This is one of the latest in a chain of hole-in-the-wall coffee kiosks from locals Kirk Harper and John Quintos. After Kirk and John got out of operating the defunct 330 Ritch Street nightclub after many years, they took their obsession with Lambretta motor scooters and opened Cafe Lambretta in Nob Hill a few years ago. Cafe Lambretta quickly shut down when they ran into snags licensing food sales, and they since opened a series of coffee kiosks across the city. Each is named after a Lambretta model: Cento, Vega, and the location reviewed here, Special Xtra.
The good news is that all of them serve top-notch espresso. The bad news is that all of them are openly hostile towards customer service in the name of prefabricated exclusivity and aesthetics, operating as glorified lemonade stands in dank city alleyways. While we thought Cento was about as rough as Russian toilet paper when it came to seating options, it’s even worse at Special Xtra: there isn’t even so much as a fire hydrant to sit on, and the only place we found to set down our espresso cup was the green plastic lid of a Sunset Scavenger compost bin from the neighboring loading docks behind 555 Mission St.
We honestly don’t ask for much. We don’t need a ridiculous “third place” adorned with feel-good slogans, racks of merchandising, and a Natalie Merchant soundtrack. All we ask is somewhere to sit other than the gutter — on a block that isn’t known for its heroin deals and condos made of cardboard refrigerator boxes. We’re not even asking for a toilet. But at this rate, we can only guess the next outlet in this chain will require descending a step ladder into the SF sewer system where a broken pipe sprays espresso made from untreated water into your face. Dee-lish. That will be $2. Now go tweet to all your hipster friends.
Seriously: who would have thought that a crime scene lacking any seating or bathrooms would ever become a chain concept? To think we used to make fun of Po’Folks — a “Southern homestyle cooking” restaurant chain located throughout the Southeast — because it had the novel idea of turning poverty into a restaurant concept. We honestly don’t know how Kirk and John get anything done, given that they must spend their waking hours doubled over in laughter at what they can make their customers put up with.
Hold your nose and sip your espresso
But back to the coffee…
With the decaying Transbay Terminal parking lot across Minna St., you’ll know you’ve found it when you see the Blue Bottle Coffee branding and a small line of people standing aimlessly in the middle of a sidewalk.
Using Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Espresso blend in a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull very short, potent shots with a textured, medium brown crema of good consistency and relative size. The flavor is mostly an earthy pungency, but there’s a good balance between sweetness, some brightness, and richer body earthiness: this is no overwhelming brightness bomb here, and it works quite well. On the other taste extreme, it doesn’t taste like dirt either. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
To pull off getting your customers to willingly participate in their own ridicule, you need a very good product. This place impressively delivers on both counts, and therein lies its genius.
Read the review of Special Xtra.
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