Remember this documentary I raved about a few months ago? It’s a low budget thing this young woman did.
Well, it’s much more than an anti-Starbucks rant. It also documents the emergence of the “third wave coffee movement.” The first wave was Folgers and the like. The second wave was coffee houses and Starbucks capitalizing on the idea to spread it well beyond the borders of bohemianism. The third wave is represented by efforts like Blue Bottle Coffee, and Ritual Coffee Roasters, the latter of which was started by
former Blue Bottle employees who may have pushed the standard even higher.
They have several coffee houses. I got to visit the one on Valencia Street in SF this morning. After their owners’ interview in the movie, and a subsequent interview on NPR, I thought there was no way that the product could match the hype.
As I drove through my old neighborhood on Valencia, noticing a plethora of coffee houses, each with a few customers, I could see as I approached Liberty Street a line coming out onto the sidwalk half a block up. I figured that I’d found the place, and I was right. By some miracle, I found a parking spot just around the corner of 21st Street – right up the block from the place. I walked back around and got into line.
The first thing I noticed was the smell wafting out through the door – the richest coffee smell I’ve encountered. They have a brewing operation in place, with funnels right up by the cash register, and the barristas hard at work constantly refilling the espresso machines – one drink at a time – although with the line in place I think they just keep loading them up rather than wait for orders.
I noticed something when I was waiting. It’s still very much a bohemian neighborhood – all the same artists and politicos taking in their java with deep conversations and all. But unlike the early 90s, some of them have reproduced. There was one couple, and two mothers each with kids. Smart kids too – infant to toddler, all expressing themselves with accute awareness of everything around them. Maybe it’s the coffee.
It was only a few minutes I had to wait in line, and there were actually open tables in the back section. I took my cappuchinno to the table and sat down. Yes, it was the best cappuchinno I’ve ever taken in. Actually, that doesn’t quite cut it. It was the only true cappuchinno I’ve taken in. Two years shy of 50 and I”ve just had my first cappuchinno.
It made me happy!
Seriously, next time you’re down there – give it a try! And then come back up here and demand from our local coffee houses that they contact this business and learn! The first one to do so will probably make a fortune.
On to food. Let me say that I do not post negative restaurant reviews online. Not here. Not on Yelp. Nowhere.
The reason? I don’t want to be a mechanism that costs someone his/her livelihood. Period. If the food is bad, the market will deal with it. I don’t want to take a chance that my taste is merely different. I don’t want to take the chance that I was there on a bad day.
And today, I’m especially grateful for my policy.
After the coffee experience, I walked back to 17th and Valencia. El Toro’s is there on the corner. It’s one of the few good notions I kept from my high school days’ membership of the Socialist Workers Party, when I was introduced to the restaraunt. It’s a burrito bar, and they used to make them the size of footballs, almost literally. And it was delicious.
Most people don’t realize that the burrito as we know it is actually not from Mexico. It first appeared in the Mission District – marketed as a meal in a single tortilla. When you order them in Mexico you get something smaller and different. There are about four or five establishments which argue that they made the first big burrito, and perhaps there was some synchronicity involved (Kind of like Newton and Leibniz coming up with the calculus theorem simultaneously).
This place was my favorite for a couple of decades. Lots of filling options, and just good, with a line all day so that everything is fresh.
Now, I haven’t been to El Toro’s (or either of its sister establishments) for a few years now, because the last time I was there I was disappointed. The burrito I bought was very thin, and the flavor just wasn’t what I had remembered. It seemed like they had made all the ingredients early on, and the asada chicken seemed dried out like it had been sitting. The magic seemed gone.
So with great trepidation I walked there for another try. I was still giddy from my coffee experience, and didn’t want to experience a downer. But El Toro’s had been faithful to me for so many years. I had to give her another chance.
I wasn’t disappointed. The burrito wasn’t quite football sized, but bigger than the last time – and I only ate half of it as I’m into portion control these days. The food was cooking fresh, the lines were back, and they’ve upgraded with a salsa bar that includes about 8 different salsas both cooked and raw-chopped, and some fresh vegetables including radishes and peppers. Limes. And flame-roasted jalapenos!
And it was delicious. El Toro’s and I are an item once again!
Addendum: Eileen Hassi, owner of Ritual Coffee Roasters, contacted me by email to thank me for the compliments, but also to correct me. She nor the others on her team were ever Blue Bottle employees. I had bad information.
Also, Lucca’s is still open at 22nd. Sorry Robie.
And also, someone else informed me that El Toro is spelled with one “r” not two.