Café Society

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Trip Report: Fábrica Coffee Roasters (Lisbon, Portugal)

Posted by on 09 Oct 2016 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Stanislav Benderschi — half-Russian, half-Portuguese — opened this coffee destination in June 2015. While far from the first local roaster/café combination within Lisbon’s city limits, it is certainly one of the most modern at doing it.

Off the Avenida da Liberdade, not far from the Restauradores Metro station, the neighborhood is like much of Lisbon these days: in transition between newer businesses, an infiltration of heavy construction equipment, and demolition of the remaining urban decay that’s still very much about. (For example, its neighbor to the south is quite literally a complete teardown.)

Alleyway that's home to Fábrica Coffee Roasters Storefront entrance to Fábrica Coffee Roasters in Lisbon

Tear-down next door to Fábrica Coffee Roasters Inside Fábrica Coffee Roasters

In front there are several streetside tables under awnings, advertising their “Best beans. Great coffee.” slogan in unabashed English. There’s a lot of English language suffused about here — such as the sign that instructs its patrons with, “No WiFi. Drink coffee.” And yet despite the International nod that this brings, Fábrica does not completely betray its Lisbon roots; it manages to successfully straddle both the local and the global.

Inside is a bit more of the typical, aging coffeehouse you might find in San Francisco in the 1990s: a mix of rough wooden furniture and chairs, brick walls, scuffed wooden floors, and a chalkboard coffee menu. In back is their Probat roaster, purchased in Germany, where they roast about weekly and accumulate a bit of their roasted coffee and merchandising for sale (T-shirts, coffee accessories, etc.).

Chalkboard coffee menu inside Fábrica Coffee Roasters Fábrica Coffee Roasters' Probat in back

Looking towards the entrance to Fábrica Coffee Roasters Fábrica Coffee Roasters merchandising and roasted coffee in back

The baristas are a friendly, international bunch — from the service-oriented Lisboeta, Claudio, to Alexander from Kiev who speaks absolutely no Portuguese. This local/global mix is also reflected in their clientele, which seems equal parts Portuguese locals and foreign expats or tourists. Mr. Benderschi has decidedly tried to establish a comfortable, albeit international, environment for Lisboetas — raising their coffee standards while banking that more will additionally seek out their roasts for home use.

There’s little to the menu here besides coffee, but who’s complaining? Using a three-group La Marzocco GB5, they pull single (€1,20) or café duplo (€1,70) shots with a thicker, medium-and-lighter-brown striped crema. The duplo is three sips short in a larger logo IPA ceramic cup. It has a full body with a solid mouthfeel and a dynamic flavor range of apple brightness, molasses, and some cloves. It’s truly gorgeous and rather exemplary.

Whereas Copenhagen Coffee Lab feels like an interloper, Fábrica manages to feel steeped enough in the local coffee culture while advancing quality standards and looking outward.

Read the review of Fábrica Coffee Roasters in Lisbon, Portugal.

Fábrica Coffee Roasters' service counter with La Marzocco machine The Fábrica Coffee Roasters' espresso

Claudio of Fábrica Coffee Roasters in the house Alexander of Fábrica Coffee Roasters, from Kiev and he doesn't speak Portuguese

Trip Report: Copenhagen Coffee Lab (Lisbon, Portugal)

Posted by on 06 Oct 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

Danish owners, Ida de Matos and twins Helle and Susan Jacobsen, created an outpost of their Copenhagen coffee laboratory mothership here in the Príncipe Real district of Lisbon. It’s a Scandinavian curiosity dropped in the middle of Portuguese coffee culture, creating something of an alternate of good quality for exploratory locals.

It’s a quiet space despite the soundtrack. Everything inside here is white: service counter, tile floors, metal stools, café tables, employees, and most patrons. The expat factor is unavoidable, with English-speaking foreign students and — sadly yes on my visit — the obligatory man bun. Inside it’s a youthful vibe, heavy on laptop zombies.

