In a time when cold-press juiceries are relentlessly on trend, and often relentlessly expensive, Jugos Azteca in Highland Park is keeping juices old-school. For the last 21 years, the tiny juice shop on York Boulevard has been making Mexican-style fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, tortas, tostadas, Mexican-style gelatin and other simple Mexican snacks for the Latinos who’ve lived in the neighborhood for decades, as well as some of the newer residents who appreciate the value and the flavors of the fresh and colorful drinks.
“We have customers who are waiting for us to open at 5:30 a.m. every day to get a green juice for breakfast and then a torta for lunch before they go to work,” said the shop’s owner, Efrain Peña, 44, in Spanish, as he took a break from recording his daily sessions on Instagram.
The small, neon-green building that houses Jugos Azteca stands out from the rest of the neighborhood’s newer style of muted colors. Signs advertising everything from “Ricas Tostadas” to “Diablitos” and the red tables and chairs outside are as colorful as the juices themselves.
We have customers who are waiting for us to open at 5:30 a.m. every day to get a green juice for breakfast and then a torta for lunch
— Efrain Peña
Recently, the shop has been getting a lot more customers, folks who are coming to meet the voice behind @jugos_azteca, on which Peña posts videos, lots of videos, sometimes as many as 30 a day, sometimes racking up 5,000 views in a few hours. (Peña’s year-old account currently has 14,000 followers.)
“It’s gotten to the point where he’s recognized by fans and stopped when we’re out eating,” said Peña’s oldest son, 20-year-old Raul, who initially taught his father how to use the app. “At first I was like, ‘Dad! That’s a little weird!’ But now, I see the growth in our sales and how far people come just to try our food. It’s amazing.”
Most of the videos document the playful banter in Spanish between the folks who work at Jugos Azteca, including Peña’s two sons — 14-year-old Randy helps out when he’s not in school — and wife Veronica. On one video, Peña calls out Randy for not having a girlfriend and creates a hashtag for him (#buscandonovias); another shows Peña slicing cucumbers with a knife directly into his green agua fresca for a daily special; in another he narrates each layer that goes into their pambazo, a Mexico City-style grilled torta that’s dunked in red chile.
Peña’s signature greeting is always “chavalones,” his goodbye "fierro,” and followers can often hear his customers repeating the words to him while ordering juices and raising their fists.
Peña said he began making juices and tortas “out of necessity,” as an immigrant with only a middle-school education. Originally from Ensenada, Mexico, Peña moved to Highland Park in 1986. He met his wife, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Morelos, Mexico, with her family, while working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restuarant. Before opening Jugos Azteca, Peña worked in over 20 different restaurants — including, from 1997 to 2000, a taco stand on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.
“I go into some of these new places opening in the area and I can’t afford anything,” said Elvira Aguilar, who has known Efrain and Veronica Peña since they were all in high school down the street, and stopped by for a carne asada torta. She’s been a loyal customer since Veronica first started making freshly pressed juices at El Huarache Azteca, her mother’s restaurant (beloved in the community for its huaraches, grilled and loaded sandal-shaped disks of masa) a hundred feet away. That was 21 years ago, when Veronica and Efrain still shared El Huarache Azteca’s space to sell their juices. In 2008, their current space became available and they moved their entire operation there. (You can still order a juice from Jugos Azteca from the menu at El Huarache Azteca and someone will run it over for you.)
The recipes for the juices were created by Veronica’s grandmother in Morelos, who developed the blends believing that they help with common ailments.
The medicinal applications for juices have been used in Mexico for decades, and thanks to the recent trend of juicing in American culture, Peña and his family have seen an uptick in their sales. And that’s in addition to the customers who come to the shop on the weekends for the $1.25 tostada special.
“I never would have imagined today’s Highland Park,” Peña said, though he also noted that “the neighborhood is also lot more tranquil than it was in the past.” Smiling, his cellphone in his hand, he said he’s not planning on leaving anytime soon.
“My aguas frescas are $1 and they keep everybody happy,” he said, “no matter where the customer is from.”
5213 York Boulevard, Highland Park, (323) 254-4555, Instagram: @jugos_azteca.