Coffeehall Chinatown: Brewing Community and Rotating Roasters in the Heart of Los Angeles | KCET
Coffeehall Chinatown: Brewing Community and Rotating Roasters in the Heart of Los Angeles
Coffee, community and endless ping-pong — that’s what CoffeeHall Chinatown offers to visitors and locals.
Located at Mandarin Plaza in the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, CoffeeHall is a “showroom” for local specialty coffee shops and roasters to bring the best of their product. The “pop-up” concept departs from the traditional café or chain, inviting shop owners to sell their coffee and showcase their process for a three-day residency to Chinatown locals and visitors.
CoffeeHall’s owners, Aldo Lihiang and Yeekai Lim, are two immigrants whose goal is simple: creating a dialog and establishing diverse community, over a quality brew.
“The original concept gravitated towards creating more of a community connecting everybody in [Southern California’s] greater coffee industry,” said Lim. “We were thinking; how do we bring people together with a rotating coffee shop?”
A few years ago, Lim was approached by property owners to open up a coffee shop location in Mandarin Plaza, at the unoccupied space in Unit 112, (adjacent to the old Pok Pok LA). Though he wasn’t ready at the time, Lim kept the prime location — just a block from Chinatown’s Metro stop, the iconic Golden Dragon Restaurant, and Central Plaza — close to mind.
Lim said things “aligned” when he met Lihiang, then a business developer, last spring at the Specialty Coffee Association Expo in Atlanta. The two soon collaborated, coming up with the idea for a “coffee hall” showcasing the best of L.A. coffee in a community space.
With state-of-the-art grinders and an innovative, Bluetooth-operated Sanremo espresso machine, CoffeeHall serves high quality coffee, always made at just the right temperature. The rotating roasters and cafes are all free to use the equipment.
“Having the space really allows us to accommodate fellow coffee nerds, and especially people who want to serve their larger community,” said Lihiang. “It takes a lot of time to create the right palette, understanding each brew and blend you’re serving, and being passionate about it.”
Inside, CoffeeHall is a minimalist’s dream: natural green foliage, white walls, fluorescent lighting and eclectic artwork (including a poster of the martial arts film "Ninja Hunter") adorning the walls. Vinyl records provide the tunes. The furniture was also generously donated or sponsored — including the well-loved ping-pong table, artwork, lights, versatile tables and chairs from RAD.
The espresso bar (shown off all over CoffeeHall’s Instagram) was specially made for the space. Resident baristas also teach classes to interested consumers, from cuppings to pour-over and various drip methods.
“For a while I’ve been telling people, this is likely the best coffee spot in L.A., because we have over 30 rotating shops here,” said Lihiang. “And everyone who comes brings their owners and lead baristas to support and represent their brand well. They showcase their best product [at CoffeeHall] — it’s just about doing coffee, and talking to people.”
Both Lihiang and Lim come from different worlds, far from coffee.
Lihiang was born in Indonesia and grew up in the Inland Empire. As a kid, he remembers being a part of the local skate scene and wanting to attend college for business entrepreneurship, with the notion of starting his own company. After college, he worked in various industries including sales, mortgage, marketing and conferencing.
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While working at a faith-based conference company, Lihiang needed a coffee sponsor, and was drawn to Wild Goose Roasters in Redlands. He remembers trying an Ethiopian blend and learning about the process of roasting; eventually starting his own fair-trade coffee brand, CauseRoast, with a friend.
“I never knew what specialty coffee was; I was always drinking those Starbucks Frappuccinos,” Lihiang recalled. “After that, I was hooked on discovering good coffee shops. I wanted to start a wholesale program. So I hit up every recommended coffee shop from L.A. to Portland to Seattle, getting to know all these different roasters and baristas, learning about how to get my coffee into their shops. I thought, man, I really want to help people find all these places — coffee is a journey, a discovery.”
In 2016, Lihiang left his day job in sales and business development to create an iOS specialty coffee directory app called Mooon — designed for “the exploration and discovery” of local shops.
On the free app, users can order drinks and search for coffee hubs with factors such as distance, ratings, Wi-fi access and pet friendliness. The whole process from concept to design to app development, took about eight months — around the same time Lihiang met Lim.
“Coffee unites. Everybody here used to do something before — coffee is a passion for a lot of people, and I think that’s why there are so many good stories behind it,” said Lihiang. “It’s not the money. Every barista, owner, brand and company has their story.”
