Cafe Dulce in Little Tokyo: Crafted Coffee and Donuts
Cafe Dulce was one of the first gourmet coffee shops in Little Tokyo. Nestled in the heart of the Japanese Village Plaza, Cafe Dulce has been serving locals and tourists alike for 6 years. Aside from being a source of great cold brew and lattes, Cafe Dulce has also become a go to donut spot, making Eater’s Top 10 for donuts in Los Angeles. They are also a conduit for pop art, having commissioned mural pieces at their shops; they even have art on their coffee sleeves.
Dulce has also worked with many of the Asian American baristas in Los Angeles, and now these baristas work at shops like Copa Vida, House Roots Coffee, Blue Bottle, and more.
The heart of Cafe Dulce is of course the co-founder and owner, James Choi. James opened the shop with his mom in 2012. We popped by Cafe Dulce, grabbed a delicious Papua New Guinea pour over with him to hear his story.
A video about Cafe Dulce and it's delicious coffee and food.
by George Ko
Photo and Video by George Ko
James’s first encounter with coffee was somewhat a very American encounter: Starbucks. When James was at USC (‘05) , he walked into his local Starbucks and ordered an Iced Caramel Macchiato. The rush of caffeine from the coffee made him jittery.“I started shaking. I realized just how much the caffeine really affected me.”
However, James truly fell in love with coffee when he visited the famed Blue Bottle Coffee. James was walking around the Ferry Building farmer’s market in San Francisco.
“There was a line of people, I got my latte and man! The texture on this is so amazing! When I drank that cup of coffee, it wasn’t just drinking it into my body, but I was drinking it into my soul.”
From that moment, James was hooked onto the coffee craze. The first thing he wanted to figure out was how the hell Blue Bottle created such a unique texture. James went back to Blue Bottle and discreetly snapped a photo of the coffee machine they were using: La Marzocco (those are the big fancy coffee machines you see in every good coffee shop, and they cost this much). James then went back home and researched everything Blue Bottle was doing, and soon he was opened to the whole world of third wave coffee (the movement of high quality coffee).
“You have to give credit where credit is due. Blue Bottle, Stumptown, and Intelligentsia, the three big specialty coffee companies, brought coffee to the forefront. We wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if it wasn’t for them.”Many people may not know but James was a Division 1 golfer. In fact, he played for USC. “USC was ranked No. 13 in the nation for golf, and for that reason I went there to play golf. My original pursuit and passion was to be a professional golfer. That didn’t work out.”
The reason for James’s halt in his golfing career, however, did not come from the game itself but from a need to help his mother. “My mom was financially struggling, and things were difficult for her. So I decided that I should start pursuing a career where I can take care of myself. I’ve always liked accounting because it’s very applicable in business. Also, accounting was very hot at the time. So I did accounting, did the whole CPA thing, worked for Ernst and Young, then left to open the chocolate boutique with my mom.”
Chocolate boutique? Remember James’s story about Blue Bottle and San Francisco? Well, James’s mother wanted to open a chocolate store in Palo Alto, CA, so James helped open a Teuscher Swiss chocolate boutique near Stanford. James kept his job at Ernst and Young, but continued to fly up to Palo Alto to help out his mom. Eventually, they sold the shop. But then, James’s mother had a new dream.
“My mom battled through her first round of chemo: it was tough. This was after we sold the chocolate shop and moved to LA. One day, my mom was sitting around and said, ‘I want to open a bakery in Little Tokyo.’”
James was a little hesitant with his mom’s wishes. The main reason James left Ernst and Young to help work at his mom’s chocolate shop was due to tensions with the employees. “My mom wasn’t happy there. She didn’t understand why the employees didn’t listen to what she said. Being an Asian parent, she was always like, ‘Why don’t they just do what I tell them to do the first time?’ I mean, we’re in America, you have to constantly remind people. When she said she wanted to run a bakery— I mean she had a hard time with a chocolate shop, how was she supposed to do the baking side of things? She said she found a partner who knows how to bake. So I said go for it.”
So she did. James’s mother worked with her partner and they built out the store, bought all the equipment and were ready to open. However, 3 weeks before they put up the “open” sign, a dispute broke out between the partner and James’s mother. Soon after the partner quit.
“I was back at Ernst and Young. As soon as I found out about the partner quitting, I put in my two week notice and I told myself time to figure out how to operate a bakery and coffee store. I went in and it’s been 6 years.”
But James went in without knowing anything about baking or making good coffee. All that equipped him were his accounting skills, work ethic from playing golf, and that one coffee experience at Blue Bottle. Luckily, on the coffee side of things, baristas around Los Angeles took him in and it’s from that community where he learned how to brew a great cup of coffee.
“The great thing at the time was that specialty coffee was starting to take root in LA. You would go to a coffee shop, see what they were doing, talk to the baristas and they would give you tips. Then I would come back to Dulce, experiment with it, and we’d share with them our techniques as well.”
The hero behind Cafe Dulce’s coffee today is Jonathan Yang, the head barista at Cafe Dulce. Jonathan is responsible for the fine tuned coffee brewing techniques at Dulce, from cold brew to pour over. They use beans from Copa Vida, Sweet Bloom, Ritual, and Saint Frank.
