Tag Archives: Cafe Review

ZombieRunner Cafe Palo Alto

Great Coffee Playing Inside

As I progress through life I’ve learned that anomalies fascinate me. They capture my attention.  Maybe the same is true for you. We all love the unexpected gift, the unexplainable headline, the café seemingly far from what’s trending in Portland or San Francisco, but delivers anyway. That, my friend, is ZombieRunner in spades.

ZombieRunner Café is located in Palo Alto. It’s housed in a running shop, as in running and marathons, you know running right– that aerobic sport that people used to do before they figured out cycling.

ZombieRunner is tucked away in a converted art house /movie theater. The exterior sports a real ticket booth, and an overhead marquee proclaiming artisan coffee. A sidewalk sign board in neon colors (no chalk and slate here folks) touts their latte was voted best in the city. These “voted best of” prizes are usually the result of some chad hanging ballot box stuffing chamber of commerce shenanigans, not a democratic vote of the coffee masses, so I give them no heed, and walk inside.

When I walk through the door, I see no coffee, and think maybe the coffee place was the last tenant evicted back when Starbucks hit town. The clerk, walking up from a sea of running shorts and electrolyte fizz packs asks me if he can help.

“I am only looking for coffee,” I say.

“Sure,” he responds, and points West.

What I encounter next is what coffee is all about: a lone La Marzocco GB-5, and a barista named Courtney who knows how to use it.  My litmus test question in any café is, “may I have a Macchiato please?” While I say this I extend my hand and cup it in a very small ball. I then follow it up with the sentence fragment…” a true Macchiato?” If the response is yes, I know I am in a place that has some concept of the way things should be.  Courtney said yes, and I was on my way.

I grabbed a spot in the seating area.  This area was sans ubiquitous hipster wood paneling and reclaimed ship hatch doors.  There are a lot of coffee related items to score on: baby chemex(with the mondo big filters) , aeropress, and so on and so forth. Refreshing. To the South was the women’s running section, to the East a wall of what looked like very high tech running shoes, and to the North there was Courtney, working the GB-5, steaming, frothing, extracting. The Macchiato was ready in short order. Most importantly it was done right; the espresso and milk mixture was thick and deep. The latte art and slight crust had a nice tension on the top of the cup.

The creamy goodness blurred my lens a little.

A line formed just after 9. 9 is when ZombieRunner opens. Not so good on the late start, but I got the impression the locals were willing to wait until 9 to fill their travel mugs and cups with the ZombieRunner brew, and so they did zombie-like from off the street. Courtney knew them all. She knew what they wanted. She asked questions about their vacations, and families. There was a personal interaction between barista and patron I had not seen since the days before social networks and SEO driven marketing. The interaction was simply human, authentic, and one on one.

I don’t know if Courtney was headed to one of the many barista competitions in the near future in places like Iceland or Tokyo.  And, I don’t care. I do know that ZombieRunner café is a great way to chill in Palo Alto,  drink well made artisan extracted coffee, and buy whole beans—they do roast their own. When in that part of the world you should drop on by. It’s worth the drive.  They are located at 429 S. California Palo Alto, California 94306. Phone is 650-325-2048.  Find them on line at http://www.zombierunner.com/about/palo_alto_store/

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Coffee Investigation: Doing it Right in Steeltown

SteeltownSteeltown EspressoRecently there has been some internet buzz created by a new espresso bar in the East Bay.  The Bar is SteeltownCoffee and Tea. It’s located in Old Town Pittsburg. That’s right Pittsburg- as in Pittsburg, California, the place East of San Francisco, past the Naval Weapons Station, over the hills, and just before Antioch.

I had some business out that way, and was not looking forward to it, until I remembered this new café, and decided to investigate the place to let you know what my impressions were. In the distant past I would only go to Pittsburg as a cult follower of The Mecca AKA New Mecca Restaurant, but now with the birth of Steeltown, I have ample reason to make the drive.

Steeltown is located inside a bank. I don’t mean an old bank building, or a failed bank building, I mean a real working bank, a novelty in and of itself. I had this fact in mind before my visit, and expected to see a mobile coffee kiosk tucked away in some obscure corner near the bank merchant’s window. Instead, I encountered a “gem” of a café.

I can only speculate that when the owner, Adriane Badger, (more about him later) had a business plan he listed everything needed to do it right, and then he executed. The result is clean and open, along the lines of Bluebottle (Mint Street location) or Ritual at Napa Oxbow Public Market. The theme is local, all the way down to the recycled chairs and light fixtures that appear to be gleaned from the U.S. Steel plant which was such a big part of Pittsburg back in the golden days. The menu / flyer / graphics are original coffee oriented, and commissioned by local people. The menu behind the espresso bar is chalked on a wall of slate. Works, from a local photographer, grace one of the walls. There is music on the weekends. There is a real espresso bar where you can pony up for a shot. There is plenty of room to sit with friends in a lounge area, or sit outside.

However, enough of architecture and industrial design, what really matters is: are the people who run, and work at Steeltown compassionate about coffee? Can they deliver the espresso goods? The answer to this question is–Yes indeed.

You can tell when a principal is serious about the product. Applying this rule to the product of Steeltown, you know they are serious. Occupying a place of importance at the center piece of the bar is a Synesso multi group espresso machine. These machines are regarded around the world as some of the best in the business, and you can sit right next to it as the barista pulls the shots. No need to mention that this level of machine, and this level of attention to coffee is alien to Contra Costa County.

The Synesso is flanked by twin Mazzer Grinders loaded with beans. The grinders are placed in such a way to see the grind hitting the porta filter. Steeltown uses beans from Walnut Creek roaster and café Pacific Bay. The day I dropped in they were pulling shots of an espresso blend from Pacific Bay. Rachael, the barista, was really concerned with taking the time to do the shot right. The result was thick blond crema, smooth mouth feel, and a nutty to earthy notes. It was served in a Nuova Point Sorrento 2.5 oz. demitasse cup in mocha brown with spoon. I had two shots. See picture above. Very nice.

My only complaint with the café was the lack of a single origin espresso racked up in the grinder ready to drip as a godshot from the Synesso.

When other customers were enjoying the brews, the staff was making a local connection. This is the right way to build a coffee fan base. It is more effective than the Starbuck’s cork board claiming BFF.

Steeltown also gets kudos for manners. Man, are they are nice, but not in the phony way. You really get the sense that they want you to enjoy your coffee experience. My opinion is that the location exists in order to put coffee in the spotlight. Politeness is the old school trade in a modern world where barista ego is at an all-time high.

Non espresso coffee brew, is handled via Bodum French Presses. Adriane was very proud of the fact that all the coffee is brewed in this method. No Curtis Airpots here, No Bunn Warmers to stale as the afternoon wears on. The message is freshness. Adrian was excited when explaining the ability to taste the various attributes of the coffee. He is an evangelist when communicating what people can experience in the coffee world, when done right. This church of his is well equipped to edify all those who come to the waters and drink.

Keep Drinking!

Pat

© 2009 Pat Riggs All Rights Reserved

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