Mariposa Coffee brings Vietnamese and Cuban coffee, vegetarian street food to downtown Santa Cruz

Mariposa Coffee co-owner Tram Vu shows off iced Vietnamese coffee and vegetarian pâté chaud, two new menu items.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After incubating Mariposa Coffee Bar as a pop-up for two years, owners Tram Vu and Chelsea Cabrera have established a brick-and-mortar on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz and expanded their menu of Cuban coffee and Cubanos to include Vietnamese coffee and street snacks.

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From the freestyle dance music pumping through the double doors to the floor swirling with colorful galaxies and nebulas, Mariposa Coffee Bar isn’t your typical coffee shop. Here, owners Tram Vu and Chelsea Cabrera have created a permanent brick-and-mortar for their two-year-old pop-up, formerly known as Mariposa Cuban Coffee, and expanded their menu of Cuban coffees and street food to include traditional Vietnamese coffee and South Asian plant-based snacks.

Since 2021, pop-up Mariposa Cuban Coffee has served strong, sweet cafecitos ($3) and other coffee drinks inspired by Cabrera’s Cuban heritage, as well as pastries with savory and sweet fillings like guava and cream cheese ($5), and a vegetarian Cubano sandwich ($15), made with meat-free but entirely convincing alternatives, and a midnight Cubano ($18) with spiced jackfruit in place of pulled pork.

Now, Mariposa has found a home at 1010 Pacific Ave. in downtown Santa Cruz — which is, conveniently, the space where Cabrera and Vu held their regular pop-ups for two years. Inside, the former Sandwich Spot, which closed at the end of August, is unrecognizable. The completely transformed space is filled with tropical plants and cozy, conversation-inducing couches, community coffee tables and one large, overstuffed bean bag. Vu and Cabrera also expanded the menu to include traditional Vietnamese coffee and street snacks inspired by Vu’s Vietnamese background, and dropped “Cuban” from Mariposa’s name to reflect the new additions.

Mariposa Coffee owners Chelsea Cabrera and Tram Vu.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We are very grateful to have those two years as a pop-up because we really got to figure out who we want to be. Now we’re standing strong in that foundation,” said Vu, who co-owned the Sandwich Spot from 2015 until 2022. A grand opening celebration with a DJ, live art and menu samples will take place Saturday, starting at 9 a.m. and going into the evening, with a ribbon cutting with the Downtown Association at 6 p.m.

Vu is excited to bring Vietnamese iced coffee ($6), prepared with a traditional phin, to Santa Cruz. For this specialty drink, a small metal phin — a Vietnamese coffee press — slowly filters dark, rich coffee into a pool of sweetened condensed milk in a small glass. After a few minutes, the fresh brew is mixed with a long spoon and poured over ice for a luxurious, creamy coffee that tastes of caramel and chocolate.

“It’s kind of a cross between an espresso and a French press. With the French influence in Vietnamese culture, this became our version of a classic coffee,” Vu said. She also infuses it with fresh mint ($6) for an even more refreshing drink.

In addition to the Cuban pastries and sandwiches, Vu added Vietnamese street snacks, like the pâté chaud ($6), a flaky pastry filled with a rich blend of Impossible meat and Vu’s secret blend of spices, and large, fat spring rolls ($6 each/two for $10) bursting with rice noodles, crisp vegetables and a homemade meat-free version of nem nuong, pork sausage grilled with sugar cane. Dipped in funky peanut sauce and garnished with house-made satay chili sauce, fried shallots and sesame seeds, it’s a crunchy, flavorful snack.

Mariposa Coffee co-owner Tram Vu shows off the noodle bowl, a new menu item.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A chilled noodle bowl ($12) with cilantro, cucumbers and mint and tossed with a lively chili-infused dressing will also soon be added to the menu. These items join the other Cuban pastries and the Cubano, which has been updated with a swipe of jalapeño-garlic-cilantro sauce for an herbaceous kick and a side of crispy plantain chips.

Although Vu and Cabrera are not vegetarians, they both felt called to create a menu that was accessible to everyone and environmentally conscious. “The goal was, can we make vegetarian food that tastes just as good as the real thing or better, and that way everyone can have it? It’s about inclusivity and saving the planet,” said Cabrera. “Most vegetarians don’t know what a real Cubano tastes like,” she said of the traditionally meat-heavy sandwich.

Vu and Cabrera met shortly after Cabrera, a former travel nurse, relocated from Miami to Santa Cruz in 2019. The two became friends through their shared love of music and dancing and soon noticed that their seemingly disparate cultures actually had a lot in common, especially when it came to food. “There’s a lot of parallels,” said Cabrera. “It’s interesting to see how much we have in common even though we didn’t grow up together, like hot sauce and strong coffee,” said Vu. “But our menu is not fusion. We’re keeping it very separate.”

The newly renovated interior of Mariposa Coffee in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Both Vu, who grew up in San Jose, and Cabrera prioritize staying true to their cultural roots when it comes to their food in order to give people an authentic experience. It’s why, for example, they can’t make the Cuban coffee sugar-free, because the foamy whipped sugar is an essential part of the drink. “For us, it’s about the experience. You’re coming here because you want to try Cuban coffee and that’s what makes it Cuban,” Cabrera said. “I can cut back a little bit, but otherwise, it’s just an espresso.”

“We agreed before we started the pop-up that we are going to be 1,000% unapologetically us from the flavors to the music to how we present things,” echoed Vu. The two have already brought their shared love to dance into their business with First Friday Latin dance parties and hope to do more social events that focus on community-building.

Said Vu, “We want this to be a social coffee space for people to come make a connection and have a conversation, in addition to providing a space during the day with food and coffee for people to enjoy.”

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