Dulce also made it’s stride and mark in the LA coffee scene were the specialty drinks. Vietnamese iced coffee, Hong Kong milk tea latte, masala chai tea latte, and Genmai tea are just some of the Asian-eque drinks served at Dulce.
In addition to coffee, Cafe Dulce has a strong relationship with art. James actively seeks opportunities to display art at his cafes. In fact, in their newest location Dos, which is located at Row DTLA in the Arts District, has a huge mural by Steven Daily on the wall. This relationship with mural art began with their first pop up in LA they did with the artist James Haunt. There’s also wall art by illustrator Annie Seo. She also did the coffee sleeves for Cafe Dulce.
Baking was a whole other story: that was a complete unknown. James contracted a family friend to help bake for Dulce, however things did not last. Eventually, they resorted to buying frozen pastries and dough and proofing them at the Store and baking them. Of course, this was not a permanent solution. Then, another family friend came into Dulce and helped establish their pastry menu. It was during this collaboration that the Cafe Dulce Donuts were born.
“The great thing about the open concept of our coffee shop with the kitchen was the interaction. My friend would go, ‘Hey, try this pastry, is it any good?’ The donut in fact was created from leftover dough from our breadier pastries. We just took the leftover dough and deep fried. And you know what? It made one delicious donut.”
Eventually, Cafe Dulce started to develop a reputation for having one of the best donuts in LA.
“People were coming in and called us a donut shop. I would say to them were a coffee shop first that happened to have donuts. But man, I love the donuts too.”
Their first non-traditional donut was the matcha donut, influenced by the Japanese American community in Little Tokyo. They used real matcha in the doug and in the cream filling to make the donut (there’s even matcha dusted on top like icing sugar).
Another notable donut was their bacon donut. James admits they weren’t the first to do it. In fact, Nickel Diner was the first to do it in LA. However, their unique take on the bacon donut became an instant local favorite.
James’s favorite donut is the Snickers donut. In fact, this is the donut James and Cafe Dulce made for the Giant Robot Biennale 4 at the Japanese American National Museum. “I remember going to the county fair and trying fried Snickers. I never had one before. When I got one I was like woah it’s like a corn dog! There was batter on the outside of the Snicker and you just deep fry it. So, why don’t we just have our own version of a fried Snickers?”
There are some donuts that kind of ignored (but shouldn’t, they are delicious). One of them is the strawberry jelly donut. Cafe Dulce uses fresh strawberries, a strawberry marmalade, then glaze it with more strawberry and chocolate. “The strawberry jelly donut is actually Alex’s favorite donut, the singer from Run River North.”
They’ve also got donuts with interesting names: Dino Churro, Creamy Cloudstix, Ugly Bread, and Dinosaur Eggs. What the hell is a Dinosaur Egg?
“The Dinosaur Egg is actually our take on a chewy roll from Korean bakeries. It’s made with tapioca flour (same stuff in boba) and we add walnuts and black sesame seed. We also add spirulina for flavor, color, and also added health benefits. People say oh that’s awesome, it’s healthy for you. I don’t know, it’s still a donut.”
The Dino Churro is a variation off of that. They just took the same dough, shaped it into a churro and deep fry it. “We call the Dino Churro the Asian Churro.”
Aside from coffee and donuts, they also make cakes in house and are known for their food. They’ve got gourmet sandwiches, salads, and even breakfast burritos. The sandwiches also speak to the local community, as they use the same bread that’s found in Japanese sandwiches one can find in the aisles of Marukai or Mitsuwa.
All of this success could not have been done without the incredible hard work and dedication James has for Dulce but more importantly, to his mom. James comments on his relationship with his mother:
“From the outside looking in people must think I had this incredibly close relationship with my mom, which I do on a lot of levels. But she was your typical tiger mom when I was growing up. I played violin since I was 4, and I played piano when I was 5. I played golf. I became an accountant (chuckle). However, I think my mom was a little atypical in that whatever I did she wanted me to do my best. She was very hard on me though, very strict. I didn’t have a social life growing up. She would say, ‘Why are you wasting time with your friends? You should be practicing golf.’ That was my typical Asian upbringing...
It wasn’t so much of a nurturing relationship, but I didn’t have a father figure in my life, so I felt she wanted to be that father figure for me. But I credit my mom for so much. I wouldn’t be as patient as I am now if it wasn’t for her or know anything about my culture if it wasn’t for her. She taught me a lot.”
James’s dutifulness, loyalty, love, and respect for his mother can be seen in Cafe Dulce and in the people who works with, serve, and inspires. It is because of these qualities Cafe Dulce has become the bonfire of the Japanese Village in Little Tokyo.
“We’re really here to serve the community and serve people. Hopefully, this is the message that permeates from us.”
Get Some Coffee & Donuts at Cafe Dulce
Address: Japanese Village Plaza, 134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dulce Dos: 777 Alameda St, Los Angeles, CA 90021
(Strawberry glaze and Matcha. GR Favorites)
The music in the video is Liszt's Feux Follets.
Played by Aileen Gozali