Echo Park is an iconic Los Angeles neighborhood. Adjacent to the historic Victorian houses of Angeleno Heights, this part of LA boasts a vibrant street art scene, one of the city’s best record shops (Origami Vinyl), the essential 826LA Time Travel Mart, a much beloved teahouse and bakery from Valerie Confections, and of course the park itself, its picturesque lake dotted with paddle boats. Echo Park is a little colorful, a little gritty, and full of personalities…just the way the residents like it to be.
For coffee options, Tierra Mia opened a cafe on Alvarado in 2013 and Fix Coffee has been a local favorite for several years, but the scene is on the verge of a whole new boom. More recently, Andante Roasters opened their second location on Sunset, Blue Bottle has announced an impending coffee bar in the Jensen Recreation Building set to open by the end of 2014, and a few other companies are currently negotiating leases. Add to that list a brand new cafe called Woodcat Coffee, from veteran barista Saadat Awan and partner Janine, and serving San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee to Los Angeles.
The exterior at Woodcat features one seriously sweet, but also slightly menacing looking bunny painted in the window. Inside the space is rustic and industrial with a vintage red, white and chrome Faema E61 espresso machine. The atmosphere feels cozy and relaxed, with Echo Park locals hanging out, poking lightly at laptops, and drinking good coffee.
Awan designed much of Woodcat Coffee himself, including the cafe’s architectural and furniture elements, the electrical and plumbing systems, and the general construction management (with help from friends Nathan Spaulding and Edward Breckenridge.) Awan’s wife Janine Awan designed the branding and logo, and also painted the window signage with the rabbit. As the soft open phase of this cafe comes to a close, a giant chalkboard section of the wall will soon be the cafe’s menu. A grand opening party is in the works featuring local bands, and perhaps Saadat himself joining in on the drums.
I sat down with Sadaat Awan at Woodcat to learn more about the project.
How did you come up with the name?
We named the shop after a song from the band Tunng. We bought their record in Hamburg on a five-week European drive and we fell in love with the song. The name comes from an old Scottish term for a rabbit or hare. The Scots feared rabbits, and thought them to be evil spirits, so they did not want to invoke their names and came up with alternate names such as “forest king” and “woodcat.” These names were praiseworthy, so as not to offend the evil spirits.
Your cafe is in a “soft open” phase, but the times I have visited here it’s been crowded. Where did all of these people come from?
Everyone in here right now is a local. This side of Sunset and Echo Park Avenue really needed a coffee bar. I live up the street and noticed the neighborhood needed something on Sunset Boulevard.
The Wrecking Ball connection dates back to your days working at murky coffee in Washington DC. How did you originally meet Nick Cho (then proprietor of murky, now Wrecking Ball)?
In the year 2000 I actually lived in the building where Nick started murky, in a tiny little shed structure in Georgetown. Then it was a Kenneth Cole shoe store and two apartments above. I did not know Nick. I did not know much about good coffee back then. Later I started to work for Nick, and he trained me to make coffee, as well as several other amazing people in the early 2000s.
Just because you are friends with Nick did not mean you have to serve only Wrecking Ball coffee. Why did you make that decision?
I was originally going to have a multiroaster company, like a lot of smaller coffee bars. I started getting some Wrecking Ball coffee and it was ridiculously good. It got to the point where I wanted to let them do the work of finding the really good coffees and roasting them. I don’t have to worry about it because everything they touch is amazing. The first time I had their espresso I was speechless. It was Pillow Fight.
How did you find this Faema machine?
I went to The Coffee Collective in Denmark. We told them we were going to be going to Berlin next, and they told me they had an account there called No Fire No Glory. We went there, and at the time they had a Faema E61. The way they designed their bar, they made a hole in the bar to display the front glass panel. My wife and I fell in love with the machine. We decided if we ever have a coffee bar that’s would be the machine we would want.
I was looking all over the country for an E61. I looked as far as Philadelphia, DC, and North Carolina. I was going to have my family pick it up in the East Coast and ship it to me if I had to. After a few months of looking, I found one here in California in Riverside an hour away. I drove right out and grabbed it.
How much refurbishment did it take to get it up and running?
Not much at all. I just had LA Brew Techs replace some seals and do a once over. This machine has been a dream to work with.
What’s on the menu?
For now we are keeping it super simple, with brewed coffee and espresso drinks. We are building a pour-over bar. We have a couple of things we are thinking about. I do want to develop our own chai, like a Pakistani-style chai.
What have you learned from Woodcat being in soft open so far?
I designed this space to be social, with a few spaces for people to have a laptop and do some work. Today is picture perfect: There are people chatting by the bar, there are two or three laptops, there is one table there that is having a meeting. That’s exactly what I designed the space for. People say they love the space, they love the vibe, and the coffee. We are glad that the neighborhood is loving it.
How do you feel about the other coffee bars opening in Echo Park?
When Blue Bottle opens about 2 blocks away it will be nice, it will feel more like the Arts District. For me it’s more about community building than competition. In the Arts District you have Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Urth, and Blacktop close to each other. When you wake up in the morning you can say “let’s go to the Arts District for coffee.” Very few people are only going to go to one coffee bar all the time. I am hoping that Echo Park becomes a destination for coffee in the same way.
Julie Wolfson is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Los Angeles. Read more Julie Wolfson on Sprudge.
Photos by Sofia Wolfson.