The best new coffee shop to open in Long Beach in 2016 is not another minimalist house of third-wave espresso pulls. Nor is it a place where light-roasted beans from Burundi and Ethiopia find their way into $5 bottles of cold brew. And contrary to most of the city’s more recent coffee shop startups, taking sugar with your coffee at Long Beach’s first Tierra Mia is not only allowed but in many ways encouraged.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the laboratory-like intensity that so-many roasters and shops abide by these days (I love you, Lord Windsor!), but Tierra Mia is a third-wave coffee brand of a different sort. Since March, the independent roaster and locally owned Latin-themed coffee shop chain has served lovingly sourced beans from Latin America – available for sipping in everything from Chemex pour-overs to syrupy sweet horchata lattes – in a Long Beach neighborhood all but forgotten by quality coffee.
Before Tierra Mia’s 11th location took over a former Taco Bell on Pacific Coast Highway near Poly High School earlier this year, the closest thing to a cup of Joe to be found within walking distance was at the McDonalds or the doughnut shop. (Nearly all of the city’s best coffee shops are below 4th Street.) Now, residents of central Long Beach (aka The Eastside) have a premium coffee shop of its own – a wifi-free zone for talking, visiting and drinking your way through a Latin-tinged drink menu that includes imported Mexican chocolate mochas, creamy cafecito cubano con leches and the so-called Rice & Beans, a frappe that blends the rice-milk drink horchata with ground up espresso beans.
No surprise that most days – and especially during nights and weekends – the line of people stretches out the door of the dining room, and the pileup of cars bleeds out of the converted drive through and onto Pasadena Avenue. Inside, groups of Latino teenagers and entire families alike can be seen huddling around a table together, sipping on whipped-cream-topped ice-blended drinks and sharing freshly baked (at the Tierra Mia in Lynwood) tres leches muffins and piña queso danishes.
The zealous response to Long Beach’s Tierra Mia is not unique. Similar crowds swarm wherever owner Ulysses Romero opens, which he usually does in L.A.’s heavily Latino neighborhoods, at the current rate of two to three a year. He started the company in 2008 after graduating with an MBA from Stanford and seeing a significant gap in L.A.’s coffee market. Romero envisioned Tierra Mia as a Starbucks alternative built for Latinos like him, consumers who grew up on boldly roasted beans from underrepresented growing regions like Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador, and who also want the option for a sugary treat when the craving hits.
Since his first location opened in South Gate, Romero has built a quiet empire of coffee shops across southeast Los Angeles, often dropping Tierra Mias in raza-heavy communities like Santa Fe Springs and Montebello. Some of the locations, like in Long Beach, have taken over shuttered fast food outlets, an even stronger signal of the shop’s role in changing neighborhoods (the Pico Rivera flagship and roastery turned its former KFC bucket into a spinning Tierra Mia cup).
It’s this kind of innovation and ambition to serve L.A.’s Latinos through the gospel of coffee that has helped Romero secure such growth in the last few years. Long Beach is only the latest southward expansion for Tierra Mia and plans for more locations in the city may be in the works. When they arrive, try a pour over from the day's selection of micro-farmed beans and grab a tropical fruit pastry. Just leave the laptop at home and don’t even think about asking for a cold brew.
425 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach, (562) 912-4522; tierramiacoffee.com
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.