When the gourmet cupcake craze hit Los Angeles about a decade ago, Karina Jimenez was staring at spreadsheets in a cubicle, dreaming up a different, sweeter life.
The Tijuana native and former studio art major at Cal State Los Angeles had given up dreams of practicing or teaching her craft in exchange for the security of an office job. But once there, the urge to express herself proved too strong.
“I needed to do something where I can be creative and have fun because I hated my job,” the Viva Los Cupcakes owner says of how she first entered the artisanal dessert game in the late 2000s. “Looking at reports all day sitting at a desk was killing me.”
Jimenez started spending time in her home kitchen, experimenting with elaborately decorated baked goods and bringing them into work. Soon, she was using her art skills to make fancy cupcakes for her friend’s and their kid’s birthday parties.
Each one took hours of work to complete, and no detail left un-obsessed over. She remembers one time spending 12 hours on one cupcake. “They were literally tiny pieces of art,” she says.
By the end of 2009, Jimenez’s word-of-mouth success motivated her to take cupcake-ing more seriously. To turn her passion for making things into a workable business model, though, she knew she would need to channel her creativity into her flavors, not her time-consuming designs.
While places like Sprinkles and Frosted were pushing boundaries with red velvet and salted caramel cupcakes, Jimenez decided instead to mine her heritage for flavor ideas.
Viva Los Cupcakes was born.
“How do I stand out? What do I know that I could make?” she says she asked herself at the time. “Well, I know Mexican food.”
Feeding strangers is in Jimenez’s blood. Her parents hail from southern Mexico (Jalisco and Michoacán), but both eventually settled in Baja, where her mother’s family owned a seafood restaurant in Rosarito, serving tourists who came across the border for beachy vacations.
Even before she moved to L.A. at the age of 11, Jimenez remembers an upbringing defined by the border. Weekly crossings to pick up bulk supplies for the restaurant were a given and her dad and grandfather often traveled back and forth from L.A. for their work.
“Some of my mom’s family lives in San Diego too, so we were definitely part of those border people, living on both sides,” she says.
Tijuana’s status as a border city means its residents come from all over the country, making for a place defined by its fascinating mezcla (mixture) of Mexican identity. Inspired by her memories of the markets in this border town — as well as days spent in the kitchen with her sweet-toothed mother — Jimenez launched Viva Los Cupcakes with a range of Mexican flavors never before explored in this form.
Her first menu, then, included commonly found sweets like horchata and churros, alongside creative adaptations, like her take on a pineapple dessert tamal, a no-longer-available flavor which turned a traditionally fluffy cupcake dough into sweet-corn goodness.
“Tamales are cake they just happen to be steamed not baked,” she says.
This revelation also led to the creation of one of Viva Los Cupcakes’ most popular offerings: the tamal con mole cupcake, which tops a soft corn cupcake with a proprietary spicy mole negro frosting (garnished with sesame seeds and a corn-husk ribbon). With 20 different ingredients, no less than three of which are various chocolates, the tamal con mole cupcake is a prime example of Jimenez’s talent for turning complex Mexican dishes into hand-held desserts for next-generation Latinos like herself.
“To be honest it’s a nostalgia thing,” she admits, remembering how the rabid response to another one of her bygone cupcake flavors — this time based on the sugary, crumbly peanut candy called mazapán — cemented her understanding that many of these foods have a heavy sentimental role in her customer’s lives.
“All these flavors I bring in are just what I grew up with and I know other people did too. A lot of people come to me and say they remember eating this when they were a kid or their grandma used to make something similar for them. It’s all pulling from our childhoods.”
For the first few years of Viva Los Cupcakes, Jimenez sold her bite-sized nostalgia at various Latin-themed events around L.A., including art shows, concerts and cultural fairs. In 2011, she quit her cubicle job to run the company full-time and now sells her dozen or so most consistent flavors on weekends at The Wall in the Flower District on Saturdays and at Smorgasburg L.A. on Sundays.
In addition to the tamal con mole cupcake, there is a moist tres leches, lima (lime), cajeta (dulce de leche), café de olla (coffee and cinnamon), fresas con crema (strawberries and cream) and a cupcake version of the pink-frosted conchas (sweet breads) you’ll easily find at any good panaderia in the city. July’s flavor of the month was “Durito,” an amped up twist on the puffed-wheat snack known as duros with orange cake, orange-lime frosting, Valentina hot sauce, chamoy sauce and a piece of duro on top.
During the week, Jimenez can be found shopping for ingredients at markets across downtown, buying imported Mexican chiles, spices, cinnamon, vanilla and more along with big cones of an unrefined cane sugar called piloncillo, which she uses to sweeten many of her cakes.
Each flavor is considered down to the smallest details. A margarita cupcake, for example, actually contains tequila. The cajeta cupcake is topped with a traditional thin wafer cookie called an oblea. Every part of her champurrado cupcake is made with the beloved Abuelita brand chocolate, which continues to be a fixture in many Mexican households.
To get ideas for new and seasonal flavors, all she has to do is go to the mercado (market).
“I walk through candy stores to remind myself of candy I haven’t had since I was a kid,” she says. “What happens all the time is that I forgot a candy exists when I used to have it all the time. I’ll create a new flavor and offer it up to friends.”
The next phase of Viva Los Cupcakes is coming soon too — an expanded menu that will include more pastries and desserts that are riffs on the classics, plus an online shop that will allow for orders to be shipped around the U.S.
Partially thanks to an increased spotlight on L.A.’s Mexican food scene, business is continuing to boom. As more adventurous eaters continue to take a chance on flavors like tamal con mole, horchata and cafe de olla, Viva Los Cupcakes is proving to be the best thing to come out of the decade-old gourmet cupcake trend.
“If you want to try to taste something exciting and different and potentially nostalgic, I’m your girl,” she says.
Top Image: Tamal con mole, jamaica and champurrado cupcakes | Courtesy of Viva Los Cupcakes