Claudia Quiñonez started drinking coffee when she was just six years old. It’s not that unusual, she says, to develop a taste for caffeine when you’re that young — at least not at her family’s house in her native Guatemala. Her early habit ended up sticking with her, though, when she immigrated to Chicago 27 years ago. “I love coffee,” Quiñonez says. “Here, in America, it’s not common for kids to drink coffee. When you’re Latino, it’s fine!”
Today, she and her friend Carmen Aguilar are the co-owners of Cultura Ccafe in Avondale. No, that’s not a misspelling. The two Cs are a nod to the first letter of their first names, while “Cultura” is a reference to their different cultures: Guatemalan for Quiñonez, and Ecuadorian for Aguilar. The cafe, which opened on July 28, is a welcome addition to the burgeoning thoroughfare that also boasts the likes of DMen Tap, TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop, Kuma’s Corner, and Caravanserai nearby. The seats are soft and the food is plentiful, unlike some newcomers to the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
While the two grew up drinking coffee, the pair didn’t know the ins-and-outs of working at a cafe until they took a barista class in Mexico on a whim a few years back, says Aguilar. It was then that they decided to take their newfound knowledge back to Chicago and take a bold step towards their ultimate dream of opening a restaurant. “I love to cook,” says Quiñonez. “My dream is here — to open a restaurant. It’s very difficult, though, so I figured I’d start small with a coffee shop.”
While Cultura offers a wide range of your typical coffee shop fare including espresso, lattes, teas, and matcha, the cafe’s centerpiece are the empanadas — a mainstay at both Aguilar and Quiñonez’s households while growing up. The pastries are locally-sourced by a friend of the pair whose identity they want to remain a trade secret, and come in both sweet and savory options. They’re also so buttery and flakey they give fellow Avondale empanada spot Cafe Tola a run for its money. “I’ve gone and eaten my friend’s empanadas and I love them,” says Aguilar. “So I wanted to bring them to my coffee shop.”
The pair have been experimenting with new drink concoctions too. During slow hours, patrons might spot Quiñonez in the back mixing new drinks like a wizard might potions. Luckily for anyone around, she’s more than willing to share her creations. One standout is the sweet (and habit-forming) horchata frappe, which offers a refreshing respite on a hot summer day.
It’s so good, in fact, that the frappe was the drink of choice for Green Day when they stopped by the shop during their time at Lollapalooza in July — a celebrity appearance that almost went unnoticed by the owners until they saw a customer snapping photos of the band. “I didn’t even know who they were,” says Aguilar with a laugh. “When I saw people were asking them for photos, I had to ask for one too just in case. My daughter explained to me later that they were famous.”
Nineties pop-punk bands aside, Cultura aims to prioritize the Avondale community. It’s a neighborhood that the two have fallen in love with — and it has likewise fallen in love with them. “I love this neighborhood,” says Aguilar. “To my surprise, everyone is very supportive. They keep coming and it’s beautiful. Customers have brought us presents and we’re like, ‘What?’ They support you.”
In the end, that’s what the two are trying to do with Cultura: create a welcoming space. With Latin music playing softly in the background, vibey decor, and soft seating, Aguilar and Quiñonez wanted to make it reminiscent of their family homes back in Guatemala and Ecuador. It’s a spot where you can come in, sink into a couch that feels like a cloud, and stay a while — and maybe have a few dozen empanadas while you do.
“I want people to come here and feel like they’re coming back home to their family’s house,” says Aguilar. “This is a place to sit down, relax, and enjoy a cup of coffee and an empanada. Stay as long as you want. You’re welcome here.”
Cultura Ccafe, 2943 W. Belmont Avenue; Open 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday