THERE WAS A time (so very long ago) when a cup of professionally brewed espresso or cappuccino required more than a familiarity with the bean; it required a plane ticket. Coffee of the highest caliber was not a local draw.
But no more. Along with Italian eateries, the hottest culinary enterprise going in Tucson these days seems to be the coffeehouse, where at least half a dozen new venues have opened in the last 18 months. It's true that some of these new businesses are representative of the phenomenal chain mentality that's gripped our city in recent years, but a good number are locally owned and operated. In addition, many of these Tucson-born operations exemplify the kind of idiosyncratic charm that wins fans and inspires frequent return visits. If a neighborhood bar was the place to go in previous decades to meet friends and discuss the day's events, the coffeehouse has replaced it in the closing decade of this century. Everyone seems to have a favorite place to hang out and sip a sophisticated cup of joe. Here are a few more to add to your list of "in" places:
Raging Sage Coffee Roasters (2458 N. Campbell Ave.; 320-5203) is a bit of a challenge to locate along the perpetually hectic stretch of Campbell Avenue, just north of Grant Road. But if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll spot the converted house on the east side of the street. Parking is scarce in the front, but additional spots await if you pull around behind, where there's easy access through a side patio.
Owned and operated by the Sliker family (mother, father and two adult daughters), Raging Sage is a small marvel of comfort and style. Natural wood floors and furniture along with hues of heather green, gold and russet impart a modern but warm ambiance, with seating spaced far enough apart to allow patrons to spread out with ease. Several university students lounged during recent visits, notebooks and tomes laid out before them as they pondered the composition of the universe and sipped freshly brewed cappuccino. No one seemed in any hurry to depart, and the proprietors seemed unconcerned about the protracted turnover in tables. Raging Sage is a gracious sanctuary from the bustle of the outside world.
The owners categorize their business as a "micro-roastery," a place where small quantities of coffee beans are roasted on the premises and enjoyed in individual cups as well as in packaged bags to take home. Although food is served here (all of it fantastic, by the way), the primary concern at Raging Sage is indeed the bean. Whether it's being brewed by the cup or bagged for a wide palate of tastes (the roasts range from mild to a deep, sultry dark), the bean reigns supreme -- and a worthy star it is.
Each cup is made to order, which requires a little bit of time but is well worth the wait. Raging Sage's coffee is rich, full-bodied and devoid of all traces of bitterness or acidic aftertaste. Brewed beverages come in three sizes, and only the most desperate of guzzlers will opt for the super grande portion. All are served in porcelain coffee cups, the largest requiring a two-handed technique to vault it to your waiting lips. Both a vanilla latte and espresso mocha were absolutely scrumptious. Although it's too tempting to order something more elaborate when in a place like Raging Sage, I imagine a plain cup of coffee here could be equally as impressive.
Muffins, coffeecake, brownies and other baked goods are made fresh daily. A fudgy nut-filled brownie was a chocolate lover's fantasy, while a generous square of oatmeal coffeecake, moist and warm with a caramel-pecan streusel, was out-of-the-oven delicious. Only three sandwiches are featured at Raging Sage, but each is a winner: an open-faced egg salad; roasted bell pepper and brie; and curried chicken breast. Lunch hours are limited to 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., but if your timing is right, don't miss out on these gourmet offerings. We only had a chance to sample the curried chicken, which featured tender chunks of moist breast meat tossed in a piquant, curried mayonnaise, served with roasted and peeled plum tomatoes between slices of French bread. The extraordinary quality of everything else we tasted at Raging Sage ensures we'll be back for more.
On the far east side is another bastion of coffeehouse splendor, Le Buzz Caffe/Espresso, a small enterprise located in the Madera Village Shopping Center at Bear Canyon Road. Catering to an upscale clientele and presenting a slightly trendier facade than Raging Sage, Le Buzz is equally solid on serving a grand cup of coffee. Rumor has it that the espresso machine here also hails from Italy, and requires time and attention to detail in order to brew a perfect cup. From what we observed, it seemed only certain trained staff ever touch this magnificent machine, and the result is a flavorful and satisfying sip every time.
