Photos by Ted Soqui

Photos by Ted Soqui

By Christina Campodonico

(Click here to see photo essay of how chocolate is made. Photos by Ted Soqui)

Going to ChocoVivo is like stepping into a chocolate lover’s all-natural, field-to-table dream.

Hand-packaged chocolate bars containing 54% to 100% cacao line its wooden shelves. Tasting squares lie temptingly beneath a glass counter, like beautifully laid out tiles. Little bottles of yellow chocolate rose oil are prepared in the kitchen, like an apothecary’s special aphrodisiacs. Stone-ground and cold-pressed Cacao Mylk chills in the fridge, while hot coco sensuously steams from earthy pottery mugs.

But for ChocoVivo owner Patricia Tsai, chocolate is not simply an indulgence. It’s a way of life.

“Most people see chocolate as a truffle, or something you eat at night, but it truly is a meal,” says Tsai, who keeps a banana and a jar of black-sesame chocolate butter in her car to keep her going throughout the day. “Chocolate is truly food, not a candy or confection.”

That philosophy is woven into every step of ChocoVivo’s chocolate-making process — from bean to bar.

The boutique chocolate shop on Washington Boulevard sources its cacao beans directly from a family-owned plantation in Tabasco, Mexico. There the beans are fermented for two to three days, dried in the sun and winnowed down into smaller bits called cacao nibs.

When the nibs arrive in ChocoVivo’s kitchen, they are lightly roasted and ground into a cacao liquor the traditional Mayan and Aztec way — with weighty round lava stones.

A machine does the heavy grinding, but human hands do the rest. Chocolate makers pour the chocolaty goop that comes out of the grinder onto papered baking pans and spread the liquor into thin sheets of chocolate, which harden into bars after 20 minutes in a freezer. These sheets are then stored in the “Chocolate Vault” until they’re hand-sliced into tasting squares, packaged up as bars or tossed into boiling milk for hot chocolate — sipping chocolate, as it’s called here.

ChocoVivo doesn’t conch or temper its chocolate, meaning that it doesn’t use high-powered rollers to refine the gritty liquor (conching), nor heat and cool (temper) the chocolate to make it appear shiny and smooth. Aside from a little extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, some spices and chilies — and maybe some nuts or dried fruit — nothing else is added to the liquor: no dairy, no cacao butter, no soy.

“It’s a raw process,” says chocolate-maker Eric Ballin. “It’s literally just nuts and chocolate.”

In other words, what Tsai (a former accountant who ditched the cubicle life seven years ago) and her team makes is probably the closest thing you’ll get to pure chocolate. The bits and bites I sample are not shiny, sweet or smooth like a common commercial chocolate bar. Most have a doughy, chewy or velvety texture, a very dark brown color and a slightly chalky taste.

But there’s something refreshing about savoring only the essential ingredients. Citrus fragrances lift off the blood-orange chocolate sheets. A luscious raspberry ribbon runs through a coffee raspberry chocolate slice. Almonds give the cherries, almonds and black peppercorns bar a chunky crunch, and the cherries offer an occasionally gooey center.

I finish off my taste test with a glass of cinnamon-spiced Mayan Tradition Cacao Mylk and a crunchy cacao bean covered in honey crystals, cinnamon and sugar. It has a sweet start and a smoky finish.

Much like this dichotomy of flavor, I came to ChocoVivo expecting purely sweet desserts, but I left with a newfound appreciation for the bittersweet depth of flavor lingering on my tongue and the intensive labor and care it took to get it there.

ChocoVivo is at 2469 W. Washington Blvd. in the Culver City panhandle. Call (310) 845-6259 or visit