Comparing Cups

A Tale Of Two Coffeehouses.

By Rebecca Cook

No doubt about it, the gourmet coffee craze that landed Seattle a place in the heart of all true java lovers has finally wended its way south to our own beloved metropolis. Whereas it once took some maneuvering to find a decent cup of espresso in this town, now it's only a question of looking through the Yellow Pages to find the coffeehouse nearest you.

While caffeine junkies (myself included) applaud this booming phenomenon, it must be said that a quantity of choices does not necessarily translate into widespread quality. For that, one must consider the art of the barista.

Chow A barista is the person behind the coffeehouse counter or espresso bar who prepares the various coffee drinks listed on the menu. If you're truly interested in pursuing the ultimate coffee experience, pay close attention to this individual, for it is here where the quality in your cup is determined.

More sophisticated and elaborate espresso machines have lured many businesses into assuming that just about anyone can be hired to push buttons and produce an adequate cup of joe. Not so, as a cursory survey of several establishments will quickly demonstrate.

While in this country, the person brewing your coffee is most likely a minimum-wage, part-time worker who most likely considers this job temporary, in Italy the barista's is a coveted position. It's not just an idle stopover in one's employment history, but a career, a vocation that requires a lengthy apprenticeship dedicated to developing an expertise in the art of coffee making.

I bring this subject up because I've found that my pleasure in seeing Tucson's coffee industry expand has frequently been tempered by the reality of too many mediocre or even dreadful cups of coffee brewed in fancy espresso machines. I've come to the conclusion that it's the barista who makes the difference, an essential truth that only a handful of coffeehouses seem to recognize.

To illustrate this argument, I offer the Tale of the Two Tucson Coffeehouses. Both are new, have shiny, button-imbued equipment and are simultaneously contemporary and chic. The difference is that one upholds and takes pride in a tradition of producing outstanding brew while the other just seems to want to mass produce it, utilizing whatever staff is standing closest to the espresso machine. Guess which one is better?

The Native Café has moved into the digs formerly occupied by the Milagro Café, which many will remember with something akin to reverence. How gratifying to discover that the North Campbell Avenue space is once more inhabited by tenants who appreciate a Southwestern bistro sensibility.

The terra cotta adobe exterior remains intact, as does an interior that features minimal but elegant furnishings and recessed lighting that artfully displays some colorfully striking artwork. Best of all, the Native Café has embraced the idea of elegant cuisine at modest prices, although this time the menu definitely reflects a macrobiotic influence.

And of course, there's coffee. The Native Café is a coffeehouse of singular class, distinction and--thank you, God--TASTE. Order a latte here and sit back to await an oversized cup of steaming hot beverage: rich, full-bodied and loaded with dark roasted flavor. Ask the counter person about different coffees and he or she can speak knowledgeably about the offerings. Watch the preparation of your drink and observe the careful process the servers demonstrate. Coffee drinks are presented with pride here for the express enjoyment of the customer. Maybe these workers don't fancy a lifetime in the barista trade, but they're well on their way should they decide to develop a career in coffee.

Although the Native Café's menu is predominantly wholesome, this in no way should infer lackluster platters of greens and grains. On the contrary, the listings are intriguing and appetizing, no matter what your usual unhealthy food preferences. Lunch and Sunday breakfast are the only meals currently served at the restaurant. Sandwiches, salads, an array of meatless burgers, various chapatis and soup present tempting choices, along with a drink menu that features a mouth-watering selections of smoothies, natural juices and that scrumptious, verdant restorative, wheatgrass.

The only meaty items on the menu consist of a tuna schooner, chicken sandwich or a chapati served with marinated strips of chicken.

Everything is served consummately fresh, with even the baked items (the cranberry-orange scones are excellent, by the way) made on the premises.

The day we arrived, a spicy African peanut soup was featured for the day, its nutty aroma filling the space with a tempting siren scent. Velvety smooth and warming in every sense of the word, the soup was a welcome relief on a rainy, blustery day. This was an adult way to enjoy peanut butter, with a little red chile fire, onion and garlic. Wonderful.

The vegetarian burgers are unparalleled, finally incorporating spice, texture and savory accents into a food item that has far too often struck me as the equivalent of eating mushy cardboard. I sampled the Mayan spicy grain burger and was rewarded with a patty that actually held together as it was consumed. It imparted plenty of heat as well as the permeating fragrance of minced garlic and cumin. I can't say I'll give up the backyard barbecue for good, but I wouldn't hesitate to order this or another burger on my next visit to the Native Café.

Salads looked grand here. In particular, I enjoyed the bruschetti, a tossed mix of toasted-bread croutons, leafy green lettuce, tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil. Wonderfully flavorful and crunchy, this salad would be an ideal companion to a fine glass of wine. Alas, this is not an option at the Native Café. Fortunately, there are so many other wonderful things going on there that the absence of the grape is hardly missed.

Which brings me to the other half of my story, Coffeehouse Number Two.

Friends Coffeehouse made a name for itself over the last few years in the northeast part of town. Apparently the owners wished to expand their surroundings, and so have recently shifted operations to a convenient location near Speedway and Kolb in the same conglomeration that houses multiplex movie theaters. The notion that people like to gather following a viewing of a stimulating flick is a wise one, and I'm sure many will find their way through Friends' doors. Be advised, however, that once inside the conversation may be the only thing you'll find stimulating.

Friends' tall exterior is eye-catching as you cruise up Kolb, with bold colors of mauve and rust. My first impression was that it was real-estate or title office. Inside is a lofty space accented with tall windows and wood tabletops inlaid with game boards as well as the yin and yang symbol. It's hip, it's sleek, and vaguely sterile for a coffeehouse. I searched in vain for the familiar clutter of newspapers and magazines.

We stepped up to the counter with a request for a tall vanilla latte and cappuccino.The young woman behind the counter seemed mystified by our order. After turning around several times to check the hanging menu board, she puzzled about how to ring it all up on the state-of-the-art cash register. Finally, she asked for help. Our confidence in her sank; if she couldn't figure out how to ring a fairly uncomplicated sale, how would she ever master the shiny machine lurking behind her?

In fact, she didn't. The latte arrived in a miniature mug barely big enough to hold a single espresso. To make matters worse, the milk froth was rapidly diminishing, revealing a half-filled portion that was already too petite in my opinion. The temperature of the tiny thing was tepid, the vanilla flavoring apparently forgotten. Friends grinds its own beans, but I found the taste a bit too toasty, perhaps even burnt. Not good.

My friend fared a little better--at least her coffee was hot--but she also found the flavor bitter and unpleasant. Although a few basic sandwiches and salads are offered at Friends, we confined our sampling to the pastries, a selection that included muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls, cakes and sweet rolls. The cinnamon bun was the highlight of the morning, a spiral of raisin and spice lightly glazed and tastefully avoiding the trap of cloying sweetness. The cherry scone was less successful, curiously doughy and dry at the same time.

I also have to confess that I was irked by the presence of televisions inside Friends, which were all tuned to ESPN the day we visited. Sports espresso bars may be the latest thing for all I know, but it was a new experience and not particularly an enjoyable one. Fortunately, it wasn't game day.

Who would have thought there could be such high coffee demand in Tucson? A real barista, that's who. Seek one out for yourself.

The Native Café. 3073 N. Campbell Ave. 881-8881. Open 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7:30 to midnight Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Sunday. No alcohol. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $2.95-$8.95.

Friends Coffeehouse. 800 N. Kolb Road. 722-1129. Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. No alcohol. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $2.50-$7.95. TW

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