Written by Mat Weir
The story of Mariposa Cuban Coffee starts out like many others.
“Two girls walk into a bar. . .” laughs Tram Vu, one of the two owners of Downtown Santa Cruz’s newest coffee shop. “We met at the Melo Melo Kava bar and our friendship just developed from there. We realized we both love food and our ethnic backgrounds are very different but the cultures are so similar.”
Vu, who is from San Jose and whose ethnic background is Vietnamese, has owned the Sandwich Spot on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Cathcart since 2015. So when her friendship with Chelsea Cabrera–who originally hails from Miami with a Cuban background–blossomed, she already had the perfect spot for the two to serve their mutual love for the tastier things in life.
“We bonded over coffee,” Vu says. She recalls camping with Cabrera when her friend would make Cuban style coffee in the morning and it was the sounds–and smells–of the mocha pot that would get Vu excited for the day.
“That’s how we really got to know each other and I thought we could really make this work.”
“It’s a love language,” Cabrera laughs. “We speak food.”
The result is a Cuban pastry and coffee pop-up shop operating out of the side window of The Sandwich Spot.
And readers, let me tell you, their food is not only soulful and filling, but completely vegetarian as well.
If it’s a light snack you crave, the pastries are where it’s at.
For savory lovers the Beef & Cheese (plant-based beef and soyrizo in a puff pastry, $5) and Ham & Cheese (soy-protein based ham with real cheddar cheese, $5) provide the perfect rich, cheesy and salty bite. But for sweet cravers, like myself, the Guava & Cheese pastry (guava filling and cream cheese) is divine. All three are served up fresh, warm and in puffY pastries so decadent I suggest a napkin to catch all the flakey goodness.
For those looking to fill their bellies, Mariposa’s Ham & Cheese Cubano (a soy-protein based ham with swiss cheese, housemade honey mustard and dill pickles on a crispy, flaky panini bread for $12) and Midnight Cubano (the Ham & Cheese Cubano with “roasted pork” style jackfruit for $14) are more than enough to do the trick. On our first adventure, my girlfriend and I didn’t realize how large the sandwiches were and ordered one of each, looking to split them. By the end we were both headed into food comas in the best possible way.
Which is where the coffee comes in.
Served in four different varieties their coffee is rich, flavorful and provides the perfect kick to any morning or much needed mid-afternoon pick-me-up. My personal favorites are the Bella Bon Bon (double espresso with whipped cane sugar and condensed milk that tastes like a salted caramel macchiato, $3) and the traditional Cuban Café Con Leche (double espresso with whipped organic cane sugar and latte milk, $4). As a native Los Angelino I’ll get the Café Con Leche and Guava & Cheese pastry, close my eyes, and it’s almost like I’m back at L.A.’s famous Cuban bakery, Porto’s.
It seems Santa Cruzans can’t get enough of the delectable treats either.
“We used to make 20 pastries a week, now we’re clocking in 200 a week,” Vu says.
The two women say they spend almost an entire eight hour day just on prep work every week, from making the fillings to seasoning and cooking the fake meats. They then spend an additional four to six hours a week making the actual pastries on top of a weekly, half-day trip to San Jose for supplies.
“It’s overwhelming at times but in the best of ways,” says Cabrera who recalls opening in 2020 with just one prep table, one coffee machine and three items on the menu. “It’s very surreal. We’re very grateful. If you open yourself up to receiving you’ll end up getting an abundance.”
It seems the abundance of blessings continues to grow as Mariposa is set to expand their menu even more. Cabrera and Vu are currently working on fusing Vietnamese delicacies like vegetarian Banh Mi sandwiches, spring rolls, noodle bowls and–of course–Vietnamese coffee.
“We just successfully created a vegetarian meat that mimics a very specific pork paste,” Vu says. “The pork paste is usually wrapped around a pineapple stick, sugar cane or lemon grass and then grilled. We were able to incorporate all of those flavors into a vegetarian based meat.”
She says her dedication for keeping the integrity of Vietnamese food, while still making it vegetarian without relying on the tired cliché of tofu, was harder than expected.
“I think that was my biggest hurdle,” Vu admits. “I still wanted to keep the flavors–the fish sauce, the lime, the chili, all the main components– in the dish. That’s my passion for food. Take what I love to eat and make it into vegetarian options.”
Open Thursdays through Sundays from 9am to 4pm, Mariposa Cuban Coffee also boasts one of the only late-night dining menus. Yes, you read that right. They are also open Saturdays from 11:30pm to 1:30am, giving Downtown workers and partiers someplace to refuel with a hot beverage and delicious treat.
“It’s an untapped market here,” Vu says. “Santa Cruz doesn’t have any late-night street foods or snacks. And more importantly, no late-night vegetarian food after 9pm.”
As their business expands the pair also hope to eventually move into a larger building meant just for Mariposa Cuban Coffee. But for now, they are happy with their model that gives customers the opportunity to sit outside, enjoy the fresh air and people watch along Pacific Avenue in the style of cafes around the world from France to Vietnam.
“Even in Miami they have what they call a ‘ventanita’ which is just a small window where they serve coffee and pastries out of,” Cabrera says. “But you’ll find a lot of older, Cuban gentlemen standing outside, smoking cigars, playing dominoes, just talking and drinking their coffee. So it’s similar in that way. We want people to come, get their coffee and hangout for a bit.”
Follow Mariposa Cuban Coffee on Instagram @mariposacubancoffee