Highlighting Asian Coffee

Mandarin Coffee Stand delivers new flavors to Pasadena

By Leah Schwartz

Sherry Gao has the problems all small-business owners wish they had. Her espresso machine has been malfunctioning due to the sheer volume of coffee running through it since the opening of the Mandarin Coffee Stand in October at the Burlington Arcade on South Lake Avenue in Pasadena.

Pastries often sell out before noon after the hectic morning rush, especially after TikTok exposure. Gao is not a TikTok user but found herself scrambling to keep up with demand, and after chatting with customers, she discovered why. Gao wondered, “Are they saying good things about us on TikTok?” Suffice to say, the reviews are raving. 

But the beverages, adorned with latte art and dripping in foam, are not the only things that have customers returning day after day. Some might call Gao a “coffee sommelier.” 

She has been working in the LA coffee industry for six years since beginning at Cafe Dulce, a specialty coffee shop in Little Tokyo, whose baristas would go on also to open Be Bright Coffee and Copa Vida. From there, Gao moved to Intelligentsia Coffee and stayed as a barista for three years until the pandemic, when she opened Mandarin Coffee Stand.

Even before working in the coffee industry, while studying hospitality management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Gao always dreamed of opening a café — “I knew I wanted to open a coffee shop even before I started working as a barista. … When I was a barista, I would pay attention and ask questions — I wanted to learn as much as I could.”

The LA coffee scene is small, connected and supportive. 

“Business has been great — much better than I expected, and I am so grateful,” Gao says. “I’ve built many relationships with LA coffee people and received a lot of support from Intelligentsia.

“We received a lot of support from the coffee industry in general — a lot of coffee shop owners and OG LA coffee people visited, and then somehow we were trending on social media, so we targeted that group of people as well.”

Mandarin Coffee Stand has seven part-time baristas, most of whom were brought over from Intelligentsia. At the helm of the operation, Gao sources ingredients and formulates the menu. Nearly everything is made in-house, from the syrups to jams used in specialty drinks. 

The drinks are as aesthetically pleasing as they are rich and complex, which makes for good business and leads to a diverse clientele. “We get all sorts of people, the coffee-focused people and the social media people,” Gao explains. 

It was important for Gao to create a menu with depth, full of flavors that many had never heard of or tried. Popular signature drinks include an osmanthus flower latte with cardamom bitters and a seasonal winter beverage called “toasty” (a rooibos tea and espresso combination with house-made brown sugar inspired by a Hong Kong beverage, Yuenyeung). 

Other bestsellers are the pineapple espresso tonic, made with house-made pineapple jam, Chinese crystal rock sugar, and shaken over lime juice and tonic water, and the Vienna latte, which features house-made sweet whipping cream, a double shot of espresso, and cold milk; Gao described it as “kind of like a coffee dessert — it’s like drinking ice cream.”

To kick off the opening, the cafe hosted a “latte throwdown,” where 30 baristas from across the LA area competed in creating latte art. In the future, Gao would like to organize pour-over and latte art classes so customers can elevate their coffee at home.

Also in the works is a coffee cupping, essentially a coffee tasting, where coffee beans are coarsely ground, steeped and sipped for those interested in learning more about coffee flavor profiles. The coarsely ground beans allow for a concentrated brew, clearly indicating what the coffee will taste like and how it will perform.

In the coming months, Mandarin Coffee Stand will launch roasts from Yunnan, China, along with a tasting menu. Gao explained the distinctive Chinese coffee flavor palate — “Chinese coffee is very tropical, with hints of pineapple and papaya. It’s very sweet and often has notes of tea. “

Many people have never heard of, let alone have tried, Chinese coffee. 

“It’s amazing to have the opportunity to present Chinese coffee to more people here in LA. As a Chinese person, I’m very proud and grateful that I can do something like this,” Gao said.

“One thing we want to do is highlight specialty Asian coffees. I think that’s also what puts us on the map, and I believe we are the only cafe in LA that serves Chinese coffee. We wanted to highlight Asian coffees and Asian flavors in general.”

Mandarin Coffee Stand

The Burlington Arcade 

380 S. Lake Avenue, Suite 111, Pasadena

Instagram: @mandarincoffeestand

8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily