This is the kind of place that makes you proud to live in San Francisco. We knew we were in for a treat when we walked in, saw the black-and-red paint all over the space, saw the radio studio with its skull-and-crossbones banner that looks out over the café, and heard the DJ airing Motörhead and the Dead Kennedys (DKSF, as we like to call them, in contrast to DKNY). Now this is a true SF neighborhood café.
Although the associated café has only been in operation since last year, the actual Pirate Cat Radio radio station has been in operation for several years — broadcasting locally in SF at 87.9 FM, but also in L.A. and Berlin. (The FCC battles are a story in itself.)
We first stumbled across the café just a couple weeks ago — when dropping off a friend to pick up his car at one of the area’s many low-profile auto repair shops. But word can travel quickly. Last week NY-based Nicolas O’Connell of La Colombe mentioned stumbling on the place, saying how much he loved the vibe and that its coffee service was quite decent — even if it was a little in spite of itself (we concur). And rumors have it that celebrated traveling TV chef, Anthony Bourdain, stopped in last week to sample their famed bacon maple latte — likely as a segment for a planned TV episode of “No Reservations”: San Francisco?
And you can see why it warrants some of this attention. We may lament some of the tiresome hipster clichés at many SF coffee houses, but these guys seem about as genuine and authentic as they come. Operated by a station manager named Monkey (that’s now his legal name), this is a fiercely independent media novelty that runs on $30/month membership for those who want to operate their own radio shows. (Members also get a $0.50 discount on their espresso shots — and can get a beer in the back.) But it’s community-supported radio, so anybody can become a member.
In the past year, Monkey (as he told it to us) has really gotten into coffee. So much so that it inspired him to recently tour Portland and visit every Stumptown in town. Monkey has brought many of these lessons and obsessions back into Pirate Cat’s coffee operations. Their standards are a little bit all over the place (bacon maple lattes?), but yet it somehow still works for the most part. They have a modified two-group Rancilio (with two boilers and an eyebrow-raising mercury switch) and use Mission-based De La Paz Coffee.
There are a few café tables out front and several tables inside. Inside it’s black and red with artistic oddities, such as the string of gas cans along the ceiling — painted fingernail-polish red and strewn with bullet holes. At the back of the small space they even have a screen for projecting movies. One wall inside is effectively the radio booth, where café patrons can view the on-air DJ through the glass.
When we first visited, the barista on duty was brand-new and just learning the ropes with real customers. Tony, a Native American who says he represents one of the 10,000 Mayans living in the Mission, just started his own radio show playing “Red Blues” (as it’s known). He self-consciously followed all the steps — except for pouring my “for here” shot in a paper cup. Bad, bad form — but you have to give the new guy a break.
Other baristas here are obviously more experienced (we just had to revisit that same day). Even so, they tend to pull large volume shots with a medium brown, even crema. Despite its volume, it has surprisingly decent body and is quite flavorful: an interesting, mellow herbal mix of spices. (Served in red ACF cups and no saucer when they get “for here” right.)
Clearly one of SF’s most unique cafés this side of Trouble Coffee. Support your local radio … and café.
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