“I thought I was done with Portland. But it wasn’t done with me.”
So says Angel Medina, the founder of Reforma Roasters and proprietor of La Perlita, a charming, light-drenched lobby cafe in the city’s Pearl District. Portland’s been in the news a lot recently—and not for coffee. But the cafe rhythm continues here in the city, and one of the happiest stories of the summer can be found right here under pink neon behind a minimalist coffee bar, framed by distinctive pastel peach bench stools in the lobby (socially distanced of course).
Sprudge readers and Portland coffee drinkers know Medina from his previous work under the brands Kiosko and Smalltime Roasters. A 2019 life change saw Medina step away from this work, and leave the city to develop a series of multimedia projects focused on coffee producers in Mexico.
Then COVID hit. “The world changed and I felt like I wasn’t sure what to do,” Medina tells Sprudge. As the world began to shut down, he put his projects on home, returned to Portland, and doubled-down on coffee roasting. Medina’s new brand is Reforma Roasters, focused entirely on coffees sourced from producers in Mexico, sourced in part through a growing relationship with Mexican importing company Ensambles De Cafes Mexicanos.
Reforma is a growing brand, and Medina’s work has found renewed public expression at La Perlita, whose operations he originally took over in 2018. Under normal circumstances this shop—which began life in 2012 as an outpost of Portland indie roaster/retailer Red E Cafe—would welcome in a daily crowd to the Ecotrust Building offices above. COVID has been brutal on restaurants, cafes, and coffee bars located in typically busy commercial districts, leaving many business owners uncertain what would happen next to their model. “Honestly I wasn’t sure we’d even break even,” Medina tells Sprudge.
And then the damndest thing happened. Medina began reaching out to the Portland food and beverage community, looking for BIPOC chefs to collaborate on pop-ups in the space. With office traffic cleared out and plenty of room to operate, Medina opened the cafe’s floor plan up to a broad range of collaborators: gluten-free bakers, torta sandwich specialists, butter mochi dealers, pan dulce artisans, makers of banana custard cajeta tarts (!!), and much, much more.
Medina and his team, including La Perlita co-owner Axel Villa and multiple former Augie’s Coffee baristas, now host pop-ups seven days a week in the space. It is a complete and total hit. Masks are required, of course, and social distancing is strictly followed, but the energy around the space is incredible, driven by the spirit of collaboration between cafe team and featured bakers and chefs. “I’ve never seen so many brown people in one place at the same time in Portland,” Medina says, laughing. “Normally you’d have hundreds of people coming in and out of these offices each day, but now anyone who is here is here for La Perlita.”
The chefs sell out of baked goods in a matter of hours; every single exhibitor as of press time has sold out of their product. “It’s getting to the point where we’re having to ask chefs to bring more,” says Medina. He knows this is a good problem to have.
The end result has big clubhouse vibes, warm and welcoming, like you’re in on a secret that won’t remain secret for long. And with food this good there’s no question the word is starting to get out, aided by Medina and his team’s regular updates on Instagram.
Seemingly overnight this is the best pastry program in Portland—indeed, one of the best pastry programs of any coffee shop in America—driven by the diverse offering and interpretations from Medina’s partnered chefs. Bakers like Olivia B Sweets (look at this banana chocolate cake with peanut butter filling) nudge shoulders with lauded chefs like Lauro Romero, of King Tide Fish & Shell, who makes Mexican sandwiches each Sunday under his Clandestino PDX nom de torta (watch for an upcoming chilaquiles torta on the menu, which Medina calls “the perfect hangover recipe”). Meanwhile Palmira Obeso of @hereforthecakes is working wonders with gluten-free recipes, incorporating healthy ingredients into impressive little treats like strawberry scones, matcha cakes, and pistachio pavlova, a dessert seldom seen in North America (it’s a New Zealand and Australia thing).
This kind of collaborative work is a natural fit for Medina’s creative energy. “I started meeting this side of industry of folks in the process of going to work for someone, and then everything was disrupted,” he tells me. “And it’s like—hey, I know how to help. We got the permits figured out, and we have the chefs prep their stuff and bring it in, and everything we serve is what they’re passionate about. It’s brought in so many people from outside of Portland—I don’t know where all these brown folks are coming from but they’re hungry for it.”
Who can blame anyone for being hungry after looking at these pictures!?
Axel Villa and the La Perlita team makes sure the coffee portion of the experience is on point, and it’s a showcase for Reforma’s coffees. My recent cup of Verarcruz Finca La Esparanza tasted like a chocolate dipped candied lime, and I can still taste it now, a week later. Moreover it’s a fortuitous convergence of models built on mutual collaboration and respect, every day a different pop-up, a new community engaged, and it feeds back into Reforma’s greater mission, which includes ongoing monthly donations to pay for DACA fees.
This new energy around La Perlita is delicious and meaningful; it’s also, happily, a hit. Wear your mask, tip, and come early because these pastries will sell out. This is a feel good story in a summer desperate for them. I will drink a shot of espresso to that.
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network and the winner of a 2020 James Beard Award for digital journalism.
Photos courtesy of Angel Medina.