Ha! You think I go to coffeehouses just for the coffee? Maybe I've just convinced myself that I have to eat something with my coffee so that all that caffeine doesn't make a hole in my stomach. No medical basis for this theory, but I carry it close. It makes it very okay to eat sweets. So I set about to explore the sweets at our local coffeehouses. I ask my roommate's cousin Olav, who is visiting from Norway, if he'd like to share this burden with me. He says "hey, great way to get to know the city!" Sounds like a coffeehouse lizard already. I map our route, we jump on the bicycles and we're off.
Caffe Trieste, 601 Vallejo Street, North Beach
There's something about the pastry tray at this place that reminds me of my youth. Specifically, the bakery that my dad used to take us to on Saturday mornings when we were kids. The place was oozing sugar. The more, the better! We would have eaten it straight. The folks at Trieste must feel the same way. If they have bran muffins in this place, I've never seen them. I choose a bear claw and a pineapple flap. The bear claw is big, and sweet, but not too sweet. It has a terrific filling, with a kick of something I can't quite figure out. There are slivered almonds on top, suspended in a sugar coating. The thing just works. The pineapple flap is a pineapple danish with a fun name. It's fruity, flaky and also sweet. Trieste gets this stuff from Dianda's in North Beach. You definitely don't need sugar in your coffee if you eat these pastries.
North End Caffe, 1402 Grant Avenue, North Beach
I ask the gal behind the counter where the pastries are from. "Victoria Pastry," she informs me. I learned about Victoria Pastry almost as soon as I arrived in SF. A traditional Italian bakery. The best sheet cakes in town. But I'd never tried one of their pastries. Until now. There isn't much left to choose from, so I go with the apple danish and a croissant. The gal behind the counter warms them up. The apple danish is perfect. It melts in my mouth. Just the right amount of sweetness, the pastry is moist, and the filling is tasty. I am amazed at how good it is. I shouldn't have been, though, considering it came from Victoria Pastry. Olav's take on the croissant? "Boring."
I had chosen to sit at the counter/bar at the North End and am soon chatting away with the other folks seated there. Consensus seems to be that the raspberry ring is the thing to have. The gal behind the counter tells me she's been to the basement at Victoria, where they make all these delicious pastries. She says the basement is filled with lots of Eastern European men, slaving away on a sugar-coated assembly line. She picks up the pastries herself every morning and tells me they always sell out. The bagels are also popular, and she even makes oatmeal here. She makes oatmeal sound good. She also waxes rhapsodic about coffee, one of my favorite subjects. She is truly meant for this job.
Cafe Soma, 1601 Howard Street, South of Market
I walk into Cafe Soma and ask the waitstaff a couple of questions about the sweets. They don't know where anything is from. "Maybe the Sweetmill, some of the stuff is from there, but I'm not sure what." There are two gals working behind the counter. It's the first day here for one of them, and the last day here for the other. There's an interesting looking cinammon apple scone on the counter. I also notice a lot of coffee cake. I decide to try one of each. I've come here on a particularly hot day in SF, and the staff has cleverly tacked up some computer-generated signs on the front counter. ICE CAP. ICE ESP. ICE LAT. My friend from Norway asks for an explanation. "Good marketing," I say, and clue him in. I try the ICE LAT and he gets iced tea. My ICE LAT is very strong but drinkable. I guess the ice cubes help. The scone is a disappointment. Just too dry. I'm used to scones being a butter fest. The coffee cake is also dry. Olav and I look at each other and decide to save our appetite, and calories, for the next stop. "And I'm only drinking the iced tea because it's so hot, not because it tastes good," Olav tells me. He's right. I take a sip and it tastes like flower water, if you can imagine that, with just the barest trace of tea taste. But! All is not lost. The jukebox is a winner. Jazz and blues CDs. Great tunes. I play Miles Davis and Milt Jackson. Olav says the jukebox is the only thing in this place. So, Miles saves the day.
Muddy Waters Coffee House, 521 Valencia Street, Mission
I walk in here and ask the fellow behind the counter a couple of questions. He doesn't know where the sweets are from, either. Turns out it's his first day, too. I start to think it's the first day of school all over town. I ask him how long his cohort behind the counter has been at this coffeehouse. "At least as long as I've been in San Francisco." "How long is that?" I ask. "Five weeks."
