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Meeting in the Middle at Aromas Café



Cut in sturdy rectangles and topped with waves of whipped cream, Adela Rodriguez's tres leches cake takes a full day soaking in whole, condensed and evaporated milks. It's a bit firmer than usual, holding up to and holding in the sweet liquid. Marisol Madriz, with whom she co-owns Aromas Café (1651 Myrtle Ave., Eureka), thinks it's perfect. But Rodriguez thinks the decoration needs work.

The two have been close friends and sometimes coworkers for more than 20 years, and when Rodriguez' husband nudged them to check out the former Harbor Coffee and Wine up for sale, they took the leap. As first-time restaurant owners dealing with ordering, working in a limited kitchen and nobody else to rely on for their paychecks, Madriz says starting out was "super scary." The only thing they were sure about, they say, was that they could trust one another.

When Aromas Café opened in December, it was the softest of soft openings, with little publicity and just a few customers a day. Madriz and Rodriguez say they were grateful for a slow start. "The first month, we didn't have money to pay ourselves," says Madriz, "but we knew this — this was investment." It was also a chance to craft the menu around what the neighborhood needed. "We wanted to bring some, like, Mexican traditional lunch or breakfast items because we are used to that," she says. However, "We know the town is not exactly Latino," and they wanted to offer American café standards, too.

In those early months, the partners paid attention to requests for soups, which are doable in the small kitchen without a hood, and bagels. Now regulars are making a habit of stopping in for Bootleg Bagels and homemade posole, cappuccinos and caramel empanadas. On Election Day, Madriz and Rodriguez put together posole and vegetable soups for 40 staffers at the Humboldt County Elections Office who were undoubtedly looking at a long night ahead of them.

Madriz, who grew up in Mexico City, came to Humboldt 22 years ago and has worked front of house at Seascape Restaurant, La Patria and Alice's at Blue Lake Casino. But it was working at Tomas Jewelry that she met Rodriguez, and the pair went on to work together at Carmela's and Humboldt Bay Coffee Co.

"We became friends and we became family at this point," says Madriz, whose own family is mostly back in Mexico. "Sometimes people that has not your blood, they become closer than your family," she says. "I always feel the love with her. ... She always understands and she's never negative, and I love that." For a time, she babysat Rodriguez's kids, and the two spend holidays and even vacations together. Rodriguez moved to Hydesville, a bit far from Madriz in McKinleyville, but they meet in the middle every day at Aromas.

That isn't to say they agree on everything.

Rodriguez smiles and rolls her eyes, saying they disagree about four or five times a day. She says it was the same even before the restaurant. But they're able to compromise, she says, and whether it's about their personal lives or the menu, they may argue, but they don't really fight.

"People think we are fighting when we are talking about things because we're just passionate about things. ... We should probably work on that," says Madriz with a laugh. "I will tell you this," says Madriz, "I trust her and she trusts me. I know she would trust me with her eyes covered and I do the same." With Madriz handling the books and customer service, and Rodriguez doing the cooking, they say that trust is vital.

Rodriguez grew up in rural Michoacán, Mexico, she says, climbing trees and swimming in rivers. "In Mexico City, she had only cars and smog," she says, grinning and waving a hand toward Madriz behind the counter. At 10 years old, Rodriguez started washing dishes at a neighbor's taqueria, and at 14 she worked in a bakery. Here and there, she also helped at her uncle's seafood restaurant and her grandmother's restaurant. "They were always asking me for help, even when I don't want," she says, laughing. Now, though, she's grateful for everything she learned, both for the restaurant and passing the training to her children. Her 14-year-old son, she says, beaming, just made his first beef birria at home.

Rodriguez's chilaquiles — tortilla chips doused and cooked in her mild red sauce and/or a tangier and spicier green tomatillo salsa, and topped with queso fresco and crema — are Aromas' most popular item. (Those seeking more heat can avail themselves of the dark and oily salsa macha at the counter.) The sweet and savory crepes have a growing fan base, too, though. Her favorite — for good reason — is stuffed with chorizo and potatoes, the smoky saltiness of which plays off the sweetness in the batter of the springy Mexican-style crepe.

For now, Aromas Café is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, but Rodriguez and Madriz are looking forward to family pitching in for longer hours and a beer and wine license that will allow them to serve the mimosas their customers have been asking for. Rodriguez is excited about possibly serving ceviche, too.

She says Madriz always tastes her recipes but it may be the only area where Rodriguez can't rely on her. "I don't really trust her because she says, 'Oh, delicious, excellent.' And I say, 'No, amiga, maybe it needs more salt." Rodriguez shakes her head — she can't trust her. "Not even poquito," she says. "I never fail with her."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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