Dry yerba leaves float to the top of a mate freshly filled with hot water, and ready to sip through the bombilla.
Fans of tea and coffee have an intriguing new flavor to explore in Pacific Beach. Yerba Mate Bar opened last week, San Diego’s first café dedicated to the caffeinated beverage of choice for the southern half of South America, including Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The region’s native yerba plant, a relative of holly, has been brewed into tea there for centuries, first by indigenous peoples, and later European colonials who discovered they too adored it.
956 Garnet Ave, San Diego
The Argentinian family behind the new café are the same folks behind Paraná Empanadas, known to attract long lines in Liberty Public Market and Westfield UTC mall. The good news for Paraná fans is empanadas are served here too, along with other Argentinian snacks such as chipas (cheesy, gluten free tapioca bread treats) and alfajores, short bread cookie sandwiches made with either dulce de leche or chocolate centers.
But it’s the chance to experience the complex flavors of yerba that truly warrants a visit to PB. And for those of us struggling with the name, they say the correct Argentinian pronunciation for yerba mate is something like Cher-va mah-tay.
A simple, stylish counter shop serving empanadas and a litany of yerba drinks
Yerba is so beloved, an entire culture has evolved around its preparation and consumption. The yerba is brewed in gourds or gourd shaped mugs (a.k.a. mates), and sipped through a curved straw called a bombilla (bom-beeya if you took high school Spanish, bom-beesha if you want to be hip to the yerba lingo). Made from metal or wood, bombillas won’t be affected by our recent plastic straw ban. They’re filtered, to keep yerba matter from sucking through.
The leaves remain in the gourd as you drink. In fact, yerba is served as a gourd full of dry leaves, alongside a thermos of hot water. The idea is continually to add water as you drink. Traditionally, a small group of friends will sit around sharing a single mate and bombilla, passing the gourd with each refill of water.
The back patio at Yerba Mate Bar lets customers sit outside, away from the street life on Garnet Avenue.
We don’t share so well here in the U.S. of A., and the operators of Yerba Mate Bar fully expect we will want our own. They’ve even innovated a few cold brew and latte variations for us to order in a single-use cup. Some of the nontraditional brews incorporate flavor adds such as chocolate milk, rose or lavender petals, or chai tea. The cold brews are based on tererés, the refreshing summertime drinks Argentinians make by adding orange juice to cold yerba.
I got a kick out of the bar’s so-called cooler ($4.25), an iced green concoction featuring lemonade and mint. But first I had to get my head around the flavors within a gourd of traditional, unadulterated yerba mate ($5.75). The order involves a 16-ounce thermos of hot water and a small gourd-shaped mug of dried yerba. The folks behind the counter will happily get the first pour started for you, but if you’d like to nail the process yourself, here’s what you do.
Ensure the bombilla maintains contact with the bottom of the mug, and resist the urge to stir as you drink. However, when getting started, use it to push dry leaves to one side of the gourd, creating space to add the first round of hot water. As you add water to this space, let the leaves at the top remain dry — these will add flavor in future rounds as you continue the drinking and brewing process.
The first round may come off a little bitter from the leaves’ tannins. I was instantly reminded of green tea, or more precisely green tea matcha, with a slightly vegetal umami richness. After a few sips, my palate started acclimating to its earthiness, and the beverage continued to evolve as I continued to pour and sip. I found hints of chocolate, mint, and nut, and — just like that, I’m a yerba fan.