After my discouraging visit to the much-lauded Ohori’s Coffee Roasters, I was worried that the coffee wasn’t getting much better in Santa Fe. Then I arrived at Iconik.
Opened in May 2013 by Albuquerque native Natalie Slade, her brother Darren Berry, and their longtime friend Todd Spitzer, this café inspires a bit of local controversy. Some of the controversy originates from the intentions of this team: with Ohori’s being such a beloved local institution, they opted for more defiance and a dare — down to naming their flagship espresso blend “Iconoclast”.
The rest of the controversy comes down to Santa Feans, as evidenced in local social media commentary and reviews. Although many locals have taken to Iconik, some seem a little resentful of the interloper — complaining about the coffees being roasted too lightly, about the service staff being too arrogant and snobbish, or perhaps even just expressing resentment over a $3 espresso.
Only the second commercial coffee roaster to open in Santa Fe, their roasts are decidedly lighter — even if they are made in a very rare, 1927 vintage Otto Swadlo roaster that was found in an Oregon warehouse. The roaster sits at the café’s rear entrance.
There’s outdoor patio seating in front with cushioned patio tables and chairs. Inside there are cement floors, a counter with stools, a long shared wooden table, multiple short café tables at the window seats, and even a sofa — giving it more of a vibe like a brighter version of SF’s The Grove.
It’s a little loungey, and it would be a hipster magnet if not for New Mexico’s dearth of self-aware hipsters. There are also a number of older and colorful local Santa Fe patrons about, as the neighborhood is deep into the cheaper rents in town. There’s a wall of merchandising with Chemex equipment, grinders, and roasted coffee. They serve salad, bagels, and lunch items, but it’s all about the coffee.
Using a three-group La Marzocco Strada, they pulled a shot of their single origin Sumatra Takengon Mandheling as the house espresso for the day. It came with a mottled medium-to-dark brown crema, a solid body, a good pungency, but little spice: a more narrowband flavor profile due to its single origin (not their Iconoclast espresso blend). Served as a long three sips in black Espresso Parts cups with sparkling water on the side.
I normally prefer a more complex flavor profile for my espresso, but it was interesting — daring for Santa Fe even. And I had every indicator to expect that their Iconoclast blend wouldn’t be half-bad.
Milk-based drinks come with rosetta latte art and gentle, even, quality milk frothing that somewhat integrates well with the espresso emulsion. Their V60 pour-overs are properly flavorful and included options such as a Mexico Oaxaca, a Guatemalan Panchoy, their Sumatra Idido Yirgacheffe, and Panama Hacienda La Esmerda.
There is simply no contest about the best coffee in Santa Fe. Local loyalty to Ohori’s seems analogous to South Africa’s complicated relationship with the ANC: i.e., deep appreciation for something revolutionary achieved decades ago, but selectively blind to all of its shortcomings and failings in the years ever since.
Some local haters might complain of the “burning acidity” of Iconik’s lighter roasts, but anything to make it taste this side of Ohori’s ashy wet fireplace is a good thing in my book. As for complaints of arrogant service, that’s always the risk when you’re dealing with someone who is really into their coffee. Customers can feel insecure, if not offended, when they casually order their favorite caffè latte and are suddenly confronted with a question such as, “Do you want it with the Sumatra Takengon Mandheling or the Mexico Oaxaca?” The nerve of those arrogant bastards.
Santa Feans deserved better, and they’re now finally getting it. But it’s not just for Santa Fe. I’d very much enjoy coming to a place like this wherever it’s located.
Read the review of Iconik Coffee Roasters in Santa Fe, NM.
This is a difficult trip report to author. Because on the one hand, we have to pay respects to what Ohori’s Coffee Roasters pioneered in Santa Fe, NM. But on the other hand, we have to call out product failures as we experience them.
Like Peet’s, Ohori’s Coffee started as a take-home bean sales store. Also like Peet’s, as consumer preferences changed over the years, it evolved into a retail coffee beverage shop. This was particularly innovative in Santa Fe, where communal “third places” are rare and most social gatherings take place in private homes. Susan Ohori sold the company to her longtime accountant in 2002, and the tiny chain has operated rather consistently to this day under the “newer” ownership.
This location on Cerrillos Road was the second retail shop they opened, and of the two it is designed to be more of a social gathering space. As I entered, even without knowing Ohori’s Peet’s origin story, I felt like I was in another Peet’s chain café. There are four café tables offering sparse seating in a vast space with tall ceilings with exposed wooden framing. There’s a service counter setup with a heavy emphasis on bean and leaf sales that looks lifted out of the Peet’s interior design catalog. And as for the roasted coffees themselves, many hearken back to a flavor profile of dark roasted ashiness popularized by Peet’s some 40 years ago.
There’s a wall of merchandising (cups, machines, Chemex and pour-over paraphernalia), and the art on the walls here is generously showcased without commission.
As for the retail coffee service, they may have dated roots but have not missed out on many coffee fads. They offer pour-overs, buttered coffee for those most recently into Paleo snake oil, and as a sort of health thing they avoid syrups and artificial sweeteners. Ask for a flat white, which is still not yet on the menu, and they will know how to make you one.
Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they pull espresso shots in a short paper cup (what’s that the deal with that?) with a creamy-looking medium brown crema of a smooth texture that’s relatively thin. There’s a definite ashy edge to the cup: it’s very harsh with a flavor combination of smoke and ash. This is not a pleasant espresso, and we have consumed hundreds of cups of outright rot-gut espresso before.
And yet Ohori’s has won the “Best of Santa Fe” by the Santa Fe Reporter for 7 of the last 10 years, and even the New York Times recently recommended this location in a 36-Hours piece. At first this lead me to believe that many local fans of the place must rarely ever drink the espresso straight here.
But if that were only the case. The milk-frothing here is dishwater-like: thin with irregular bubbles, producing what seems like little more than milk-flavored air. My wife found the macchiato to be simply undrinkable and abandoned it after the first sip. She never does that. I tried it and sympathized with her assessment. I’ve never experienced this at a Peet’s Coffee, for example.
Thus we can’t be sure that the coffee adoration here is rooted in local loyalty, nostalgia, or layers of milk and natural sweeteners that disguise the raw taste of their espresso. There may be other product lines worth trying besides their straight espresso and macchiato. Ohori’s offers medium- and even light-roasted coffees, even though they believe you often need a medium roast to at least develop the coffee’s flavor more fully — of which I am generally in agreement.
But when the core espresso is this dubious for a best-in-town consideration, something is clearly wrong. And I would be the last person some might accuse of being a Third Wave apologist. Unless you are a die hard, dark roasted Peet’s Coffee fan, we have to recommend that you seek your coffee elsewhere in Santa Fe.
Here in that other SF, this postage-stamp-sized espresso kiosk has a very outsized reputation, and why not? The husband and wife team of Bill and Helen Deutsch got their espresso start in Seattle back in the early 1990s era of ubiquitous coffee carts. They brought that same spirit to Santa Fe and have been operating here since 1993.
Which makes Holy Spirit Espresso akin to an archeological find designed to puzzle future anthropologists; it’s like finding 1990s Seattle espresso cart DNA in the middle of the New Mexico high desert. And like an origin story, its name is the English name for the town.
Out in front of the cart cubbyhole are four four metal chairs and two small tables along the sidewalk with a lone parasol above them. Inside is essentially a parked mobile cart dominated by a two-group Synesso machine (formerly a La Marzocco) — surrounded in a bizarro motif of various postcards, photographs, foreign money, and travel tchotchkes covering every one of the few square inches inside the tiny space.
There’s even St. Drogo, the patron saint of coffee. (He’s also the patron saint of ugly people, but we’re not going to infer anything from that.)
Using old Astoria grinders and very-Seattle Caffé d’Arte bags of coffee, Bill or Helen pulls a shot with a medium brown striped crema of modest thickness. The doppio ($2.25) is filled extra high in the cup. It has an old world Italian-leaning flavor profile of mild tobacco smokiness, spices, and some woodiness and is served in mismatched ceramic cups without saucers when you ask “for here”.
The milk-frothing is dense, not too airy, and with uneven microfoam bubbles. Posted as a “Best of Santa Fe 2012” winner, Bill was awarded for best local barista. No matter when, they’re still pretty good and you have to do something right for such a tiny business to remain in operation this long.
Read the review of Holy Spirit Espresso in Santa Fe, NM.
This central Santa Fe coffee house resides in the Santa Fe Arcade on the 2nd Floor. Opening in December 2015, it was developed as a new coffee house “concept” by an area restaurant group lead by Gerald Peters called Santa Fe Dining Inc.
Yes, apparently coffee has become a restaurant theme in America, with this concept being self-described as “full-service third wave coffee house”. Which only underscores how the term third wave has become the modern coffee equivalent of the hackneyed gourmet label from the 1980s.
We’ve been mocking the wannabe hipster use of third wave for a decade now, so most of you are probably glad we’ve largely given it a rest over the years. But ten years later and we’re still surprised that so many relative newbie coffee lovers come to its defense — and so much so that desperate marketers continue to use it.
For the many Millennials who were too young to know the 1980s, a little social history lesson about the term gourmet may provide context. As Wikipedia notes for the word:
In the United States, a 1980s gourmet food movement evolved from a long-term division between elitist (or “gourmet”) tastes and a populist aversion to fancy foods.
Sound anything like the many curmudgeons today who seem offended by the mere existence of “fancy coffee”? Also note that this transformation followed the establishment of supposed “second wave coffee” stalwarts such as Starbucks and Peet’s.
The 1980s saw the popularization of many otherwise commodity foodstuffs to an elevated status with an obligatory gourmet label. Orville Redenbacher became synonymous with gourmet popcorn. Jelly Belly popularized the concept of gourmet jelly beans. Lather, rinse, repeat. Thus at the time, the word gourmet became a sort of shorthand nudge-and-wink to let consumers know that this wasn’t your father’s foodstuff and that its distinguished quality commanded a higher price.
Compared to our coffee wave, your coffee wave is tough and chewy.
