By Isabella Gomez
In the heart of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a tropical oasis blooms.
Brilliant magenta, yellow and green flowers sprawl over Auburn Avenue. Pink plastic flamingos spin as the spring breeze moves through the neighborhood. The balmy smell of coconut and pineapple waft through the air.
This is LottaFrutta, Myrna Perez’s eclectic “frutteria,” or fruit and smoothie shop. But more than a place to indulge in a grilled Cuban sandwich and passion fruit juice, Perez’s business is a sweet escape from the busy city – which is exactly why it’s the perfect place for students spring breaking on a budget.
“I can’t really afford to go to Destin or Miami this year,” says Will Peake, a junior at Kennesaw State University. “But I can come sit under the straw umbrellas, bask in the sun and drink a mango smoothie.”
Peake has never visited Latin America, but he believes LottaFrutta gives him a small taste of what a Caribbean vacation must feel like.
In fact, that was the inspiration between Perez’s small – albeit blossoming – business. The native Texan was born to a large Mexican family in the small border town of McAllen. She grew up spending time in her father’s citrus orchards and making “paletas,” or traditional fruit popsicles, with her grandmother. Her grandfather was also a professional fruit chef who could carve “watermelons into swans.”
When she moved to Atlanta in 2004 for a job, she desperately missed the fresh fruit stands of Mexico and McAllen. And so LottaFrutta was born two years later.
“It was like my way of bringing Mexico and the border with me to the East Coast,” Perez explains. “There weren’t at the time and there still aren’t any frutterias in Atlanta apart from LottaFrutta.”
The menu, however, spans beyond Mexican cuisine, which is why she describes it as “Pan-Latin.” Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and other countries play a large role in the restaurant’s food and décor.
Colorful tin paintings are tacked side-by-side on the locale’s tiny walls, squeezed in next to plastic palm trees. Salsa and merengue blast from the speakers every minute of the day, and a busy Perez greets customers at the counter.
“What can I get for you mamita?” she asks with smile.
Camila Izaguirre, a sophomore at Georgia State University, places her order. Izaguirre could not leave Atlanta for spring break due to a conflicting work schedule.
“The place where I’d like to go is off-limits, anyway,” she sighs. The student is originally from Venezuela but has not visited in years due to the country’s political turmoil.
Like when Perez first arrived in Atlanta, LottaFrutta provides the warm feeling of home for Izaguirre.
“It’s weird, but it’s the closest I can get to summers in my grandparents’ big house in Caracas or Morrocoy,” she says. “The taste of guanabana and the sound of Juan Luis Guerra … it really does it for me.”
A trip to Latin America may seem thousands of dollars and miles away, but for Atlanta residents, the feeling can be found just a few blocks from the BeltLine.