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Barefoot in the Park(ing Lot)

Name: Barefoot Cafe
Location: 5237 Stevens Creek Blvd, Santa Clara, CA

Roaster: Barefoot Coffee Roasters
Rating: 4

I’ve written about Barefoot’s coffee at a cafe, at home, and at the 2008 WRBC, yet I’m embarrassed to say that, until now, I’ve never been to the Barefoot mothership. Fortunately, fate has a way of shining from time to time, and traveling for work also helps. This time, I found myself just a short hop away from Barefoot’s cafe and wanted to impress my out-of-town colleague with some of the bay area’s finest. I had laid the groundwork for our trip buy guiding him and another colleague up to Temple Coffee (which uses Barefoot) a couple of days before. He had liked that coffee and was more than willing check out the roastery.

Of course, I did have some reservations. Not so much about the coffee, although I did worry that it might not live up to my expectations. My concerns were mostly about the overall sense of design. The chairs seemed to have something funky going on with them even if recently cleaned. The photographs of mismatched furniture smacked of dirty mission cafe design. And the fact that Barefoot is located in a strip mall pretty much sealed the deal for disappointment.

Fortunately, Barefoot has done an amazing job of making lemonade out of a strip mall location. The outdoor seating takes full advantage of the South Bay’s sunnier weather and barely seems as though it’s resting on a peninsula of concrete jutting out into a parking lot.

The inside of the cafe possesses the kind of rich, density of activity that would make Jane Jacobs proud. The seating, while not aesthetically pleasing and crammed into a tiny space is artfully arranged to create an illusion of comfort and connection. One end of the counter supports Barefoot’s three-group La Marzocco surrounded by framed certificates noting the training completed by its baristas. The other end of the counter (separated by the pastry case) is home base for: the cashier; the urns of drip (on my visit, two regular and one decaf); a full drink menu; placards describing the rotating and single-origin espressos; and several wall-mounted posters describing all of Barefoot’s coffees, their roast levels and any other coffee information you might possibly want to know. One full wall was packed with a photographic exhibition and the other held shelves of freshly roasted beans, mostly sealed one-way valve paper bags with a few (the fancier Cup of Excellence stuff) stored in one-way valve-fitted aluminum tins. Oh, and tucked away in the back is still the roaster which will soon move to a new location.

On my first day, I ordered the Ethiopian Ghimbi Wollega single origin espresso. Unfortunately, my time turned out to be far too short and the wait time for this coffee far too long. I asked whether I could get it in paper. Barefoot – to their credit – stuck to their guns and refused. I suppose it wouldn’t have made a difference since the real delay was the long line and the coffee prep time (not the drinking), but I couldn’t help feel but a little miffed at their rigidity as well as the curt response. I’m usually the one advocating for ceramic so I understand their thinking, but I think an explanation would be useful for the typical customer.

All’s well that ends well I suppose. I canceled my order and got a cup of one of Barefoot’s multiple Finca Vista Hermosa Guatemalans. This time it was the Vista Hermosa, which many of you might know of because of the tragic tale behind it or simply because of the high marks it received on Coffee Review. This coffee was a far better cup than the El Eden I had tried at home a while back. It was very well-balanced despite its complexity: lots of bright citrus, tobacco and chocolate and several less identifiable notes in between (that I didn’t have time to savor or note properly).

My second day back, I finally got to order that Ghimbi. It certainly was one of the more amazingly complex and intriguing espressos I’ve had in a while. I suppose the jury is out as to whether I really liked it, but I’d certainly drink it again in minute. It had a very bright start, – meyer lemon – moving into a savory, crisp, zingy middle – celery and white pepper – and rounding things out with a sweet finish – summer melon and just a touch of blackberry. What’s just as amazing about this coffee was that it had virtually no aftertaste.

I was impressed enough to stop back that afternoon before heading home. I ordered the Element 114 blend. It’s not your typical espresso, but a bit closer to the norm than the Ghimbi. This delicious espresso had a bright lemony citrus followed up by a deep rich, bold undertone of molasses and caramel. It was more oakey and not as sweet as the Ghimbi and also had a stronger (and not entirely pleasant) tobacco aftertaste.

All in all, Barefoot seems a little like their coffee. They are frenetic, complicated, a little eccentric and slightly scattered. Yet somehow they manage to pull all the loose threads together into a cohesive, award-winning and genuinely delicious product.

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