Approaching Copenhagen Coffee Lab in Lisbon Service counter inside Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Lisbon

Coffee menu inside Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Lisbon Patrons reclining in a window cove of Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Lisbon

There are a few indoor tables and odd seating options, including an isolated room in back. Shelves of coffee merchandising sit at the front and rear of the shop. They offer pastries and salads, a breakfast menu, light lunches, and even Knækbrød (Scandinavian crispbreads).

They have a particularly lengthy coffee and espresso menu, leveraging the coffee they roast at their Copenhagen headquarters and offering it also as V60, Aeropress, or Chemex. The options of the day were primarily Brazil or Kenya single origins. The barista, who will step out for a smoke given even Portugal’s non-smoking laws of the past decade, uses scales for precision weighting.

Copenhagen Coffee Lab's coffee menu in Lisbon Seating at the back room at Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Lisbon

Inside seating space, Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Lisbon Chemex brewers and coffee for use at Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Lisbon

Espresso can come as a single shot (€1,30) or a café duplo (doppio, at €2). Using a two-group Astoria machine, their default Brazil double espresso came with a medium brown, even crema. The shot was medium-to-thin-bodied with some acidic brightness on the finish: less cherry and more raspberry. It’s a rather classic light roast, with the dynamic range of the flavor profile cut short and weighted more towards brightness with some limited mid-palate.

Served in Acme & Co ceramic gray cups. A good, alternative espresso in the thick of Lisbon, However, as a visiting tourist, the experience might be a little too familiar. But then when I travel, I generally prefer things that express more of the local coffee culture — and less of what seem like cultural imports that you can practically find carbon copies of in various other cities around the world.

Read the review of Copenhagen Coffee Lab in Lisbon, Portugal.

Copenhagen Coffee Lab's Astoria machine, Lisbon The Copenhagen Coffee Lab espresso

Trip Report: Wildcraft Espresso Bar (Castro)

Posted by on 05 Sep 2016 | Filed under: Barista, Café Society, Local Brew

Former lawyer (and Xoogler), Theresa Beaumont, returned to her former neighborhood and opened this small space in Dec 2015 at the base of the Bank of the West building — following a concession the bank made to the neighborhood to retain its lower level retail space. A lesbian of color setting up shop in a predominantly gay white male neighborhood? You know it. She aims to make your brief time here in the small space “the best 10 minutes” of your day, and would you believe they do a rather good job of that?

There are a couple of small sidewalk tables out front. Inside, there’s tall glass for making the small space seem as bright and open as reasonably possible. There’s one indoor metal café table with two chairs at the front window; any more and it would feel cramped.

Entrance to Wildcraft Espresso Bar in the Castro Inside Wildcraft Espresso Bar: menu and retail coffee for sale

White walls, a concrete backsplash, some roasted coffee on display for retail sale (Ritual Roasters and Calgary, Canada’s Phil Sebastian Roasters). With the small service space behind the counters, the menu is similarly focused: espresso, drip coffee, and pastries with the curious addition of bone broth and sheep’s milk.

The baristi here are friendly and engaging. And impressively so. I’ve formally reviewed a few thousand coffee shops around the world for CoffeeRatings.com over the past 13 years, and Jordan here was arguably the coolest barista I may have ever met.

Lone table seating inside Wildcraft Espresso Bar and the sidewalk seating beyondThey pulled shots of Ritual’s Last Exit seasonal espresso blend from a shiny three-group La Marzocco GB/5. It’s daringly one-sip short, but it’s a well-crafted shot at that: pungent, dynamic, and lively with a flavor of orange zest and a strong brightness without being overly fruity.

Ritual’s coffee didn’t afford much of a healthy crema on extraction — it was thinner and a pale yellow — but that didn’t detract much from the overall quality of the end product. Served on a decorative dish, in an organically spun ceramic demitasse, with a side of sparkling water and a twist of sugared orange peel.

Read the review of Wildcraft Espresso Bar in the Castro.

