What started as a pop-up coffee cart has become New Jersey’s first store to blend authentic Filipino flavors with its cups of coffee.
At Ayala Coffee in Union, flavor combinations include ube (purple yam), flan de leche (the Filipino twist on the classic crème caramel), and cassava (a nutty-flavored vegetable commonly used in Filipino desserts). .
Filipino-American co-founders Trixie Jose and Matthew Reyes had always wanted to open a cafe, but a trip to the West Coast and a family member’s diagnosis of COVID-19 made the dream a reality. .
“When we went to Seattle, we visited a Filipino cafe,” Reyes said. “Before that, we had no idea something like this existed. It was so huge on the west coast and we realized we were a little behind in New Jersey.
Then in 2020, Jose’s grandmother was diagnosed with COVID and put on a ventilator, but persevered, recovering from the illness after a few scary moments.
“She was really the push we needed to really get this thing started,” Jose said. “I wasn’t happy with my job in accounting and we thought ‘life is short, we just have to go. “”
And they did, even though neither Jose nor Reyes, an IT pro, knew the first thing about running a beverage business. The partners started listening to coffee podcasts and researching how to source coffee beans from the Philippines.
Then, after building a homemade coffee cart, they started hosting small pop-ups in New Jersey in October 2021, like at Baonanas in Jersey City and Terrace Plant Shop in Metuchen, calling itself Ayala Coffee – named after the neighborhood in the Philippines where Jose’s grandmother grew up.
After about a month of pop-ups, a storefront on Morris Avenue in Union showed up and they felt the need to take it.
“We were both raised at Union so we wanted to start where we felt at home and offer something that is not currently offered here,” Jose said.
Jose also mentioned that she thinks New Jersey lacks representation for Filipinos, especially those in Millennials and Gen Z.
“There are tons of Filipino restaurants but I feel like every time I walk into one it always feels familiar but when I look around I only see people who are the age of my parents or grandparents,” Jose said. “We wanted a place for people our age who may not know the language but can connect with the culture or representation through the flavors of our drinks.”
They also wanted to share their culture with a clientele unfamiliar with their Southeast Asia.
“We have so many non-Filipinos coming to us asking what certain things are, so there’s a little education process that goes beyond that,” Jose said. “I think it’s so cool that so many people are willing to try.”
Their menu offers drinks selected from Filipino desserts and still others related to culture, such as jasmine vanilla, inspired by the jasmine flower or sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines.
But what really sets Ayala apart is that all their grains are imported from the Philippines and they make everything from A to Z: syrups, milks and all drinks, which are original recipes.
Being a first generation Filipino-American, I had to try some of their drinks. So I opted for the three best drinks on the menu – ube, flan de leche and cassava. I grew up eating all of these desserts, so I was curious to see if the flavors rang true.
The ube was fantastic and truly singular in its authenticity. While many cafes and restaurants try to mimic the flavor of ube, it never tastes like the real thing (most people are drawn to the color rather than the flavor). Ayala coffee has done a great job of keeping the real ube in this drink, with a sweet nuttiness spiced up with a little vanilla.
As flan de leche is my absolute favorite dessert, I’m a hard sell on any drink trying to match its decadence. Not sure how Reyes and Jose did it, but their flan de leche in a cup tasted exactly the same as it did on a plate. I was shocked with my first sip, experiencing that same milky, creamy texture with the sweet taste of toasted sugar caramel – very nostalgic for how my family made it over the holidays.
Although I was most excited about the cassava drink, as it was something my mother cooked all the time, using it in cakes and breads. This vegetable has similar flavor notes to coconut, which were extremely prominent with every sip I took. It was toasty, nutty and purely delicious. All of these drinks included espresso made from Filipino coffee beans.
Adventurous or just curious coffee aficionados should hurry to Ayala Coffee, for their handcrafted drinks, which seem to be picked straight from Manila. I will definitely be back, not only because I need that flan leche drink in my life, but also to represent my culture and support the other small Filipino businesses that pop up in their cafe every weekend like Jose and Reyes makes reciprocate.
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