The smell of coffee beans, sugary treats and delicious sandwiches permeates the air in Amara Coffee and Chocolate, the tiny shop on South Raymond Avenue in Pasadena bathed in calming brown and earth tones. By far, Amara serves some of the smoothest, nuttiest and most flavorful coffee in the PCC area.
Within two blocks of campus sit two Starbucks locations; an obvious choice for a college community, familiar, quick and a well-known hangout. But if you’re looking for something a bit more sophisticated, something made with hand pulled espresso and real smooth chocolate, Amara is far and away the best choice.
A family-owned and run business, Amara Barroeta, the proprietor, takes pride in running her shop every single day. Barroeta is a former Miss Venezuela contestant with a degree in chemical engineering and a background as a TV host and voice-over artist.
“I was first runner up in 2002 and then I started a career in media as TV host in Venezuela. I always had a dream of opening my own shop and having something of my own,” Barroeta said. “After I finished my degree I came to the US to pursue a masters in business at UCLA. I saw there was a need in the market because there were no chocolate and coffee shops using real ingredients.”
Barroeta said she noticed the tendency in southern California for using natural products so she saw it as an opportunity.
A year and a half ago she opened Amara Chocolate & Coffee where she serves delicate handmade pastries, desserts, truffles and a deliciously sweet assortment of chocolate drinks with imported Venezuelan chocolate.
The artwork that hangs on the walls are photographs that represent popular coffee plantations in her home country. Some paintings are gifts from friends, while one in particular is an interpretation of the logo for the brand of white corn that is used in their arepas.
“I liked that piece because it kind of reflected the Venezuelan mix of races which are really beautiful,” Barroeta said.
One of the most delicious dishes at Amara’s is the Llanera Cachapa. The patron has their choice of beef, chicken with black beans, sweet plantains and queso fresco. The Cachapa with beef boasts a wonderful flavor of the tender meat mixed with the right amount of sweetness from the fried plantain to create a perfect sugary and savory mix. All of this is piled on top of a house made yellow corn crepe that melts in your mouth.
Amara’s has a wide variety of sweet treats from chocolate and guava croissants as well as their signature house made chocolate truffles. Perhaps their tastiest treats are the churros with dipping sauce.
Their churros are made fresh every single day and come with your choice of chocolate, Nutella, dulce de leche or guava dipping sauces. They can also be ordered as a full dessert plate stacked with ice cream, fresh seasonal fruit or baked apple cinnamon slices.
“We’re very well known for our churro, it’s really hard in LA to find places with churros a made to order,” Barroeta said. “Everybody talks about churros but almost nobody has them freshly made.”
Barroeta’s churros are also made from a Spanish recipe with no dairy, so her churros are vegan as are their dipping sauces.
The clear standout in terms of the beverage selection are the signature espresso lattes made with coffee from Pasadena’s Jones Coffee Roasters, which Barroeta remarked was a really great partnership for her.
Even a drink as simple as the double macchiato is a step up from the mass produced fare of more commercial coffee shops. If you’re in the mood for something sweeter with your coffee, the affogato is a delicious treat of ice cream, nuts and dulce de leche in a glass with your espresso on the side to pour over top to suit your taste.
Amara’s stainless steel La Marzocco GB5 manual espresso machine is the centerpiece to crafting their signature drinks. A manual system to grind their coffee, tamp and hand pull the shots means more control over the quality and taste of their coffee, which Barroeta knows makes all the difference.
“When it comes to coffee, the water you get, the milk you use, the coffee you use, the grinder all of those are really important,” Barroeta said.
One thing patrons will notice, which may not always go over well, are the signs on the tables signaling that laptops and computers are not allowed at those seats. While this may be a deal breaker for the high number of students who love to sit in a café with their coffee and spend hours on their computer, Barroeta has a reason for this rule.
“Because we are a really small café, most people come and sit down and enjoy their food, but if someone just locked down a table it doesn’t give other people the opportunity to come in and try us out,” she said.
“We not only offer coffee but also we have food and we want people to experience what they’re eating and enjoying and nowadays it’s a tendency where people go to cafes and make their own offices, and at the same time, when you do food and put so much attention and care into it, you do want people to enjoy it.”
The Amara clientele is a diverse group from parents with their children, employees who work nearby to students from the area including the college of music. On Friday nights, some of those music students will play gigs at the café to give customers some live music to enjoy with their meals.
On the weekends people commute from everywhere to Pasadena to hang out and put Amara on their list of things to do. When asked what dish or item Barroeta would recommend her customers try out, she spoke of the house made churros as well as the arepas, but didn’t pass up the opportunity to mention her hand made chocolates.
“Our handmade chocolates are delicious, and it’s exciting to see people enjoy them,” Barroeta said. “I try to combine different ingredients that convey a message about what I love and places I’ve been so that our food tells a story and that’s what we want to offer in Pasadena.”
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