Jordan preps for the Wildcraft La Marzocco GB/5 The decorative Wildcraft Espresso Bar espresso

Trip Report: Equator Coffee & Teas (Tenderloin / Mid-Market)

Posted by on 01 Sep 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

Opening in April last year, this Mid-Market outlet of the slowly growing Equator chain espouses being a decidedly populist place for coffee. Like we never heard that before. But given its location and the surrounding environs, you can’t get too precious about your coffee when you do your business among more than a few addicts, panhandlers, and the chemically enhanced. “Mid-Market” being realtorspeak these days for parts of the Tenderloin.

Surrounded by the venerable Warfield Theater and near the landmark Crazy Horse flesh-o-teria, this gentrified space is bright and decorated with inclining angles and lots of exposed concrete — warmed up with leafy green stencils/murals. They display their roasted coffees and teas for retail sale on the rear, service wall.

Sidewalk seating in front of Equator Coffee & Teas, Mid-Market Service counter inside Equator Coffee & Teas, Mid-Market

Window counter seating inside Equator Coffee & Teas, Mid-MarketInside there’s a sort of cherry wood counter with four metal stools at the service bar plus two more similar benches at either side of the entrance for window counter seating. Just beyond that, there’s sidewalk seating beneath two parasols and benches sectioned off from the sometimes-sketchy but always entertaining sidewalk traffic. They offer beer and wine on tap, sandwiches and “boards” to eat, and of course coffee: as espresso and pour-overs.

Pulling shots from a white, two-group La Marzocco FB/70, their espresso comes with an even, medium-to-dark-brown crema. It’s a relatively deep, darker espresso of fuller volume for a doppio shot: four sips large at that. The flavor has some pepper, spices, a hint of molasses, but it is a bit limiting on brightness despite some slight cherry fruit. Served in white English ceramic cups with a decorative spoon and short glass of still water on the side.

Neighboring Warfiend and Crazy Horse Murals around the corner, behind the Warfield

It’s a good shot, but I expect more. Especially when comparing it with their Mill Valley surf shop location. A place with Equator’s award-winning coffee stature really ought to do better. It barely gives a Peet’s a run for the money.

Read the review of Equator Coffee & Teas in SF’s Tenderloin / Mid-Market area.

Equator Coffee & Teas' La Marzocco FB/70 The Equator Coffee & Teas espresso, Mid-Market

Trip Report: George and Lennie (Tenderloin)

Posted by on 07 Aug 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

Opening in August 2015 in one of the rougher parts of this softening town, Brett Walker combined his experience as a former Four Barrel Coffee barista with his love of houseplants and large-format prints of his photography in establishing what is very much a personal space. It also happens to serve coffee.

On the ground floor beneath new residential apartments (The Lofts at Seven) and nearby UC Hastings and its law students, this café’s name is an homage to his favorite book (John Steinbeck). There’s often a selection of eclectic music playing on the turntable, blaring through cheap speakers.

Tenderloin murals as you approach George and Lennie Mo' mural...

Entrance to George and Lennie in the Tenderloin Service counter inside George and Lennie, with of course Brett at the helm

Besides Brett’s massive plot printer off to the side, the space includes two live-edge cut counters at the front windows with two wooden stools (courtesy of his wife, furniture designer Katie Gong). There’s also a short, two-person wood bench out front for sidewalk seating.

Inside the chairs are mismatched and, along with the occasional cactus, cover the concrete slab floors. He sells Chemex brewers, filters, and roasted coffee plus baked goods, pour-over coffee, and espresso from a three-group La Marzocco Linea Classic. There’s even a chalk menu of drinks and prices that states “Butter Coffee – Yes”.

Brett Walker's plot printer for his photographs takes up one side of the space - with houseplants Front window counter at George and Lennie

Tenderloin mural around UC Hastings, near George and LennieHe pulls shots of Four Barrel’s Friendo Blendo (he also serves De La Paz) with a moderately thick, even, medium-to-pale brown crema. Served out of a short glass jelly jar, it has a distinctive brightness that you can sense at the back of your throat and tastes of spices, some apple, and a little molasses. But this is mostly about the brightness.

