Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, 1931. The area that the Canter family made a home for their deli after migrating from New Jersey by way of Boyle Heights. It’s home to the former site of Gilmore Stadium where the minor league baseball team The Hollywood Stars played until 1948. It’s the spot that in the Spring of 2008, Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo delighted Angelenos when they opened up their germanely approachable restaurant, “Animal.” Somewhere between the natural conflux of a traditional, family-oriented community and an upwardly-mobile (and noticeably more lively one), Fairfax Avenue also became home to newsstands, burger joints, high-end linen emporiums, vintage furniture stores, bars and skate shops. At its core though it remains an indelible resurrection to something which neophytes everywhere believe that Los Angeles lacks: a sense of community. For Fairfax’s newest addition, Cofax Coffee, there isn’t a doubt of legitimacy within their residency.
The staff is indubitably friendly, and if you know anything about the owners, Jason Bernstein and James Starr, their employees are an extension of themselves: happy, welcoming and almost singularly-dedicated to the task at hand. The minimalist interior comes off clean. All of it offset by a row of aged coffeepots and framed baseball-centric wall drawings by the surprisingly quixotic, Mike Gigliotti.
I dropped in on a recent Thursday and was met with that particular smell of breakfast food and coffee that reminds one of school mornings as a kid. Much to my delight, the clientele was a mix of locals: equal parts Fairfax High School’s finest and a few, obviously older, residents. Surprisingly all chatted in reserved decibels, as if they knew exactly what to expect. Still, I could hear snippets of excitement with regards to the rather heady smell coming from the back of the place.
The system is simple. You have a couple of recognizable coffee choices, some donuts and maybe two breakfast burrito options to choose from. Three, if you add in the extra cash for avocado. In between ordering your coffee and deciding on whether or not you want an extra green or an extra red salsa, you become aware that the door behind you is opening and closing in an accelerated yet quiet pace as more customers circulate through—all of whom, in a city as populated and manifold as Los Angeles, seem to mind their p’s and q’s. The teenagers pick up their skateboards and take off their hats. The elderly don’t daly, rather they opt to wait patiently and offer napkins (when needed) to the furtive questioning looks of the youth.
As I recently tweeted, the fare is worthy of membership in L.A.’s burrito court. Like Bernstein & Starr, it is an adjunct and thoughtful melding of flavor, having evolved at the hands of two men who clearly appreciate simple things done with care. What it’s not is a tough outside. It isn’t overcompensated with the heavy weight of greasy potatoes. Quite the opposite in fact, as the potatoes are seamlessly incorporated into a hash. It even took me until my last bite to recognize the extraordinarily light starchiness of them. The eggs and the meat were so delicate that they melted into a consistency which (I swear!) I haven’t tasted since I was eight when my mother took a memorable 35 minutes to whip up a batch of perfectly light, scrambled eggs.
Anyone who knows me understands my deep and unabated love for greasy, juicy, salt in the morning. But the thing about Cofax’s burritos is…they’re not trying to be that. They’re not a replication of a greasy spoon. And they’re not traditional. They’re perfectly proportioned and crisply pressed. They’re filled, but not to the point where there’s too much that you end up throwing some away. You’ll want to finish every last bite of their burrito because, much like the shop, it reminds you of another time in a different city where you used to eat a place that cares. In my hometown, it was this family-run Mexican joint called Manny’s, where all the local kids frequented for the chorizo and tacos.
Much like the historic and enduring avenue which it sits on, Cofax is part coffee shop and part time machine. It’s a delightful throwback to another time when service seemed to matter. Back when kids and adults alike could seek comfort from the chaos of life with nothing more than the inexplicable comfort of a sip of pure coffee and a bite of breakfast. It’s a bright spot in a changing neighborhood in an evolving city. And rather than alienating itself from those changes—young and old, new school and old regime—it seems to welcome them. There’s a sense of community here that’s worthy of the established avenue which it sits on. Quite simply, it’ll remind you of home.