Two Years in, La Perlita Celebrates Its Status as a BIPOC Hub
In August 2019, Angel Medina sold two of the three Portland coffee shops he founded—Kiosko and Con Leche—and headed to Mexico to learn more about coffee at the source, talking to coffee producers and field workers. He returned in March 2020 to a world changed by the coronavirus, one in which coffee shops both in Portland and Mexico City were closing left and right, and where spending a leisurely afternoon in one of them chatting with friends was a memory of the past.
But Medina’s remaining coffee shop, La Perlita in the Pearl District’s Ecotrust Building, is entering a new phase two years after its opening. It’s now also the home of Reforma Roasters, a new roasting company that focuses on the source of the coffee—in this case, primarily Mexico. With an all-BIPOC staff, it’s also become a meeting place, albeit socially distanced and brief, for a customer base Medina estimates is about 85 percent BIPOC. It’s also a place where, as of this summer, Medina has been hosting a different BIPOC-helmed food pop-up almost every day.
Medina founded Reforma Roasters in April 2020, but he’s no newcomer to the art of roasting. He got his start four years ago while working at a tech company, roasting beans and selling them to friends, donating the proceeds to United We Dream, a youth-led nonprofit that advocates for immigration policy reform. Eventually, he started selling coffee more widely under the name Small Time Roasters.
In April, as he watched from afar as coffee shops were struggling in Mexico City, Medina started roasting coffee in Portland again under the name Reforma Roasters, using some of the proceeds to help support his friends’ shops in the Mexican capital. Reforma produces a variety of roasts, ranging from light to dark, using beans sourced from places including Puebla, Nayarit, Colima, Chiapas, Guerrero, and Veracruz in Mexico and Huila, Colombia. One thing that makes Reforma different from other roasters, according to Medina, is its relationship to coffee producers and its mindfulness around the language used to talk about coffee production. He wants to avoid what he calls a “white saviorism platform” employed by many coffee companies when they talk about “helping” coffee farmers in Africa and Latin America solely by buying their products, and exploiting coffee farmers’ images to help sell a product.
As with his previous label, Small Time Roasters, Medina still donates money from time to time to help support Dreamers with DACA processing fees, which run $495 each. It’s a cause that hits close to home for Medina, whose brother is a DACA recipient.
The message of La Perlita seems to be resonating far and wide. Medina says that last weekend he had customers driving from up to three hours away to visit La Perlita for drinks like the True Mexican Mocha, a hot chocolate–inspired beverage made with espresso, chocolate, cafe de olla syrup, and a topping of freeze-dried raspberries and cocoa nibs. In a city that’s 77 percent white, Medina estimates that 85 percent of his customers are Latinx and/or BIPOC, drawn to La Perlita for the same reasons that Medina wanted to open his first coffee shop. “When you go into a coffee shop ... there’s just not a lot of people that look like me, and there’s not a lot of people that represent where coffee comes from,” Medina says.
“This is our cards on the table: we’re anti-ICE, we’re anti-Trump, we’re for POCs, we’re Black Lives Matter ... it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white or Asian or LGBTQ, or even if you drink coffee. You come in and we’ll treat you like family.”
Lately, La Perlita’s been drawing in customers for yet another reason: the impressive schedule of women and BIPOC-led food pop-ups that are now taking up residence at La Perlita nearly every day of the week. Wednesday's pop-up featured pastry chef Palmira Obeso of @hereforthecakes, who specializes in vegan, gluten-free, and allergy-friendly desserts like pavlovas, coffee cake, and strawberry scones. Thursday will feature Olivia Bartruff of @olivia_b_sweets, serving “whimsical, delicious, and often gooey” sweets like banana custard cajeta tarts and raspberry rose tarts with black sesame crust. This Friday’s pop-up will be one of La Perlita’s longtime residents, La Reinita (@lareinitapdx), a panadería from Cortney Morentin Selbiger that was formerly known as Wyld Breads. She’ll be serving pistachio conchas, pig-shaped ginger cookies, and cinnamon rolls. Saturday’s pop-up is from Hailey Zhou @haileyleyy, a food scientist who describes her style as “whimsical and random,” serving miso dark chocolate banana bread, butter mochi cake, and honey gochujang cornbread. This Sunday will feature Lauro Romero, executive chef of King Tide, who will be hosting a pop-up under the name Clandestino @clandestinopdx, serving Yucatan-style tortas stuffed with cochinita pibil. For the most up-to-date information on pop-ups, visit @laperlitapdx on Instagram.
La Perlita, 721 NW Ninth Ave., open 9 a.m.–3 p.m. daily