Some SF smartphone zombies with a jones for the gram might whine about the lack of WiFi here, but that would detract from Brett’s one-man-show of a coffee space. This place reminds me of some of the edgier SF coffee bars of the 1990s — just with much better coffee.

Read the review of George and Lennie in SF’s Tenderloin.

Brett works his La Mazocco Linea Classic The George and Lennie espresso - served in a jelly jar

Trip Report: Sightglass (SFMOMA)

Posted by on 16 Jul 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew, Machine

This Sightglass location was announced in 2015, in the middle of SFMOMA’s three-year hiatus while being expanded into the largest modern art museum in America.

It opened with the museum in May 2016, inhabiting a modern, open air space among photography and interactive exhibits on the third floor. The space employs blonde wood and a sleek, minimalist design and is surrounded by modern sofas, small café tables, and video art installations.

Approaching the service counter at SFMOMA's Sightglass Service bay, roasted Sightglass coffee, and a Kees van der Westen Spirit machine

Stairwell to SFMOMA's 6th floorThis is the new coffee stop in the expanded museum. Cafe 5 on the fifth floor is where the former Blue Bottle Coffee at the Rooftop Garden used to be (with its three-group, manual Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso Triplette espresso machine relocating to the Outer Sunset‘s Andytown Coffee Roasters during the hiatus). Cafe 5 now serves illy coffee, and they’ve added two more floors to what was once the museum rooftop.

This was the third incarnation of SFMOMA I’ve visited — the first being at the cramped and dated War Memorial on Van Ness, where the collections were more heavily weighted towards interactive and video arts. Some of these installations have returned on the 7th floor of the new building.

Despite my inability to relate to much of the new Fisher Collection on the 5th and 6th floors, overall the new museum is quite impressive — including the extensive outdoor space. Of the new things on exhibit there, I was perhaps most drawn in by Wayne Thiebaud’s Canyon Mountains, excerpts from Jim Goldberg’s poignant Rich and Poor photography/essay series, and the gravity-bending Sequence from Outer Sunset mega-sculptor Richard Serra. Nina Katchadourian’s Under Pressure was also rather comical, but you need to put on the headphones.

Café seating among art installations at the SFMOMA Sightglass Café seating and video installations at the SFMOMA Sightglass

A line forms away from the Sightglass service counter to allow pedestrians to pass through, and behind the counter there are dueling two-group Kees van der Westen Spirit machines and bags and bags of Sightglass coffee. For retail sale they also sell their roasted coffee, over-packaged and in a reduced-size (8-oz).

Other than some pastries, it’s largely about the coffee service here. They pull shots with a complex medium-brown mottled crema of lighter thickness. It has the flavor of mild spices, some acidic brightness of lemon peel, wood, and some limited cherry fruit but yet it’s not the stereotypical Sightglass brightness bomb you’d expect. Served two-sips short in logo porcelain cups with a glass of sparkling water on the side.

About as serious an espresso shot as you will find in an American art museum.

Read the review of Sightglass at SFMOMA.

Café seating outside the service area of SFMOMA's Sightglass The SFMOMA Sightglass espresso

Trip Report: Octane Coffee / Bar (Buckhead, Atlanta, GA)

Posted by on 19 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

In the greater Mylanta area, Octane frequently ranks as one of the preeminent quality coffee chains. As an example, in December 2014 Atlanta Magazine named it the city’s best coffee chain.

This location of the seven-store, three-state chain — in Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead district — seems wedged in a building that looks like what Georgians think is the norm for Silicon Valley. Imagine if a bunch of ex-Yahoo! employees on H1-B visas decided to open a Georgia-themed biscuits and gravy shop in Sunnyvale. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

Entrance to Octane Coffee / Bar in the Atlanta Tech Village Razor scooter parking at the entrance of the Atlanta Tech Village

Coffee menu at Octane Coffee / Bar Octane Coffee's cold brew

Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village, or ATV, comes complete with airy glass-and-steel construction and designated Razor scooter parking in front (no, seriously, I am not making this up): surely 33% more startupy than the leading brand. Octane’s role here is to fit the tech worker coffee stereotype: chug coffee, write code.

