Finding a cafe with a little original flavor is as hard as snagging a table next to the electrical outlet, the sweet spot for laptop charging. Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations cafes near campus don't have to offer much beyond location, a sizable wrack of sticky tables, and a stack of sneeze-stained newspapers for distraction. And, of course, coffee that's strong enough to drop a caffeine payload straight onto your brain receptors. Food takes a backseat. The choice usually comes down to the clammy bagel and the flaccid muffin.
Near Chabot College in Hayward, Eon Cafe doesn't want to hook you up with just a coffee buzz and a stale scone. Owners Liz Buergi and Yoshi Nozawa want to fill you up with krill.
That's right: krill.
If you're not some bio geek, krill are tiny, shrimplike creatures euphausiids, according to helpful krill literature scattered throughout Eon that swarm in the Antarctic south of Tierra del Fuego. In other words, whale food. "It is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which repair aging cells," the literature explains. Liz Buergi thinks Eon may be the only place in America that serves krill.
Not surprising, you may be thinking. And if you're a college student, you may not believe you have cells decrepit enough to need shoring up with whale food. Eon isn't letting you take the chance: Krill lurk in the house-made tuna sandwich and in the salad Niçoise, in the house-made sushi rolls and clam chowder. They're even in the cookies. Talk about original flavor.
It's a flavor that works best when tasted least. On the prewrapped tuna salad sandwich, the finely ground critters are a vague, salty presence. The flavor seems to lurk there, somewhere through the bright-tasting dill mayo that binds everything together, inside a slab of split, rosemary-flecked ciabatta. The uncertainty is thrilling, and the same goes for sushi rolls. In Eon's various iterations of California maki, the krill is all ground up inside mayonnaise-slick sea-leg salad.
But the krill-laced clam chowder delivers a big old euphausiid blast. It tastes like protein-sweet, vaguely fishy cardboard, just the way goldfish flakes smell. And it doesn't help that the chowder itself is no better than okay, a milky, slightly grainy background to show off the krill.
If you gotta have your euphausiids, my advice is to go for an Omega-3 oatmeal-raisin cookie. The krill nestle innocently and imperceptibly into the nutty taste of the oatmeal.
Eon is a comfortable place to hang out, a spruced-up Elks Lodge with classic mid-century bones, all cork floors, exposed beams, and pale woods. The krill snacks might register as little more than a curiosity, except for one thing: Eon's espresso is among the best you'll ever taste. Forget the indifferent little cups you get at a Peet's or Starbucks, a scurf of bubbles floating on thin, black liquid. At Eon, sipping an espresso is like sipping fine silk foam. And the taste (the beans are from San Jose's Barefoot Coffee Roasters) has an astonishing lemony acidity.
The texture of the cappuccino is just as good. Milk foam feels airy in your mouth, a sensation as delicate as freshly whipped zabaglione. It hovers above a dark, smoky burr of espresso, a taste more nuance than payoff. You won't find some harried barista stressing over the Frappuccino blender these are coffee drinks constructed with precision, sometimes by Yoshi Nozawa himself.
If Eon is about precision, then Berkeley's three-month-old Guerilla Cafe is about getting the vibe right. Artist Keba Konte, Afro Buddha designer Rachel Konte, and ceramicist Andrea Ali transformed a moldering sprouts-and-tofu institution Smokey Joe's Vegetarian Cafe into the coolest spot in the East Bay to ingest caffeine.
The aesthetic is '70s Afro-activist chic, a hit of Black Panther retro with the carefully roughed-up edges of an Urban Outfitters. It's slick, but also smart: The logo is a hulking gorilla in Huey Newton shades and Che beret. Ali's multicolor circular tiles clad the counter like giant Skittles, and an awesome Keba Konte construction from the series called A Second Line for Nola is a 3-D collage of empty-lot bric-a-brac. Guerilla Cafe drops the age quotient in the Gourmet Ghetto by, like, thirty years.
And yet it feels right at home in pricey, real-estate-flush North Berkeley. With organic coffee from Oakland's Blue Bottle and a small menu of sophisticated counter foods, it skews more gourmet than ghetto. Despite cool table flags that pay tribute to cultural and activist heroes such as Muhammad Ali and Nina Simone, Guerilla is as much a tribute to Berkeley's Cafe Fanny as it is to civil-rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer.
But hey, I love what they do. The cafe Africano is rich and concentrated, a luscious macchiato served up in a thick little juice tumbler. There's no drip coffee here, only French press, made with Blue Bottle's Three Africans blend. It's good, if you like the fine, grainy sensation of French press coffee. And it's available only in a single large size. You need a few friends to help you polish it off.
The daily waffle is the heart of Guerilla's menu. One day it was spiced yam, a thick, tender disc with yam flecks and the cinnamon-cloves aura of sweet potato pie. Another day it was mild-tasting buckwheat. Just killer, both of them.
Andrea Ali says Guerilla tries to source as many organic ingredients as it can afford, and as many as it can get from farmers of color. Guerilla's eggs from Art Davis, a longtime fixture at the Berkeley Farmers' Market are both. Sit at the counter and you can watch the cook poach them in the old-fashioned egg steamer its lids pop up when the eggs are done. Poached eggs Mediterranean come with a pile of levain toast and an arrangement of sliced cucumber and sweet, plummy gold tomatoes, feta, and kalamata olives.
At lunch there's a different vegetarian panini every day, served with a slick, leafy side salad. One day it was stuffed with grilled eggplant, sweet peppers roasted on-site, and creamy goat cheese a Cal-Med classic that tasted just right. At $7.25, it's not something a lot of students regularly have the cash for, but it's big and filling, and composed of such pristine ingredients it's far from overpriced. Think of it as the price of an education. With Evelyn "Champagne" King and vintage Stevie Wonder pulsing through the place, you can learn up about '70s disco funk. Study your table sign, and you can open your mind to John Coltrane or Assata Shakur.
And as with any institution of higher learning, you can buy the T-shirt.
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