Substance With Style

Sparkroot brings a big-city vibe and some amazing coffee to downtown Tucson

There's plenty to like about Sparkroot, a new downtown coffee bar that is unique in both style and substance.

Sparkroot is the only place in the state that offers Blue Bottle Coffee. This roaster of Third Wave coffee—look that up in your Wikipedia—is known for its small-farm, organic products, and works with only a handful of coffeehouses across America.

The coffee is great—dark, rich and smooth. I loved the decaf Americano ($2.50), and the individual drip ($2.50) was equally delightful. There are plenty of espressos, ranging from $2.50 to $4.50. "All shots are pulled double ristretto," to quote the menu. There are also Souvia teas, and P&H sodas and juices (all $3). There are some interesting wines by the glass ($5) or bottle ($17), and an assortment of bottled craft beers ($4).

What Sparkroot doesn't have is basic iced coffee. Oh, you can get a glass of cold-brewed iced coffee, but it comes with milk, chicory and sugar. Plain, black, iced coffee is something the folks at Sparkroot should consider adding to the menu. This is a coffee bar in the desert, after all.

Oddly, there are no baked goods, either. No wonder website calls the menu "contrarian."

The décor is big-city, with lots of metal and wood and sparkly glass. It also has a loft and the biggest ceiling fan I've ever seen. Tiny touches are here and there—like the origami hanging in the windows along Congress Street, and works by local artists—make for a great vibe. The music was cool, too (although this old broad couldn't identify any of the songs). Sparkroot would be a great spot to meet friends, close a business deal or write the great American novel.

And then there's the food: The meatless menu is divided into three sections. Breakfast items are available all day. Sandwiches and salads are available from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. And snacks, for lack of a better word, are available from 3 to 9 p.m.

The menu is dominated of pressed-cheese sandwiches ($6.50), which are served on bread that is all-crust. The menu says it's ciabatta; this is a clever idea, because the crust doesn't get soggy. The menu offers nice combinations of fillings, and you can also build your own sandwich from a wide assortment of choices.

We had sandwiches with gruyere, caramelized onions and house-made mustard; fontina, portabella and arugula; and mozzarella, tomato and basil. All were pretty good—but there wasn't a whole lot of filling. There were barely more than a couple of spoonfuls of caramelized onions, and the portabella mushrooms were in short supply. Even the cheese, except for the mozzarella, was skimpy. Pressed sandwiches shouldn't be overstuffed, but they shouldn't be so austere, either.

The plates were indeed contrarian in a most-pleasant way. On one visit, we opted for one of the three salads ($6.50). It consisted of roasted beets with orange slices and baby arugula, all tossed with a bright sherry-shallot vinaigrette. Not only was it pretty with all those colors and textures; the flavors balanced, and the dressing was a perfect pairing.

We also got into the goat-cheese crostini ($7). Multigrain bread had been sliced thin, toasted and topped with tangy goat cheese and—this was the hook—roasted, drunken strawberries. The fruit added a sweet zing to the creamy cheese. These could become addicting; four were barely enough.

The hummus ($7), rather then being made with the ubiquitous chickpea, consisted of artichoke hearts ground into a thick, garlicky spread. Topped with toasted herbs and served with tiny triangles of toasted pita, this was the kind of nosh you'd expect at a cocktail party, not a coffee bar. Again, it was potentially addictive.

We took home some house-made granola with yogurt ($5), one order with maple walnut, and the other with applesauce almond. The only noticeable difference between the two was the nuts—but this was great granola. It was crunchy, fresh and just sweet enough to satisfy the old sweet tooth. The yogurt, too, was a fine example of what yogurt should be. It proved to be the perfect foil, in texture and tanginess, for the granola.

A fine finish to one of our visits was the dark-chocolate plate ($6). With a cup of Americano, I was in chocolate-junkie heaven. An assortment of small pieces was served on a stark, white plate. The bite-size pieces belied their big, rich goodness. One piece was slightly fruity; another had nuts. One was simply chocolate; another had a black-pepper finish.

Service was upbeat, friendly and young. You order at the counter, and there's an app on the cash register that allows customers to tap in the tip: You can opt for 10 percent, 15 percent or 20 percent, and it calculates the amount to the penny.

Sparkroot is a great addition to the growing downtown culinary scene. A few kinks need to be worked out—for example, more-generous sandwich fillings would go a long way in developing repeat customers.

But I'll stop by again. Downtown needs a place like Sparkroot; good coffee and a place to enjoy it are basic necessities.

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