Outdoors there’s patio seating in front under parasols — which don’t offer much help when Atlanta is hot enough to melt your face. (It was 100°F out, and “feels like 105°F” per my weather app, on my visit.) Inside the space curves around the outside contour of the building, with a service counter (and a King of Pops popsicle case) in front and several tables and a long, shared wooden bench towards the back. Along the glass windows there is a series of white modern stools.

They offer Japanese cold drip, a nitro-brewed iced coffee (which is rather tepid, btw), three pour-over coffee options, and espresso. Their standard blend is the Gravy Espresso.

Entering Octane Coffee / Bar in Buckhead Roasted coffee for sale at Octane Coffee / Bar

Inside the curved seating at Octane Coffee /  Bar Octane Coffee / Bar's La Marzocco Linea

Using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, they pull shots with a healthy, evenly shaded medium brown crema. It has a good mouthfeel and density and exhibits excellent flavor balance in the cup: an even blend of mild spices, some wood, and some fruit. A friend who lives in the neighborhood told me that it can run a bit green-plant bitter, but I quite liked it and thought it showed great balance and restraint while still having a thick consistency.

If there’s any complaint, it’s that it’s too smooth and lacking strongly distinctive characteristics — making this more of a multiple-times-per-day Italian style espresso. Served with sparkling water on the side in Cuisinox cups by a cringe-worthy barista who calls it “spro”.

For their cappuccino they employ detailed Rosetta latte art with restricted, overly gentle milk-foam: it’s more liquid milk blended in the body and is thus too runny or liquidy. My friend also complained about the cortado here running a bit lukewarm on the serving temperature, which could be explained by their generous use of tepid milk. But despite the sterile office park location, it’s one of the better espresso bars in town.

Read the review of Octane Coffee / Bar in Atlanta’s Buckhead District.

The Octane Coffee / Bar espresso The Octane Coffee / Bar cappuccino

Trip Report: illy Caffè (Sansome St., Financial District)

Posted by on 18 Jun 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Local Brew

I hadn’t seen the illy caffè North America crew since attending Università del Caffè at CIA Greystone. I’ve long admired them as a privately-owned company: run by cool people, with an attention to coffee quality and investments in coffee science long before anybody thought that made any sense, and even being named a world’s most ethical company for four years running now. So when they invited me to another San Francisco illy caffè opening last month, of course I accepted.

This is another illy Caffè in SF (and not another Espressamente) — this one located in the eastern shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, in the heart of the Financial District. Like the other illy caffè on Union St. that predated it, the food menu is a bit more involved and the service levels are just a touch higher than you’d get at an Espressamente.

Entrance to illy Caffè on Sansome St. in SF's Financial Distrcit The illy chandelier at 505 Sansome

Tricked out illy mobile cart and too many models in black at the illy opening Pastry counter at illy's 505 Sansome location

It’s a 1352 square-foot space capable of seating 32 patrons, and there’s the requisite illy Art Collection chandelier made of their designer cups as you walk in. Tall windows overlook the modern SF firehouse across the street with various café tables spread about for lingering.

Behind a large pastry counter (from City Bakery and Tout Sweet Patisserie) they operate a two-group La Marzocco Strada machine. With it they’ve pulled shots with a picture-perfect, medium brown tiger-striped crema of modest thickness. The flavor profile is classic illy: mild spices, wood, and a broader flavor profile. Served in designer IPA logo cups.

Inside, the illy caffè NA crew showcase the company and menu Master Barista, Giorgio Milos, looks on at the event

illy caffè NA's Mark Romano explains their coffee sourcing illy's affogato specialty drink

Milk-frothing here is good: it may not be the prettiest, but it has a good texture and density. As illy has gotten into signature drinks lately, upon visit they were featuring their summer-ready illy Espressoda and a dessert-worthy illy Cinnamon Vanilla Affogato. For those bored with good coffee.

