When I first met Oliver Castañeda a couple years ago, he was running a small coffee shop named El Gnomo (The Gnome) in downtown Tijuana in the alley known as Pasaje Gomez. When Pasaje Gomez went kaput, so did the coffee shop and most of the businesses that the Pasaje hosted.
Oliver did not resurface until a year later in a gallery called Praxis inside the popular art alley Pasaje Rodriguez. Oliver rented the corner space of the art gallery to serve coffee and pastries, but Praxis also went under, leaving Oliver with the whole locale. Being of stocky build, Oliver did not name his cafe The Gnome but went for a more classy name, Aether.
Aether’s small square space is minimalist. Everything is natural wood, black, grey, or white, with a couple of small tables and an office space in the back.
The menu is also minimal and mostly about caffeinated beverages. Food-wise, the menu has panini sandwiches and dessert croissants. The sandwiches go for $3.50 with three choices: the cheese, ham, and bacon with maple and rosemary, the marlin and cheese, and the portobello (vegan option). Add a salad and a cold pasta for $1 more or make the combo complete with a sage lemonade for $5.
With a kitchen similar to what you would find in a college dorm room, Oliver does a good job. I ordered the whole combo with the cheese, ham, and bacon panini. In a large bowl, the presentation looks great, but it’s not practical. The salad and pasta intermingle while the panini sits on top in an awkward ménage à trois.
The pasta had a kick of chili spice to it, so mixing it with the spinach and cherry tomatoes helped it cool down. The meat in the sandwich was overloaded with cheese, so the meat flavor was not as pronounced as I had hoped for. A chipotle sauce with other spices helped the flavor greatly.
I had the marlin panini on a previous visit, and it was better. The reason I keep going back, though, is for the sage lemonade. Every glass of lemonade is prepared slowly by hand by Oliver. The flavor is so rich and refreshing that if you drink it more than half-way and then dilute it with more water, it is still flavorful.
Finally, to go on my merry way, I order a drink everyone else seemed to be getting: a cortado for $1. Similar to a macchiato, a cortado is an espresso shot cut with milk. As I rarely venture outside of black coffee, I regretted my choice. However, the heart shape on the foam again made for a pretty picture.