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Back Buzz - August 6, 2006

pumping heart Caffé Latino, Fargate, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

As a native SoCalian who grew up near Mexico I couldn't help being misled by the name of Caffé Latino. Visions of brilliant green, red, and white filled my head; my ears were assaulted by the sound of mariachi guitars, accordions, and voices singing "Spanish Eyes" and "Guantanamera" as sweetly as a chorus of jackhammers; and my nose could almost smell the fresh hot handmade corn tortilla chips, traditional cheese enchiladas, chile rellenos, and proper refried beans. Even though I've lived in England for a number of years I could still die for a Number 7 at La Cocina in Seattle, or a Number 5 from Mi Lupita in Long Beach, or some camerones habañeros from Peso's Taco Lounge, or a spicy fajita tofu taco from Gordito's, or a chile relleno burrito from Casa Sanchez, or a calamari taco from Blue Water Burrito, or a half order of nachos from Taco Del Mar, all with plenty of fresh, fiery hot salsa, accompanied by either a Cadillac margarita or a bottle of Mexican beer with a lime wedge....

...oops, but I'm miles off! I'm completely on the wrong track, zipping down the Pacific Coast on Amtrak, too busy enjoying the ocean view to pay attention. I do apologise. And don't worry -- this is still a coffee column. Obviously this "Latino" refers to Italians, and Caffé Latino serves espresso, not margaritas. Opened in March 2006, the cafe is situated at the top of Fargate. The front wall opens directly onto the pedestrian mall, imparting a slight sidewalk-cafe feel. I stopped in recently for a late afternoon macchiato and chatted with the man in charge. He was very proud of his coffee which is brewed from mostly Ethopian beans, and he was also quite excited about his shiny new espresso machine, with separate boilers for each station to help maintain the proper water temperature, and his new hi-tech burr grinder. He spoke to another customer about his latte designs (rosettes), and he told us about an upcoming evening when the public will be invited to come in and make their own espresso drinks.

I sat at one of the nearly outside tables and enjoyed the pleasant breezy view of the shoppers while sipping my macchiato. It was nicely made and attractively presented but very smooth -- perhaps just a bit too smooth for my taste. The cafe is situated directly across from the entrance to Chapel Walk, and for the first time since I moved to Sheffield I had the chance to have a good look at the local architecture. For instance, I'd never noticed how great the Link building is; I could easily picture Juliet espousing from that balcony. And the griffon gargoyles on the Barclay's Bank building adjacent are charming and enticingly photogenic. As my eyes scanned across to the other side of the Chapel Walk archway they crashed painfully into the Marks & Spencers building, a hideous 1960s monstrosity of an erection. How did such an enigma end up between classic relics? Is this Le Corbusier's fault? Or is it just the result of blind city planners and tasteless developers? Just what were the architects thinking, anyway? Were they too caffeine deprived to come up with a decent idea?

The good thing about Caffé Latino is how close it is to the Cathedral bus and tram stops, so it's a perfect place to pick up a take-away spro for your journey home.

Speaking of takeaway things reminds me of a recent e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend:

The other day we received through the door a menu for a new Asian restaurant. When I opened it I was surprised to find the entire menu was in Chinese. We also received a menu for a new Indian restaurant not far away. As I was looking at all the menu symbols -- H (for Halal), V (for Vegetarian), VG (for Vegan) -- I thought that if I had a takeaway restaurant I might use a more thorough list of symbols so that the typical Brit can be sure of exactly what she or he is ordering.

Here is my proposed menu legend:

H: Halal
K: Kosher
V: Vegetarian
VG: Vegan
WF: Wheat Free
LF: Lactose Free
NN: Contains No Nuts
C: Served with Chips
NS: Not Spicy
W: Served With a Delightfully Intriguing Wine Hand Selected By Our Consierge In The Midst Of Satori While Meditating In The Himalayan Foothills Last Summer
R: Blessed by Jah
VF: Vegetables Cooked To F***
WG: Just Something to Wad the Gut
NG: No Green Gooey Bits
EG: Extra Garlic
P: Precocious
What a great system! You made my morning. Now I'll be laughing (and trying in vain to think of any more options more creative than yours) every time I see a menu with some kind of annotation.

I'd be keen to see a menu that uses all. I doubt I'd want to dine at restaurants that feature the characteristics from the bottom of the list -- and I doubt your takeaway would serve them as well. "Just Something to Wad the Gut," for instance. Or "Vegetables Cooked To F***." At first I took that to mean vegetables where they cooked the f*** out of them. Or did you mean vegetables barely steamed, still firm enough to use as sexual apparatus? (I'll never forget the incident in Berkeley in the early 90s when a crazed man with a gun took hostages at a hotel near campus and forced one of the male guests to assault a female with a carrot.)

I'd hope to see lots of W's on the most tempting dishes. Of course, for variety, you'd probably want a whole alphabet of symbols to describe the subtleties of each type of wine.

I've seen menus that mark dishes with icons: a heart for low cholesterol, chili pepper for extra spicy. Would you consider a menu of this sort for those who are more visually inclined? Perhaps a squirrel with red X for "no nuts" (or could you somehow depict a steer or gelding?). Instead of "VF," you could have a man holding a wilted stalk of asparagus.

I'm sure that our friend Dr Ray's "Steaming Stalk" restaurant would be receptive to these ideas.