Read the review of illy caffè on Sansome St. in San Francisco’s Financial District.

illy Caffè's La Marzocco Strada The illy Caffè espresso

Cappuccino served at illy Caffè's 505 Sansome location

Coffee Studies: John Oliver Skewers the Medical Infotainment Industry

Posted by on 09 May 2016 | Filed under: Café Society, Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

This is gonna sound cliché, but while I’ve been a longtime fan of Jon Stewart, I never quite warmed up to John Oliver.

Oh sure… on his new show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, now in its third season, Mr. Oliver can amp up the incredulity and indignation, throw in contrived comedic riffs, and preach to the choir of his liberal-minded audience as Mr. Stewart did for years on The Daily Show. But Mr. Stewart was always so much more adept at it.

Even if Mr. Oliver is trying a bit too hard to follow in Mr. Stewart’s Daily Show footsteps, there are times — like his rant on FIFA — where he can nail a topic with obliterating precision. This week’s episode on scientific research in the media did exactly that, where coffee-related medical research is one of the more popular topics among cited studies.

Readers of this ancient blog may recall many past rants of mine on many of the identical issues raised in this short — from a 2006 story about caffeine studies on rat libido to my 2008 calling out of the media-medical-research complex to a 2014 lament on the scientific shallowness of TED talks.

As Mr. Oliver says in the video:

Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: it will either save you or kill you depending upon how much you believe in its magic powers.

Reading news headlines on my Flipboard these days has been an exercise in dismay for the future fate of the species. “Science” is regularly quoted in headlines as if it were an individual person, spouting off the most inane opinions on the most vapid subjects. But these opinions are treated as fact — as if chiseled in stone and handed out from high atop the mountain.

Yet study after cited study is inevitably flawed, distorted, and/or spun as click-bait. And no matter what, each and every study is almost certainly unverified — each a quotable example of what has been brewing as science’s massive replication crisis that’s been quietly underway for the past decade. The lone hope is that the scientific process can still call out these replication gaps. But as Mr. Oliver points out:

There is no reward for being the second person to discover something in science. There’s no Nobel Prize for fact-checking.

Espresso in New Mexico (Albuquerque & Santa Fe)

Posted by on 12 Apr 2016 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Roasting

As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”

Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.

Pueblo cave homes in Bandelier National Monument Apache mountain spirit dancer, outside the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, NM

Mountains and high desert of New Mexico Lone Butte, NM is little more than a general store

New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.

I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.

Butte near Los Alamos, NM Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

Albuquerque aka ABQ aka The Duke City

It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:

Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)

The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.

Old Town Albuquerque, NM KiMo Theater, downtown Albuquerque

On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.

Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.

This restaurant from Better Call Saul simply could not exist in Albuquerque

Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?

Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.

We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.

Interstate billboard, Albququerque, courtesy of Outside Magazine Albuquerque skyline from I-25

Parking garages and glass towers in downtown Albuquerque Breaking Bad RV tours, Albuquerque

All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.

Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.

In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.

One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.

Because... Albuquerque New Mexico espresso is heavy on presentation

Santa Fe

An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.

Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.

San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe: the oldest church in America Downtown Santa Fe in the Pueblo architectural style

De Vargas Street House: one of the oldest homes in America, since 1646 Santa Fe architectural style

This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.

Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.

Snow in Santa Fe Tibet comes to Santa Fe

The Old Santa Fe trail leading into town Santa Fe Railyard beneath the Sandia Mountains

Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.

Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:

Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.

In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.

Espresso Ratings in New Mexico
Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Deep Space Coffee 504 Central Ave. SW Albuquerque 8.10 7.50 7.800
Humble Coffee Company 4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C Albuquerque 7.50 7.80 7.650
Zendo Coffee 413 2nd St. SW Albuquerque 7.50 7.50 7.500
35° North Coffee 60 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.40 5.50 6.450
Holy Spirit Espresso 225 W San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.10 6.50 6.800
Iconik Coffee Roasters 1600 Lena St., Ste A2 Santa Fe 8.10 8.20 8.150
Ohori’s Coffee Roasters 505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103 Santa Fe 5.80 5.50 5.650
Santa Fe Espresso Co. 56 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.30 7.00 7.150

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