Though it bears a conspicuously Italian name, Tortoni Caffe is a new coffeehouse that brings a subtle Argentinian ambiance to Sherman Oaks, from the yerba mate and empanadas on the menu to the painting of tango dancers on the wall.
Such cross-cultural cues may seem obvious if you’re familiar with the famously historic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, which inspired the naming of this Ventura Blvd arrival. Having come from Argentina, Tortoni Caffe co-owner Daniel Avaca saw the name as a sign of good luck for both its longevity and multicultural legacy. The Café Tortoni in Argentina was founded in 1858 by a French immigrant, who had named it after an earlier one established in Paris by an Italian immigrant.
“So, we as Argentinians moved to the US, and we opened a cafe called Tortoni. We are continuing the chain,” said Daniel.
With its red brick facade, high ceiling, cozy seating, and tempting snacks, Tortoni sets an easygoing, sociable atmosphere that differs from the impersonal coffee chain scene of rushed pickups and reclusive laptop warriors. The cafe aims to create a welcoming gathering place that connects with the local community.
“We want to establish relationships with people. We become part of the daily lives of our customers,” Daniel said. “They appreciate the experience of sitting with an espresso or a cappuccino served in a porcelain cup, not a paper cup.”
This point is emphasized by the Tortoni-branded porcelain cups lining the top of the espresso machine in various sizes made for espressos, cappuccinos, and other styles of coffee. For all their coffee beverages, Tortoni chose to use beans from Santa Cruz roaster Verve, because of its reputation for sourcing directly from farmers and paying them fair prices. “Plus, it’s very good coffee,” Daniel said.
When he initiated this venture in 2016, coffee was something Daniel loved to drink but didn’t know how to make. So he enrolled in the American Barista and Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, where he received a crash course in all things coffee. Among the familiar list of coffee drinks at Tortoni Caffe, the piccolo is also known as “cortado,” a commonly ordered style in Argentina which adds steamed milk to an espresso shot to make a 4-ounce beverage.
Tortoni’s tea selection comes from Palais des Thes, along with an imported traditional Argentinian yerba mate. Grown in northern Argentina, this indigenous nutrient-rich concoction contains caffeine and often provides an energy boost, but without the jitters. It tastes similar to green tea, but slightly more grassy. Tortoni serves it hot or cold, making their cold-brewed version with orange peel for a refreshing hint of citrus flavor.
From the food menu, the lunch items, pastries, and snacks at Tortoni are made locally and curated by Daniel’s business partner, Natalia Primo. Many items including baguettes, sandwiches, and brownies, come from Bread Lounge, a bakery in downtown LA’s Arts District, known for making everything by hand and using natural yeast. Since Bread Lounge has a loyal customer base in the San Fernando Valley, Tortoni also offers a closer location for residents to pick up popular items like challah loaves.
To incorporate some traditional Argentinian eats, Tortoni serves savory empanadas with options including chicken, beef, spinach, and ham and cheese. The empanadas, along with several choices of quiche, come from Carniceria Latina in Glendale. “We sell more empanadas than sandwiches,” said Daniel.
Included with the empanadas are little cups of chimichurri sauce, made in-house with parsley, garlic, and olive oil. It’s prepared in small batches every two to three days so that it not only looks fresh, but tastes fresh. Tortoni also sells their specialty sauce separately in larger amounts.
On the sweeter side, Tortoni offers an Argentinian treat called alfajores, made by Sweetshop, a baker in Upland. These blonde baked confections look like delicate cookie sandwiches. A thick layer of dulce de leche is spread between two cornstarch-based butter cookies and finished with a dusting of coconut flakes around the edge. It’s a crumbly combination with a light sweetness that melts in your mouth and pairs well with coffee. When Daniel offers samples to inquiring customers, the reactions are enthusiastic. “Once they try it, then boom!” he described.
Natalia is still experimenting with the menu and plans to introduce new items in the future, including more aspects of Argentinian cuisine that are not well represented in Los Angeles. With Daniel having managed several local restaurants before, including the first Argentinian restaurant in Los Angeles, Gaucho Grill, he knows that some compromises have to be made to bring authentic flavors that appeal to local tastes.
But beyond the menu, perhaps what truly conveys the Argentinian essence is the people behind Tortoni. Daniel’s wife Karina and Natalia’s husband Gonzalo Cullen are also key partners running the cafe, giving it the aura of a family business. They aspire to make this former office space a cozy coffee hangout where the baristas aren’t just order-takers, but people who remember your name and your order.
“I think the main component of Argentinian coffee bar culture is the Argentinian culture itself, how we interact with people, how you suddenly become friends with someone you just met,” Daniel explained. “Without that human component, it wouldn’t be an Argentinian experience.”
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