Sandwich With a Side of Goth

This Stone Avenue coffee house stands out among Tucson's numerous joe joints

The cozy, wi-fi-offering coffee house has become ubiquitous in Tucson, thanks to chains and a handful of locals with business plans and a love of community. And therein lies a dilemma: How does a coffee house set itself apart from all the other coffee joints in town?

The Black Rose Caffe answered that question with some tasty food, aided by a dash of goth, a pinch of paganism and a hint of Druidry.

The Black Rose Caffe--in a spot that was once called Café Joe, and sharing a building with student apartments--looks like a nice, bright hangout (complete with yellow, red and faux-brick walls) that's been decorated for Halloween. This makes sense right now, seeing as it's mid-October. But it's not decorated for Halloween: The goth-themed art, the hanging bat, the bony hand holding a lamp, the candles, the spider web and all the other stuff some folks might classify as "creepy" are not seasonal.

Behind the counter are the only two employees of the Black Rose Caffe: Owner Mariha Kakis and her friend Demetrius. On the menu are 15 sandwiches, a half-dozen wraps, soup, a handful of breakfast-themed sandwiches (the "Morning Glory" section), salads, a hummus plate, desserts and pastries (some made in house, some not) and, of course, a bevy of coffee drinks and other beverages.

Garrett and I wandered in for the first time on a recent weeknight. One side of the café was occupied by about a dozen folks having some sort of Druidry gathering; the other side was unoccupied. After perusing the menu, I asked Demetrius (although I did not know his name at the time) what the best sandwich was, and after some pondering, he recommended the la strega ($6.50; all sandwiches also come with a side of chips, coleslaw, fruit or some sort of salad), a concoction of ham, provolone, tomato, red onion, roasted red pepper, olives, artichoke hearts, pepperoncini, a vinaigrette and parmesan, all on focaccia. I also felt the need to try the soup of the day, a corn chowder with poblano ($1.75 as a side; $3 for a cup; $3.75 for a bowl). Garrett ordered the fool's gold ($6.25), starring hot turkey pastrami with Swiss, mustard and coleslaw, on a baguette. Garrett also ordered a mango milkshake ($4.45 for 24 ounces), and I picked a pumpkin pie latte (large latte prices range from $3.40 to $4.15, depending on what flavor you get).

We sat down, and Demetrius came by a couple of times to deliver our drinks and ask follow-up questions. He also brought the soup, which was very sweet with a bit of a kick; I liked it.

Soon, we got our sandwiches. Our meals were delayed briefly by the fact that diners have to get their own napkins and (plastic) forks, knives and spoons; after I retrieved some for both Garrett and me, we ate.

My sandwich was excellent. It was warm and delicious, with the various tastes--the saltiness from the ham, the sweetness from the roasted pepper, the tartness from the vinaigrette--combining wonderfully. It was a tad greasy (which was probably unavoidable due to the ingredients), but it was splendid; my side salad was fresh and adequate, as was my latte. Garrett also liked his sandwich--he said it was quite flavorful, and awarded extra praise to the tasty baguette. His side of potato salad tasted store-bought. His milkshake had a very mellow mango taste; I liked it more than he did, because Garrett tends to like stronger flavors. Overall, we were satisfied, but we had one complaint: These sandwiches were on the smaller side. If you're a big eater, you may not find yourself fully sated. We'd had late lunches, so they were perfect for us.

We got dessert to go (prices range from 50 cents to $4). Garrett got some carrot cake, and I ordered a piece of pecan pie. Both were decent, but unspectacular.

We returned for lunch about a week later, this time with our friend Bryan. About four other patrons were present (I didn't see a single student on either of our two visits; this struck me as odd). This time, I ordered the "Eye of Horus" off the "Morning Glory" menu ($6.25); it's scrambled Egg Beaters with Angus roast beef, jarlsberg and tomato on herbed sourdough toast. I inquired about soup, and Demetrius said they didn't have any that day, so I had a brownie instead. Bryan got the wicked 'wich ($6.50), which consists of turkey, provolone, green chili, lettuce, onion and chipotle mayonnaise on warm focaccia. He also decided to try a piece of banana spiced bundt cake, which was tasty but a bit dry. Garrett picked the Angus blue ($6.50), a sandwich with roast beef, bleu cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo on a whole-wheat baguette.

All of the sandwiches were, again, delicious and unique, if a bit small and lacking in ingredient portions. Garrett and Bryan also got onions on their sandwiches, even though they both asked for the onions to be held.

After our visits, I called Kakis and asked her about her unique concept.

"Well, the name has a couple of connotations," she said. "The black rose has a personal meaning. But the black rose is also an alchemy symbol, and with coffee being a perfect symbol of alchemy itself, it was a good fit."

I also asked her how in the world she and Demetrius press forward as the only two employees of a coffee shop that's open seven days a week, for a total of--if my math's right--75 hours a week.

"Dedication, I guess," she said with a laugh.

I told her that in some cases, she and Demetrius seemed a bit addled (i.e., the unwanted onions on the sandwiches); she conceded that when they get "slammed," having only the two of them can cause service to suffer. However, she said that it has to be that way until they reach a certain level of business where she can afford to hire another employee.

My recommendation: Go to Black Rose Caffe. Be patient, and have a fantastic sandwich. Reward their hard work--not to mention their uniqueness--and help them get that employee. As much as Mariha and Demetrius have made their place stand out, they deserve it.

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