"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2007 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Great Local Coffee Shop!
When you have set yourself up at home as a coffee roaster and home barista, and become efficient enough to make drinkable straight espresso, the downside is that it becomes difficult to impossible to find a coffee shop where you can have out coffee... You know... as in, “Let's have coffee out.” I usually try to avoid such temptations as they usually lead to disappointment. The best of such experiences were drinkable and the worst were virtually undrinkable. Even when I have found something drinkable, the consistency of the shop will usually fail, and my next visit becomes a disappointment that keeps me from visiting again.
Still, I am open to suggestions and recommendations to new shops. On a recent visit to Coffee Geek I was perusing the discussion group forums and saw that there was a "World Regional" section with one for "United States West." Since that's me I took a look and, sure enough, I saw a post entitled "Chico California." Since I live about 40 minutes away from there, I took a look at the post. Sounded promising so I made a date with my wife, and instead of doing our morning-at-home coffee, off we went.
The shop is “Empire Coffee,” It is located at 434 Orange Street, the first street east of the railroad tracks which go through the west side of town. Appropriate enough since the coffee shop is located at the Chico Amtrack station which also serves as the Greyhound station. Even more appropriately, the shop is located on an unused section of tracks which runs in front of the station. And in ultimate appropriateness, the shop is a 1947 Pullman rail car.
We were there on a Saturday morning when Alec Binyon, the owner, was behind the counter (during the week, up until 6:00 PM, Lucky Rodrigues, who placed nineteenth in the semi-finals of the 2007 SCAA U.S. Barista championship, works behind the counter). The counter is just big enough for one person to work behind, but it is not meant to be a “fast coffee” shop in the tradition of the chain stores with revolving doors and push button coffee machines. This cafe prides itself on quality. All their coffee and tea offerings are organic. And they brew their own chai tea. Since I am a coffee guy (you probably noticed by now), and this is a coffee website (well, DUH!), it is their coffee on which I will focus.
I started out, after introducing myself and telling Alec where I heard of his shop, with a straight double shot. After all, a multitude of sins can be hidden in four ounces of steamed milk, but a straight espresso is coffee in its birthday suit. Alec showed me the shot which was first pulled into a clear, graduated shot glass, and of the nearly two ounces it was about 1.75 ounces of crema. He then transferred it to a proper, ceramic espresso cup and saucer. The aroma was quite enticing. The espresso blend they feature is Element 114 is from Barefoot Coffee Roasters of Santa Clara, California. It is a post-roast blend of four different coffees (one of which is roasted to two different ways). I will say that the taste was totally unexpected-- let me explain the best I can:
As the sip begins and you swallow, a hit of sourness begins. If you have had sour espresso before it is a very unpleasant experience because it begins sour and then gets worse. I was expecting that to happen as Ii swallowed, but instead of the sourness becoming overpowering it turned interesting and pleasant. It became a dramatic and delicious lemony flavor. I then offered my wife a sip. I could barely keep from laughing as Ii watched- she took a sip and her face hardened as she sensed the sour, and then relaxed as the lemon came through in the follow. So “Element 114” is a high acid, bright coffee. I prefer very balanced coffees, rich in flavor, heavy bodied, and buttery smooth, and so Element 114 is not to my personal tastes, yet it is quite drinkable straight.
After enjoying the espresso, I ordered a cappuccino and my wife ordered a mocha. I wasn't watching carefully, and when Alec dispensed the whipped cream around the rim of the cup and slid the cup towards me, I hesitatingly asked, “Which one is that?”
Alec looked at me and said, “It's your cappuccino.” He hesitated, waited for the look on my face to settle, then said, with a smile, “No.. it's the mocha.” Pheww!
My wife found the mocha quite good while not being overly-sweet as seems to be the norm in the majority of shops that pass as coffee. My cappuccino was served with late art, and was smooth and delicious right down to the last sip. The milk totally smoothed out the acidic bite. Both beverages were served in heavy, ceramic cups as well. Along with our beverages we each enjoyed a raisin scone with orange zest which they get from a local bakery.
And to complete our visit, what would be more appropriate in a small, independent coffee shop than to meet the owner's wife, his son, and his parents as well? Coffee is just the half of going to a small coffee shop- the atmosphere is just as important, and visiting with the family really made our visit a lot of fun as well as delicious.
If you are in Chico, I highly recommend stopping in at the train that goes nowhere. The Empire Cafe is open seven days a week, from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM. To get there, Exit Hwy 99 and go west on 8th street. Go through downtown and turn right on Orange (After passing through the downtown area, the streets will be Chestnut, Hazel, Ivy, Cherry, Orange-- CHICO.. get it?). Go right on Orange (the last street before crossing the railroad tracks). Go three and one-half blocks on Orange and Empire is on the left- hard to miss a Pullman car in front of a train station! (approximate GPS coordinates - N39.723548° W121.845880°)