a different local business: a craft beer bar, a small-label designer, an art gallery, a bar specializing in mezcal as well as the local Chiapan firewater, Pox. “There’s no way Frontera could occupy all this space on its own,” he says, gesturing at the assemblage, “plus, it feels good to have neighbors.”