Behind the bar in his family’s cafe in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, David Birruete Pimentel, 61, is serious at first. He grinds coffee, prepares espressos. He waits for an opening: someone who asks a question, who’s paying attention.
“Do you have time?” he asks. That’s how the “sensory experience” begins.
He pulls out four different glasses—made for espresso, latte, wine, water—and gets to work at a large silver machine making shots of espresso, which he pours into each glass. He instructs his customers to close their eyes. To breathe in the aroma of the drink. “How do you feel?” he asks after each sip. In the background, he puts on upbeat music as he explains that the same drink tastes different in each glass, thanks to how your mouth opens when you drink it, where the liquid lands on your tongue.
In a city that’s always moving, Birruete Pimentel asks his customers to slow down. To take five minutes to really experience drinking a cup of coffee—a beverage many use to keep moving forward, faster—and to “be with it.” At the end of the day, he says, you realize that the point is really to take five minutes “to be with you.” He wants to open his customers’ eyes to different senses, to feeling something they hadn’t felt before, even if it had always been there.
Generalizing about a city as large and complex as Mexico City is always dangerous, and only marginally useful. But if there’s one generalization that may be correct, it’s that it’s a city full of contradictions. In some moments, it’s a city that sprints, and in others, it meanders. It’s a city defined by inequality, gentrification, and conflict, but just as much by the people who fight against those forces. It’s a city where you have to learn to use all senses—and where, if you’re lucky, people like Birruete Pimentel may teach you how.
I’ve been trying to understand Mexico City for the last four years, since I first fell in love with the metropolis as an exchange student. The best way I’ve found to do so is in the little moments, created in small coffee shops or stores or stands by people like Birruete Pimentel who are eager to connect. This sharing, convivencia, togetherness, is a way to create space and identity in a city that otherwise overwhelms.
The day I sat down to speak with Birruete Pimentel, a few weeks after he gave my fiancé and I the tasting experience, he was busy preparing for a 10-day vacation. We were interrupted by a steady stream of employees asking about where to put recently delivered pastries, which keys were used to open what. It would be the longest he had ever left the café to the charge of someone outside his family, and he was nervous.
Birruete Pimentel was around 17 when he and his father first opened the business that is today Cucurucho Café, in 1977. It started as a small store, selling sweets, drinks. It wasn’t until around 2012 that they started to get into coffee, after Birruete Pimentel’s son started learning more about the world of gourmet drinks. They knew the business needed to pivot to stay alive, so they dove in. “You have to unlearn to learn,” he said.
Since then, the business has done well—its three locations, in Roma, Polanco and near Reforma, are testament. Still, the pandemic has been unforgiving for coffee shops, large and small. Mexico’s El Financiero reported that sales in coffee shops in the country went from $684.4 million in 2019 to $512.3 million in 2020.
But Birruete Pimentel is still worried—it will take a long time to recover, he says. Some small businesses never will.
Cucurucho is one of several gourmet coffee shops that dot the streets of the hipster, foreigner-filled Roma neighborhood. Many of them are filled with Americans and Europeans like myself, who find familiarity within them. When I ask Birruete Pimentel what percentage of his clients are foreigners, he pauses. “It’s an unfair question,” he tells me. Foreigners earning in dollars, pounds or Euros can afford to be frequent customers. Many Mexican workers cannot.
But these gourmet shops certainly aren’t the only places to enjoy caffeine in the city: The woman selling tamales on the street who mixes instant coffee with hot water and slides you a tub of powdered creamer offers a different sort of sensory experience, one where you feel the warmth through the Styrofoam cup and listen to the orders of the neighbors who accompany you. The gleaming metal espresso machine is replaced by dull metal containers full of atole, but the feeling of connection is the same.
These are complex, imperfect meeting places—but they are meeting places nonetheless. The casual, luxurious act of sitting somewhere and drinking coffee, and just “being,” surrounded by others, is one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic. It’s another act that involves all senses.
“Here, I’m me. Coffee allows me to be myself,” Birruete Pimentel says. “And to share that.”