Problem was that the term gourmet wasn’t backed by any real definition, guarantee of quality, nor certification. This left the barn doors open for every profit-minded copycat and charlatan to rush in and lay claim to its meaning.
Thus today the term gourmet has since been relegated to downmarket product come-ons in the aisles at commodity goods stores such as Wal-Mart; meanwhile the premium quality/price vanguard has moved on to terms like artisan. Just this week at the ABQ Sunport (airport), I walked up to a Comida Buena with bold “gourmet deli” branding that served me a soggy croissant sandwich wrapped in tin foil and left under a heat lamp for who knows how long. What does gourmet really mean when this happens?
The same is true today of third wave coffee, which has become an unqualified label boasted by wannabes in an attempt to claim some sort of false legitimacy. Meanwhile, virtually all of the top-quality roasters and coffee shops in the world distance themselves from the term. What does third wave really mean when this happens?
Which brings us back to the 35° North Coffee concept. Their slogan, coined by restaurant vet and manager Rob Rittmeyer, is “Find your latitude”. Its name refers to Santa Fe’s latitude as well as the number of grams of coffee used in their pour-overs.
As part of a concept restaurant chain, the food gets a bit more of the attention here. They serve beignets, a croque monsieur, and banh mi sandwiches as a sort of French-influenced theme — even if French is a poor choice for a coffee affiliation.
Accessed from inside the mall, there are five nicer faux marble café tables along a back booth and a marble rear counter with a half-dozen stools. There’s also a separate seating room (the “War Room”) with more and larger tables across of the main entrance. The kitchen, and its vent, are massive: these are clearly food people. And the food sensibilities don’t stop with edibles, as they even offer (as is creative coffee in New Mexico) an oatmeal latte: complete with actual oatmeal, brown sugar, and granola as influenced by Colorado ski bums.
They do roast their own coffee on-site with all the space they have, but any labeling of blend, coffee origin, or other pedigree is virtually absent from a supposed third wave coffee house. They offer drip, pour-overs (supposedly single origin, but how could you tell?), nitro coffee, and espresso service. And yes, they even offer something called a “Latitude Adjustment”: a nod to the Paleo snake oil types seeking a Bulletproof Coffee(tm) knock-off.
All said, they use the three-group La Marzocco Linea behind the counter on shots of their “dark roast blend” to produce an even, medium-to-darker-brown crema of decent thickness. Whatever wave they are supposed to belong to, I have had identical coffee experiences in the late 1990s. But to their credit the espresso body is good, and despite being served in a short paper cup the results are better than expected. It has a darker flavor profile of herbal pungency with some tobacco but no ashiness.
Read the review of 35° North Coffee in Santa Fe, NM.
Opening in August 2014, this independent coffee shop is a casual space located in the strip-mall avenues of NE Albuquerque. It’s in an odd part of town (like what isn’t odd in ABQ?) … located in something of a no-name neighborhood.
However, just a mile and a half further down Lomas Blvd. NE this weekend will be the sixth annual Southwest Coffee & Chocolate Fest at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds — a 135-vendor consumer coffee and chocolate event that has inspired more than a few New Mexico roasters and cafés. Yes, this is a true Southwestern coffee fest and not the grotesquely bloated, shark-jumped SXSW affair simultaneously going on in Austin, TX.
Driving eastbound on Lomas Blvd. NE, you can’t miss it for the dayglow orange painted building out front — a space (and a Web site) it shares with Baker Architecture + Design. Pull into any one of its five parking spots in the front lot, and you’ll notice a couple of café tables on the sidewalk out front. There are a few simple café tables inside for seating.
There is a turquoise-painted, weathered wood counter with a three-group UNIC Stella di Caffè machine for serving their espresso shots. No pour-overs here, folks, but they’re also known for their cold brew — as is required in these high desert parts. Bottles of which also make an appearance on their wall of coffee merchandising.
They promote their heavy use of local food and drink producers (e.g., Rasband Dairies for milk, etc.), and they’ve ventured into burritos and pastries such as the notorious “pie tart” — a sort of less unnatural version of the Pop Tart.
Their coffee — while private labeled as Honest Coffee — is roasted by Prosum Roasters in town. They also feature a guest roaster as an alternative, and on this visit it was Arizona’s Cartel Coffee Lab. (Speaking of artisan Pop Tarts…)
Pulling a shot of a three-bean Central American/Ethiopian blend with a darker roast on it, they served the shot a little hot with a modest body and multi-colored crema that thinned out. The flavor was a bit weaker on first sip but oddly strengthened with greater concentration towards the bottom of the cup — with chocolate, some caramel, some woodiness and a bit of cherry brightness for a darker roast espresso.
Served in a quadrilateral-cut wooden block with two holes for a sparkling water glass and the espresso shotglass. It’s particularly a New Mexico thing. Milk-frothing here can be a little uneven, but the quality is generally good.
It’s a good introduction to New Mexico’s newer breed of coffee shop, which we’ll review more over the coming weeks.
Read the review of Humble Coffee Company in Albuquerque, NM.