A gentleman with more than a hint of Russell Crowe catches my eye as I walk into Strada Eateria & Coffee mid afternoon amidst the last stragglers of the lunch crush lingering about the casually occupied space. I consider a table near the window if only for the sake of improving the quality of my Instagram output but settle on a spot at the bar that wasn’t readily apparent upon entry. Faux Crowe, we’ll call him Julian Andrei, effortlessly transitions from holding court with nearby customers to handing me a menu, but I already know my order having mentally prepared for this moment since a previous attempt to dine at Strada was cut short by Andrei’s revelation of the restaurant’s brief renovation.
As he pours me a glass of water, Andrei says he owes me a coffee from last time and I happily oblige before selecting The Nomad: paprika smoked pork belly, gypsy bacon, tomato, pickle, chipotle aioli, avocado, and Manchego cheese on a Ciabatta served with a portion of the house salad. Andrei’s thrilled I’ve ordered one of his personal favorites and sends over a sampler plate of meats as to better illustrate the forthcoming sandwich’s flavor profile. His attention shifts to a coffee brewing apparatus filled with hot sand situated at the corner of the bar and begins to heat up water in a small copper pot called a cezve. The preparation of the sand brewed coffee attracts the attention of a nearby couple as they wander over in awe of Andrei’s showmanship, camera phones in tow, beset with visions of social media grandeur.
My sandwich soon arrives and it’s clear why Strada’s received numerous accolades for its efforts in the kitchen as I quickly lament ordering just one. Though not billed as so, the alchemy of meat, cheese, pickle, and dressing eats like Strada’s take on a classic Cuban sandwich – and perhaps serves as DTLA’s strongest accidental attempt at conjuring Havana stateside. Andrei finishes preparing the coffee and another member of his team presents me with an almond cookie dipped in chocolate to enjoy with the hot beverage that has been placed in front of me alongside a gummy Turkish treat. There’s far less acidity to Strada’s sand coffee, which Andrei typically makes using African beans, than one would find in a shot of espresso and that inherent smoothness is responsible for one cup quickly giving way to five. Everything’s delicious, but I sit pondering the uncommon attention to detail and genuine warmth exuded by Strada and its staff in all aspects of the dining experience as Andrei refills my water glass for the umpteenth time.
Andrei, a veteran of Downtown LA’s food scene in excess of a decade, opened the doors to Strada 14 months ago in hopes of bringing to life a restaurant stripped of the stuffiness and formality that preoccupies and often suffocates lesser, albeit vastly more expensive eateries peppered throughout Los Angeles. This mentality has afforded Strada the rarity of serving a high quality product without having to gouge patrons’ wallets – a feat that has won the restaurant repeat business and allowed for last month’s upgrades to its bar seating area – all the while operating between the city’s clearest crossroads of rapid gentrification and extreme poverty. I’m quick to point out to Andrei what I perceive to be the inherent struggles of running a restaurant on this particularly rough stretch of Downtown LA, but his easy smile and sleeve-worn love for his craft suggests he’s content with slowly ingratiating Strada into the community rather than simply demanding radical change around him.
Strada Eateria & Coffee | 119 E. 5th St. | Los Angeles, CA 90013