Lim immigrated to the States from Malaysia as a child, growing up with the notion of perseverance and hard work. He worked as a designer in both L.A. and New York, working with architects including Frank Gehry. Eventually, he began designing coffee bars for popular L.A. spots including Copa Vida in Pasadena, House Roots in the Valley and nearby Endorffeine at the Far East Plaza in Chinatown.
Designing coffee shops and bars introduced Lim to the wide world of specialty coffee, and he eventually started his own franchise called Cognoscenti Coffee, with three locations in downtown L.A. and Culver City.
“The name came out of a romanticized notion about the coffee shop, that it once attracted intellectuals, artists, musicians, and still does to this day. A cognoscenti is someone that is an expert in a specific subject matter, so it stimulated a place of gathering for like-minded folks,” Lim shared. “I think specialty coffee has attracted a lot of passionate people, and they typically start their own coffee shop to further their story and passion for coffee.”
In 2016, opportunity presented itself over a fresh brew, with an unoccupied unit at Mandarin Plaza — a place once filled with Chinese-owned mom-and-pop shops, now undergoing a transformation of creative designers and start-ups as tenants.
Lim and Lihiang jumped on the opportunity. A new partnership between Mooon and Cognoscenti Coffee was born at CoffeeHall, with the aim of educating the neighborhood and featuring the best of local coffee, in the heart of Los Angeles.
The Chinatown pop-up officially opened its doors in January, attracting a flurry of brands including Smith & Tait, Tandem Coffee, Shreebs, Hidden House Coffee Roasters, Kuma Coffee and Hot Fat Donuts. Even international roasters (such as Berlin’s Bonanza Coffee) have sent beans over to the shop.
“It seemed like the right time to explore a higher coffee concept that … [invites] shops to explore what they don’t normally offer, and push the envelope of the coffee experience,” Lim added. “It’s been a great opportunity to do so something slightly more experimental, that challenges the social and psychological fabric that coffee can’t exist without.”
An experimental, wildly popular drink CoffeeHall has recently served is the Supreme Noir Latte from MadLab Coffee, matching the current charcoal drink and dessert craze.
“Overall, the community coffee builds is a positive one,” Lihiang, the face behind CoffeeHall’s strong social media presence, said. “It's both craft and a lot of work, but we’re able to create something that people genuinely enjoy. People love to try new things, meet new people, and here, we do both — it's what keeps them coming back.”
Darwin Manahan and his wife, Nicole, are both Chinatown residents hailing from the world of craft cocktails. The two bike to CoffeeHall several times a week for a game of ping-pong, a Hot Fat donut and a good latte.
“I was never into coffee — it’s a weird market because it can get kind of pretentious, especially in L.A.,” shared Darwin Manahan, lead barkeeper at downtown’s 71Above Restaurant. “But here at CoffeeHall, I’m always able to order stuff and not feel like I have to know everything. I can appreciate the techniques they use, how serious they are about their roasters and machinery — all the little details. The baristas will answer questions and explain the whole process.”
Added Nicole Manahan, “I also like that the menu is so simple — it’s a great introduction to the best of specialty coffee. I like cream and sugar, so my simple order is a vanilla latte, and they get it right, every time. It’s just so well-made, all around.”
Along their bike route to CoffeeHall, the Manahans also bring their dog; a friendly yellow Labrador named Peter Chang (he’s also on Instagram).
“The vibe is so friendly and energetic here; it’s an outlet for like-minded people to meet. I had no idea the type of melting pot [CoffeeHall] would become,” said Darwin. “We always bring our family, friends and dog just to hang out, play a game and relax. It’s also great to see Chinatown growing and thriving with new young tenants and creatives, while still keeping its original look and flavor.”
The people CoffeeHall brings together include locals, families, freelancers, artists and coffee junkies. In true community fashion, they have sponsored events such as panels, documentary screenings, latte art “throw-down” competitions, even pop-up yoga.
“It’s fun meeting people, showing them what specialty coffee is all about. It’s a cool opportunity to try high quality brews at a good price,” said barista Martin Nguyen.
The owners expressed their hopes for CoffeeHall to grow, while still keeping its original “rotating coffee shop” concept. Over the summer, they plan to bring in pop-up art installations and other vendors (such as POPDUP and Yeastie Boys Bagel Truck), to attract more visitors to the business.
“What business?” Lihiang laughed. “We’re just bringing people together and having fun.”
Top image: Aldo Lihiang
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