There were never any chairs at Bad Wolf Coffee, a beloved Chicago coffee shop known for its stellar pastries. You don’t think much about chairs until they aren’t there. There was a table customers could stand at, but the message was clear—don’t linger. When Val Taylor, a former Bad Wolf employee and supertalented pastry chef, took over the space a couple of years ago, one of the first things she did was add chairs. It was a small correction that significantly changed both the way the space worked and felt. Taylor also changed the name to Loba, Spanish for wolf, or more specifically she-wolf. The name is perfect.
Taylor moved to the states from Guadalajara when she was a teenager. Raised by women who cared about food and cooking, she gravitated toward it too, though she didn’t imagine pursuing it professionally. By the time she made her way to Chicago in her early 20’s, she found herself working a job she didn’t care about and searching the want ads for other opportunities. She saw that a restaurant called Blackbird was searching for a pastry assistant. Despite not having experience, or even a sense of what Blackbird was (one of the greatest fine dining rooms in the city) she talked her way into the job and under the wing of the pastry crew headed by Patrick Fahy. She liked the work, learned quickly, and before long she was confident that that was what she wanted to do. That initial training lead to a bunch of other experiences in impressive kitchens in Chicago and New York. Often staging for experience in between paid kitchen gigs. She had a lot of energy and was eager to learn everything she could.
But like many people who spend much time in the industry, Taylor gradually found herself feeling exhausted by the work and uncertain about her future. It seemed hard to imagine maintaining the fine dining restaurant grind—the hours, the repetition, the creative restrictions. She took a job working in an office in the suburbs because it seemed to make practical sense, but it quickly made her miserable. She laughs now remembering how often she would try to cheer herself up with a trip to Margie’s Candies after work, “Eventually they didn’t even need to ask for my order.” She’d found herself back where she started, working a job she wasn’t invested in and thinking about food.
Taylor had heard from friends about a coffee shop in Lakeview that was making great pastries. She woke up early one morning on a day off and decided to give it a try. She was existential crisis-ing and spent the walk contemplating her future. She knew when she entered Bad Wolf that is was something special and told the owner, Jonathan Ory, that she wanted to work there. He didn’t need an employee at the time, but somehow Taylor charmed (bullied?) her way into the kitchen, and found herself baking there in her free time.
When Bad Wolf closed (Ory moved out of state) it was resurrected and reinvented by Taylor (and partner Coyote DeGroot) as Loba, the name inspired by a story about an alpha female wolf in Yellowstone known for her dominance. It was Taylor’s opportunity to make the space her own. The name change brought with it those chairs, wifi, and smiles—a kinder, gentler, wolf, in some ways. In others, it was much more fierce—its potential realized. The physical space became more intentional, weirder, goth-ier (?). A collection of clocks on the wall tell us the time in Winnipeg, Chicago, Veracruz, and Belize, randomly (Taylor can’t explain it either). There is a possibly ironic shrine to Steve Dolinsky, famous headshot-wielding Chicago restaurant critic/shill; and a collection of miniature plastic body parts surrounding the tip jar. In a sense, the space became itself, or herself. It also features Taylor, a compelling character, and her small staff who spend the mornings greeting and chatting with regulars. It’s fun to get Taylor talking about her food, the excitement is contagious. She always humors me when I bombard her with questions about how something is made. Most mornings you’ll find her running up the stairs to check on something in her shoebox of a kitchen between pours of coffee and conversation.
And that kitchen is the most important change, the pastry game became smart and adventurous, and for me, some of the most exciting stuff in Chicago. It really howls. Taylor often draws on flavors and forms from her native Mexico. She makes a remarkable Tres Leches cake using sourdough, cajeta caneles, and a mole croissant (although, philosophically, she’d like everyone to get over their obsession with “fucking croissants”). But there are other influences, a matcha cheese danish, a violet-glazed buckwheat cake, a ham and cheese kouign-amann (vestiges of her fine dining days?). She’s as likely to make something vegan or gluten free as she is not. A Pineapple and Sourdough muffin I recently ordered was both it turned out, but I would’ve been sure it was mostly wheat and butter. Her decisions to include or exclude seem determined by outcomes rather than diet concerns. She also plays with sweetness, pushing into savory territory at times.
