Notes of Tradition at Mountain Province
Inspired by flavors of home, Filipino coffee and pastries in New York City
Text by Remy Tumin | Photography by Nathan Ma
Coconut muffins always remind Ray Luna of Christmas in the Philippines. As young as six years old, alongside his grandmother Divinia in her Cebu kitchen, Ray would make these traditional Filipino treats, cooked in a clay pot with banana leaves.
“They always taste like home,” Ray says after a busy morning behind the counter. We’re sitting in the back corner table of his Williamsburg, Brooklyn coffeeshop, Mountain Province.
Ray’s coffeeshop is small and intimate, casual and comfortable – just like Divinia’s kitchen. Baristas prep drinks and menu items right on top of one another; baked goods made that morning are kept in stacking bins high above the prep stations; and trinkets and photographs from the Philippines are kept in nooks and shelves displayed around the shop.
“I always wanted the décor to be inspired by my grandmother and her kitchen,” Ray says. “including those two baby Jesuses.” The two colorful ceramic icons are on the top shelf of a display cabinet in the back, an homage of sorts to Divinia – the cabinet is identical to the one in his grandmother’s kitchen.
Mountain Province opened in 2013 as a joint effort between Ray and his parents, Ray, Sr. and Clarissa Luna. Today, his husband Joe and two friends are also business partners. Housed in the bustling Williamsburg neighborhood, an epicenter for boutique businesses, the shop regularly draws in guests from all boroughs and quickly secured its place as Yelp’s top coffeeshop in all of New York City. A few blocks from Mountain Province you can find yourself in the center of a Dominican village or the heart of the Hasidic community, but step inside Ray’s joint and you’re easily transported to Cebu. From the palm tree wallpaper to the smell of Filipino coffee and lure of beautiful, traditional sweets, it feels as though the islands are calling.
It comes as no surprise the coffee shop has been Ray’s fate. Back in the Philippines, his family ran a little lunch spot across the street from the University of San Carlos and, later on, a bakery. “I grew up mostly with food, and that stems from my grandmother, Divinia, the baker of the family,” Ray recalls. “She paid for six children to go to college by baking cakes.” Despite having a successful nursing career in New York, Ray’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to consider opening a business. He and his family toyed with a few ideas, including opening a laundromat, but in the end a coffeeshop made the most sense. “[If] there’s only one thing we know how to do, it’s food,” Ray laughs.
The best part of the new business was that they could do it together as a family. At any given time you can find Ray, Joe or his parents behind the counter, hands-on involved in the day-to-day operations. The coffeeshop originally started with only a few pastries – a scone, bread, muffins – but they quickly realized customers were eager for more options, both savory and sweet.
In order to develop their new food program, Ray turned to the flavors of his grandmother. His mother had brought Divinia’s treasured notebook from overseas, full of recipes from her days churning butter for cakes in the Philippines. “The whole idea was to make something familiar [to New Yorkers], but with the flavors true to what we know [as Filipinos].”
That concept held true for the coffee of Mountain Province; its name comes from the region where the beans are sourced in the Philippines. At the time, local coffee was a movement that had taken off in the Philippines but received little exposure overseas. “There really weren’t any coffee shops here that sourced directly from the Philippines,” Ray recalls. “I thought, this is a great idea – it’s a totally different flavor profile.” Filipino beans have earthy qualities with flavors like vanilla, caramel and tobacco but are roasted on a lighter, or blonder, scale which makes these traditionally heavy notes become subtle and bright.
Ray hands me a cold brew and a square of cassava cake. “Try it without milk,” he suggests. Because the Filipino flavor is lighter in flavor, he always nudges newcomers to try the brew unadulterated. Sure enough, the chocolate and vanilla notes come alive in the coffee, a perfect complement to the lightly sweetened pudding cake. For those unfamiliar with cassava cake, imagine bread pudding meets flan topped with the caramelization of a crème brulée.
Come by Mountain Province and you’ll always find Ray behind the counter with his reliable crew of friends, family and baristas, ready to introduce a newcomer to Filipino coffee and one of his grandmother’s treats. In a city where food or drink fads are born and die overnight, it’s nice to know that tradition holds fast in this small corner of Brooklyn.
Mountain Province is located at 9 Meserole St., Brooklyn, NY. For more information visit mountainprovincecoffee.com.