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Name: Cafe Zombie
Location: inside ZombieRunner, 429 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA
Rating: 4

I recently drove the family down to Palo Alto to visit some family friends. Of course, the trip had to include a stop-off for yogurt from Fraiche, but as happy I as I am with their Blue Bottle coffee production, I wanted to try something new. Besides, I needed to pick up a housewarming gift – coffee that I didn’t think our friends had already tried. Introducing Cafe Zombie, a coffee destination that I never would have stumbled upon without the help of Gary’s bloodhound-like nose and Greg’s careful advanced sleuthing.

Just to set the record straight, Cafe Zombie isn’t much to look at. It’s essentially an overflowing coffee cart and small seating area stashed in one section of the running store, ZombieRunner, which occupies an old theater building off University in Palo Alto – down near the Cal Train station. It’s a nice space and a nice running store, but you’d never expect to find world class coffee hiding away in here. The stores somewhat less than early hours aren’t all that conducive to those seeking out their early morning caffeine either.

The cafe set up is a like a slightly disorganized, and smaller scale version of what you might find at any of the more significant cafe Meccas such as Blue Bottle’s Cafe, Intelligentsia Venice, or LAMILL. Lurking back behind the Rancillio HX espresso machine are a pour over drip station, several Frieling Press Pots, a halogen burner and multiple sizes of Hario Siphons and even an Aeropress. The menu is spare and doesn’t suggest all the mad-scientist-like brewing methods lurking behind the counter, but that didn’t stop Don, the co-owner/barista/coffee geek, from making me a siphon of their Ethiopian Sidamo when asked.

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Cafe Zombie’s coffee comes from Moksha Coffee Roasting in Mountain View, who I was only a little familiar prior to this visit based on one Clover brewed cup I had of Moksha’s Oasis blend back at the 2008 WRBC. I’ve read good things about their Indian Monsoon Malabar coffee since (which I didn’t try on this visit), but the Colombian single-origin espresso and Sidamo in the siphon did convince me that I need to try more. Sadly, while I grabbed a bag of the Colombian for our friends, I felt too encumbered with other coffee at home to pick some up this time. It seems I failed to secure my own air mask before securing my child’s.

The siphon Sidamo hit all the right notes, even given the warning by Don that the coffee was a couple of days pre-peak. From the description, I was expecting a fruit bomb, but what I got in my cup was far more delicate – sweet without being cloying. The coffee was incredibly gentle and smooth with rich, bitter chocolate notes up front and mild blueberry, as well as plum, grape and cherry rolling in after. Don suggested a little milk (which I didn’t try) to really bring out the fruit.

Just as important was the siphon advice Don gave me about never letting my cloth filter dry out after washing it. Apparently this has been the source of that cloyingly and “clothy” (descriptor?) taste I’ve been getting from my siphon. I’ll let you know what I find over time, but so far the last few pots I’ve brewed have turned out far better, forestalling my eventual move to cory glass rod.

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For espresso, Don pulled me a shot of the Colombian, a choice I wouldn’t have necessarily made myself but thoroughly commend as an artful bit of coffee sommeliering. The Colombian, served in a Bodum Pavina (aka Commander Adama shot glass), was surprisingly well-balanced for a single origin coffee and displayed a golden crema with gorgeous flecking. It was a full-bodied shot, slightly creamy and rich, tasting of tangerine infused semi-sweet chocolate.

Future plans for Cafe Zombie may include a more permanent installation and official kitchen set-up, which I imagine will be nicer for the staff making coffee and feel less like an ad hoc addition. Of course, Cafe Zombie doesn’t need a fancy location to make itself worthwhile – it already has all the important elements. It’s good coffee, made well and with enthusiasm behind it that’s worth seeking out regardless of the location. If you happen to like running, then I guess that’s a bonus.

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