On a recent visit I asked Taylor about why the shop hasn’t gotten more press—I remain confused by how under the radar it has flown, despite my own excitement and proselytizing. I hypothesized that it is partially a pastry problem, historically the most neglected part of kitchens, which of course is wrapped up in gender problems—they’re often staffed by females. She didn’t disagree, but she also suggested it was partially her fault. She admits to being bad at seeking out press and also, “I’m a punk. I’m too unpredictable.” She explained that what has happened in the past is that something she made would get press, a chocolate cardamom muffin, let’s say, and then customers would show up wanting to try one, but it wasn’t there. Usually because Taylor got tired of making it and moved on to other things.
This becomes part of the deal you strike as a regular at Loba, it’s unpredictable. You might find something you truly love, and you may never see it again. You gotta trust in Taylor—trust that the thing you love will be replaced by something equally delicious. It leads to another kind of regular, the kind of regular who is game for whatever. A devotee. It keeps things interesting for Taylor, she’s operating on her own terms and every day can be an adventure. Her years in kitchens taught her a lot about what she needs to sustain this work for herself and she is not going to get stuck making the same thing every day. She has found creative freedom (and better hours) at Loba, and we all benefit.
One of the few things that show up regularly in the Loba pastry case is Taylor’s Pepita Crunch Bar, inspired by florentine cookies and palanquetas de cacahuate. It is a good example of why she is so great, and the recipe works like a dream for home cooks. An oat bar base is topped with a mix of nuts and seeds bound together by a honey caramel sauce. The recipe can easily be made vegan by subbing the butter for Earth Balance (something she does regularly) and the honey for golden syrup. Makes a whole bunch, so be prepared to share with friends or strangers. The nut/seed mix can be adjusted to taste as long as the weight stays about the same—though this combo is pretty perfect (“because aesthetics” says Taylor)
Loba Pastry + Coffee is located at 3422 N Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.
Pepita Crunch Bar by Val Taylor of Loba Pastry + Coffee
- 250g all purpose flour
- 200g old-fashioned rolled oats
- 5g baking powder
- 200g Earth Balance baking stick (If using dairy butter bump it to 220g)
- 225g light brown sugar
- 2g of salt
Caramelized nut topping:
- 125g roasted and unsalted peanuts (no skins)
- 50g slivered or sliced almonds
- 25g black sesame seeds
- 75g sugar
- 40g honey (use golden syrup if making these vegan)
- 3g salt
- 3 tablespoons water
- 100g Earth Balance (or equal amount of dairy butter)
Preheat oven to 375F. Line a quarter sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.
To make the oat base:
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, and baking powder. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and salt together until light and fluffy, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides and bottom of bowl. Add the dry ingredients in three additions and mix until fully combined and dry ingredients are no longer visible. Dump dough out into prepared pan and use your hands to flatten it into an even layer.
Bake for 14-17 minutes, or until light golden brown. Allow to cool while you make the caramelized topping. (oat base can be made a day in advance)
To make the caramelized nut topping:
Combine the nuts and seeds in a small bowl and set next to your stove.
In a small saucepan combine the sugar, honey, salt, and water and cook over medium-high heat until a golden sunset tone–kind of a medium amber. Turn down heat to lowest setting and whisk in the butter, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until you have a smooth caramel. Immediately add the nuts and seeds and stir to coat. Working quickly, pour the caramelized nut topping over the oat base and use an offset spatula to spread it into an even layer. The topping will get more difficult to spread as it cools, but don’t sweat it because you’ll get another chance….
Return the pan to the oven for 7-10 minutes, which will help bond the topping to the base. When you remove the pan from the oven, you can now spread out any of the caramelized nut topping that had clumped up. The warmth of the oven will have loosened things up.
Allow to cool to room temperature before cutting into bars.