In Good Taste: Pacific Beach boasts first yerba mate bar in San Diego

The lunch combo includes three empanadas, a drink and side of soup or salad

In Good Taste:

A South American drink has come to Pacific Beach, creating a quiet revolution of “medicinal” tea drinkers. Yerba Mate Bar & Empanadas, open on Garnet Avenue for the past six months, is showing San Diegans another way to get their caffeine — and a whole lot of potential health benefits to boot.

Yerba mate is a tea that’s been enjoyed for many centuries (especially in Argentina) for good reason. It’s naturally caffeinated, a rich source of powerful antioxidants (more than green tea) and packed with B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, potassium and manganese. The Pope has been photographed drinking it, as well as former President Barack Obama. Yerba mate can give you sustained energy, mental clarity and focus without the caffeine crash, according to fans.

For those on the go, the menu features mate in a variety of lattes — including Dulce de Leche (salted or unsalted), Rosa, Dirty Chai, Lavender, and Corto (vegan chocolate). Or you can just have a shot of the yerba mate, much like an espresso shot. The restaurant also offers coffee drinks and an array of lemonades.

But if you want to experience yerba mate the traditional way, you may indulge in the “mate ritual.” Owner Lucia Landman explains: “The traditional way is with the gourd, the bombilla and the thermos — so it’s not just a coffee to go. It’s something we take our time to enjoy — either by yourself in the morning or when you get together in the afternoon with friends to share a mate. It’s more like a social thing than an actual drink. We have conversations over drinking mate, and that’s something I wanted to share with the community here in San Diego.”

Landman describes the mate ritual step by step: “You start with a gourd, which can be metal, ceramic, wood — there are many different types. And then you put in the bombilla, which is a straw with a little filter on the bottom. Then you put in the yerba mate, the tea. It comes loose, so you add it inside the cup. There’s a certain way to pour the water. You’re supposed to use hot water, not boiling water, so it’s just the right temperature. And then you drink from the straw, without moving it around. You only drink the liquid, not the actual tea.”

Landman said she grew up Buenos Aires, Argentina, where drinking yerba mate with her family and friends was a daily practice. She described her family as “very foodies,” adding, “most of our conversations at every gathering were around the food — What are we going to eat? What are we going to bring?”

After moving to the United States, her parents began selling empanadas at farmers markets throughout San Diego. They eventually opened a food kiosk at Liberty Station Public Market, four years ago, and another one in the UTC area two years ago.

Boiled egg and avocado toast

But the family continued to search for a third location, and Landman had something a little different in mind this time around. “We wanted to find a place where we could have our own seating,” she explained, “and our own patio. And we wanted to add the yerba mate tea concept to it. So this PB location is like my baby; the other ones we mostly did as a family.

“When we walked down Garnet Avenue and saw this space was available, we arranged to see the inside. And when we walked into the patio, we were like, ‘This is it! This is our space.’ The patio is totally unexpected.” The space used to be occupied by Fat Sal’s sandwich shop and the patio had been closed off and unused for years.

Landman said she knew from a very young age that she wanted to do something related to food and people. She got her degree from San Diego State University in Hospitality & Tourism Management, with an emphasis in restaurants. “I worked as a waitress to gain some experience, and I loved it,” she said.

Along with drinks, the menu offers empanadas in 12 varieties, plus salads, açaí bowls and numerous toasts (as in avocado and otherwise). Any time you buy six empanadas, the seventh is free.

Landman said her dream is to stay in the area for “many, many years” and continue to see more people drinking yerba mate. “We’re trying to bring a bit of our Argentinian culture here and we’re organizing some workshops to be held on the patio in the coming months — possibly flower arranging, macramé and postcards.” Yerba Mate Bar has already held some yoga classes in the space.

— Yerba Mate Bar & Empanadas is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 956 Garnet Ave. (858) 900-3309.