Le Buzz also has a working kitchen, which turns out hot and cold sandwiches, salads, quiche and a variety of baked goods. The only downside we encountered at Le Buzz was the counter service during lunch hour, which quickly became overwhelmed and unable to juggle a barrage of requests. Fortunately, we arrived just before the rush, but we observed several people who came in shortly after us who stood in line for 20 minutes or more just to place an order. Very few of the assembled, however, appeared in a hurry (lots of older couples and young mothers with deep tans, painted toenails, gold jewelry and preschool children).
The food at Le Buzz is top-notch. The Italian salami and provolone sandwich -- served with fresh spinach leaves, sliced tomatoes, finely grated parmesan and basil pesto between slices of tender focaccia bread -- was a luscious repast. The large rounds of thinly sliced Genoa salami were subtly spiced and peppered, and the basil pesto capped it all off with savory panache.
A broccoli and tomato quiche surpassed the tired mold encountered of late in other restaurants. The filling here was a creamy custard liberally peppered with broccoli florets and chopped tomato, and the crust was a light and flaky pastry of understated tastiness, perfectly encasing the egg and vegetable contents. A floury white dinner roll was offered on the side, along with a dollop of sweet butter and tart blackberry jam. As good as the quiche was, this simple supplement came close to eclipsing it. If you've ever enjoyed homemade bread or rolls fresh from the oven, you know what I'm talking about.
Breads, pastries and dessert items are made fresh daily by Sweet & Savory Cravings, and you'll encounter an impressive assortment of treats that regales the senses as you trundle along waiting to place your order. Strawberry scones, peach-pecan cinnamon rolls, non-fat cinnamon twists and blackberry coffeecake all weaken the resolve to eat lightly.
Bread, in fact, may be the business to boom on the local scene. Where once a few small bakeries cornered the market, we now have a variety of unexpected places popping up that nurture a deep and abiding love for the staff of life. Add to this list the Brio Bakery Café, located in a shopping center at the northeast corner of River and Craycroft.
Formerly Aspen Mills, Brio has opened a second store in Green Valley, where a daily selection of specialty breads are featured with a schedule circulated to alert customers to the days when their particular favorites will make the cut: farm fresh white, stone-ground whole wheat, multi-grain, sourdough, apple cinnamon, black forest chocolate, banana, caraway dill rye, challah, cheddar garlic herb, cinnamon raisin, cranberry spice, fiesta loaf, focaccia, French loaf, hearty grain, kalamata herb, old-fashioned potato, onion herb, orange cranberry walnut, pecan zest, pumpernickel, pumpkin spice, Rocky Mountain rye, savory Italian parmesan, tomato basil, sunflower cheddar corn, sunflower whole wheat, and zucchini walnut. Whew! Due to space constraints, I won't elaborate on the dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, muffins and cookies.
Brio's loaves are quite good, and the limited list of sandwiches made with that bread is fresh and satisfactory. (A mesquite turkey with lettuce, tomato and cucumber served on the cranberry spice bread and spread with a zesty cranberry relish was quite tasty). So by all means, go there for the bread; but if it's a decent cup of coffee you're seeking, look elsewhere. I tried my standard order of vanilla latte and was profoundly disappointed by a tepid and anemic cup of coffee lightened with cream (not topped with steamed milk as it should be) and sweetened by something which surely was not vanilla syrup. Truly, I've had a better cup of coffee at Circle K first thing in the morning. How embarrassing.
Overall, though, things are looking up in our fair city when it comes to coffee. Never have the choices been so abundant or laudable. Coffeehouse chic has migrated south, for good.
Raging Sage Coffee Roasters. 2458 N. Campbell Ave. 320-5203. Open 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. No liquor. Local checks with guarantee card. Menu items: $1.50-$5.50. Le Buzz Caffe/Espresso. 9095 E. Tanque Verde Road. 749-3903. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. No liquor. Local checks with guarantee card. Menu items: $1.25-$5.75. Brio Bakery Café. Two locations: 5575 E. River Road, Suite 101 (299-7950); and 20 N. LaCanada (in Green Valley, 399-1917). Open 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. No liquor. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $2-$5.75.