El Almacen is a South American-style cafe specializing in mate, a tea-like infusion made from the leaves of a species of holly which is particularly popular in parts of Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere in South America.
The idea behind El Almacen is to introduce the experience of mate drinking to our espresso-soaked city.
"Going for mate is a social event" our server explains to me when I ask what the impetus for opening a specialized yerba mate cafe was. "Going for mate is more about getting together to talk about politics, culture and life, about the ritual, instead of the faster pace of a coffee shop" she elaborates. "We wanted there to be a place where people could come and experience it for themselves, it's just a different environment".
Inside, El Almacen is nothing if not conducive to relaxing. The interior is painted in warm neutrals and filled with plants, paintings and enough large, round tables (people usually sit in a circle if they're drinking mate in a group) to accommodate plenty of loiterers.
We sit down and eye the menu. Apart from yerba mate, which is served in either a cafetière for one person ($2) or in the traditional wooden gourd if it's being shared ($3), there is a full list of espresso drinks, including café con leche (similar to a latte) as well as tea.
The long wooden counter is strewn with jars of biscotti and enticing-looking alfajores (soft biscuits sandwiched together with jam and rolled in coconut). There are also empanadas if you're more interested in something savoury than in a sugar-rush.
I order a cafetière of mate to start with, thinking that I can persuade Emma, the photographer, to be my gourd friend once she's tried some. She orders a latte just in case.
Mate has at times been referred to as 'liquid vegetable' and, after trying it, it's easy to see why. It has a taste that is part earthy (as in a beetroot), and part light (as green tea). I've never been that interested in drinking much yerba mate, probably because I've never made it properly before, but I like what I'm brought so much that I drink the whole cafetière by myself and order a gourd for us to share.
Our extremely friendly server explains the ritual of serving mate in a gourd to me as she sets it up on the table for us. "One person does all the serving, and you drink the mate through a metal straw from the gourd, which is passed around" she tells me as she spoons yerba mate into the gourd and fills it with hot water.
"You have to drink all of it, then pass the gourd back to the person serving, so they can refill it with water for the next person and so on."
"And," she makes clear, "whoever is serving the mate will make it differently for each person, depending on how they like it or what their relationship with the person serving it, or with the other people at the table, is like".
"Different in what way?" I ask. "The server can make it stronger if they like the person, for example, or maybe use less and make it watery if they don't". "In that case" I ask "do people often end up getting mate thrown in their face?" she stares at me for a second then laughs -- "I don't know! Maybe!"
On the back of their business cards, which are clearly aimed at recruiting first time triers, El Almacen lists five reasons to drink mate. Aside from focusing on the health claims associated with the drink and listing celebrity fans, the number one reason given is that you'll "look hip" when drinking straight from the gourd. The last reason didn't really help me in recruiting a gourd circle; Emma took one sip then left me to it: "maybe not after a latte, it tastes too healthy" she said, clearly immune to the coolness of the vessel.
Both of us leave El Almacen feeling a lot better than when we arrived, so yerba mate is definitely a good antidote to grogginess, especially by the gourd-load. And with service so good and an atmosphere so welcoming, we'll definitely be back.
Photos by Emma McIntyre.