After our last experience, Olav is a bit gun-shy. He opts for something familiar -- a coconut macaroon cookie, half-dipped in chocolate. He likes macaroons. He takes a couple of bites and tells me they're moister back home. This doesn't deter him from eating the whole thing, at which time he reports that the cookie is moister in the middle. I try coffee cake again. The counter gal tells me it's divine, her favorite thing here. Turns out she's right. It's nice and moist, with a gooey filling inside. Olav and I eat it all. No one knows where the coffee is from, but it's good.
Muddy Waters is very much a Mission District coffeehouse. Plank wood floors, wooden tables scattered about haphazardly, interesting and inventive wall art. A big bulletin board along the wall that links the front and back of the cafe. Interesting paint job on the bathroom wall. I won't describe it for you, I'll let you see it for yourself, but it does make a nice reflection on my belt buckle. There's no mirror in the bathroom, which distresses me. Some of us still prefer to reapply our lipstick in private. The social commentary graffiti on the bathroom walls is abundant. Several dialogues are going on at once. Guess that's why there's no room for a mirror.
Cafe Sanchez, 3998 Army Street, Noe Valley
They do all their own baking at Cafe Sanchez and everything looks delicious. There are several tables outside, it's sunny and there's a light breeze. Olav grabs a table outside. I pop back inside and study all the pastries. I must take forever because Olav gets pretty restless. He tells me to get him some iced tea and whatever I feel like eating. Maybe he's just getting a bit weary of all this tasting. I choose the vegan strawberry-citrus custard cake and a scone, some coffee for me and East Indian chai tea for him. I find the custard cake light and fresh. "Not very tasty," Olav says. It's saved by the fruit, which I pick off the top with my fork and leave the cake behind. The scone is a bit disappointing. Still not buttery enough. I think back to a place I know of in Boston that has very buttery scones. They are perfect. But they're in Boston. I'd rather be in SF, so I guess I'll just live without them. The coffee here is from Coffee Designs in San Francisco. A South Pacific and Indonesian blend. Strong but good. The chai tea is pretty different. A lot of cinammon in it, and milk, which I didn't expect. It's flavorful, and Olav finds it gets better as he stirs it. He drinks the whole thing.
Tassajara Bakery Cafe, 1000 Cole Street, Haight Ashbury
I'm still searching for the perfect scone. This is my last stop, so I'm crossing my fingers. I check to see what is actually baked at Tassajara and it's the danish, the scones and the muffins. The rest of the baked goods are shipped in from the home office -- Just Desserts. The waitstaff tells me the cheese and onion scone is buttery. Turns out it's the best I've tasted so far. It's good. But a far cry from the amount of butter I found on the east coast. Must be yet another coastal difference. I also try the cherry-cheese danish. Olav must have reached his limit, because he doesn't even want to taste it. I prod him. We both like it. People have told me for years that this place had good stuff, yet I'd never tried it. They were right. I ask about the coffee and among the choices is a "platnium blend". "What's platnium?" I ask, "or is that platinum misspelled?" "Oops, I guess it is," I'm told. Strikes me as funny, especially because at the last place, Cafe Sanchez, they had a "gyspy sandwich" on the menu, not to be confused with gypsy. When I asked about it, they said "yeah, we know we misspelled it, but we've sorta gotten used to gyspy, so we kept it that way." Does caffeine induce dyslexia? Just a thought, no medical basis for that theory, either.
The coffee, from Peerless, is good. Olav, however, makes the better choice, red zinger tea. I have a taste. It's refreshing. I ask Olav what he thinks about the tea. "Fresh," he says. He goes on to say that a little lemon would make it just right. The music on this particular afternoon makes me think the monks still own this place. Almost feels like we're in church. Nah, those guys behind the counter don't exactly look like altar boys.
I conclude after many hours of nibbling on sweets that Norwegians are very spare in their use of superlatives. Maybe if we'd tasted salmon? Who knows. I can see that I'm on a sugar high, so it doesn't really matter.
© 1995 Elaine Sosa
Note: Cafe Sanchez is no longer open; Tassajara is now known as Just Desserts.