Meet the Horchata Latte
Pilar's adds a coffee house
by Sally Mitani
Lately, a de facto Latino-town has sprung up around the corner of Liberty and Stadium. Tienda La Libertad launched an in-store eatery called Taco King, former DDA manager Adrian Iraola opened Chela's around the corner on Maple (both reviewed in September), and now Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers, whose Pilar's Tamales is right between the two newcomers, has opened Pilar's Coffee House.
For the record, Nolasco-Rivers insists that relationships among the three businesses are cooperative rather than competitive. In fact, she and Sihem Naghmouchi, Taco King's owner, were sitting companionably together in front of Pilar's espresso machine one morning, chatting amiably, waiting for their days to begin.
While Taco King's decor is entirely utilitarian and Naghmouchi's business is all about moving product, Nolasco-Rivers has coaxed a tropical garden to grow around her concrete box of a building (though the flowers are probably throwing in the towel about now). Inside, she paints in primary colors and decorates with the enthusiasm of a kindergarten teacher: here a flag, there a map; against the side wall an educational display explaining how the rice drink horchata is made; on the table, a collection of other people's art projects, some of them for sale, like her young son Isaac's clay figurines.
A few months ago, Nolasco-Rivers signed a long-term lease for the space next to her tamale shop. The former construction company office now has its own sign and is furnished and painted in the same exuberant style as the original business. For now, though, you buy your coffee, and anything else you want, in Pilar's Tamales, and walk it over. (Nolasco-Rivers is working on plans to break through the wall and unite the two storefronts.)
The coffee is a Central American blend roasted for her by Ypsilanti's Ugly Mug. "We can pretty much do anything anyone else is doing in town," she says--she learned how to pull an espresso twenty years ago, working at Espresso Royale--but she has two coffee drinks on her menu you
won't find anywhere else in town, or possibly, in the case of horchata latte, in the world.
She got that idea years ago, when a customer asked, on a cold day, if she could serve his horchata warm. Horchata, the cinnamon-infused Latin American toasted rice drink (or "dessert in a cup," as she calls it), is one of Nolasco-Rivers' proudest slow-food accomplishments. She makes hers in the rarely used, labor-intensive traditional method.
She reluctantly warmed her customer's horchata--something she'd never heard of anyone else doing. "He said it was delicious, and I realized he was right. Well, over the years I got the idea for an horchata latte"--a shot of espresso mixed with hot horchata--which has all the sweet milkiness of a latte, but with a cleaner finish.
Since horchata won't foam like milk, it won't make a cappuccino, but she has a Central American take on cappuccino, too, in the form of milk mixed with cajeta--goat-milk dulce de leche--that she buys from a nearby organic farm in three flavors.
"It's natural. All these coffeehouses have great coffee, but if you want flavored coffee, they all use those bottles of syrup. Tell me what's unique about that? I don't like to be so harsh on them, but they're fake flavors." To go with her coffee drinks, she makes breakfast tamales, both sweet and savory (blueberry and chorizo on a recent day). The rest of the day, she's still offering a full range of organic Central American tamales and pupusas with homemade side dishes.
Pilar's Tamales and Pilar's Coffee House, 2261 W. Liberty, 929-4161. Tues.-Fri. 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun. and Mon. pilarstamales.com
[Originally published in October, 2012.]