The menu posted outside Kabab Café, in Astoria’s Little Egypt, is out of date by roughly a quarter century. Ali El Sayed, the proprietor, chef, and sole employee, put it up shortly after opening the restaurant, in 1989, and then willfully forgot about it. He refuses to be confined to a menu and believes that all true cooking necessitates flamboyant improvisation. “You have a map of flavors,” he says. “And then you dance.”
El Sayed is heavyset and looks the part of a chef, except in that he dons a straw fedora in place of a toque blanche. Watching him work, banter with regulars in a mix of English and Arabic, and croon along to an Édith Piaf number playing over the speakers is part of the experience. “Cooking is performance,” he likes to say. “Every day I am onstage.” Should you arrive before the curtain, El Sayed can usually be found across the street, at Caffé Borbone, partaking of a pre-show espresso with Sambuca.
It is sometimes said of small, informal restaurants with affable hosts that they call to mind the experience of being a guest in someone’s home. At Kabab Café, this description takes on literal dimensions. If El Sayed sees you on your phone, he’ll tell you, in an almost grandmotherly tone, to “stop working and eat.” Every male customer is a “brother,” every woman “honey” or “my dear.” He might absent-mindedly leave a dishrag on your table, or help himself to some pita bread from your party’s communal plate. His speech is cheerfully peppered with expletives, and no subject of conversation is off limits: the sunny triad of politics, religion, and sex is ever present. When he senses that he may have gone too far, he’ll smile impishly and tell you to “chillax”—he loves you and he’s on your side.
Another enigmatic sign on the restaurant’s exterior reads “VEGETARIAN” in big green letters. El Sayed can supply no intelligible explanation for why he put it up; Kabab Café is decidedly not vegetarian. That said, many locals do drop in just for the standard appetizer, a meze platter of homemade falafel, baba ghanoush, fava beans, fried chicory, apple, cucumber, hummus—whatever’s on hand. His moussaka—baked eggplant with zucchini, potato, and fresh tomatoes—is also a draw.
With meat dishes, El Sayed cooks “from snout to tail,” leaving nothing to waste. What he’ll prepare on any given night cannot be foretold, but past delicacies have included cow-foot stew, whole rabbit, and the unmentionable parts of a goat. On a recent outing, the lamb brain—battered in egg and rice flour, fried in grapeseed oil, and served in a lemon sauce with grilled peaches—was unassailable. El Sayed also has a penchant for the exotic and will on occasion procure camel meat, crocodile, and ostrich. Spicy alpaca sausage is a recurring motif, which he might add to a dish on a whim, consulting only his gastronomic imagination for permission.
It should be said that the open kitchenette takes up a third of the restaurant’s space and can produce a little smoke. El Sayed will sometimes use a torch to singe the skin of a bird or the scales of a fish. One of his best dishes this summer has been the Spanish mackerel, which he gets from a Chinese market in Elmhurst and seasons with Egyptian spices. He’ll serve it either as is, sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, or filleted into thick chunks and swimming in a homemade gazpacho. Another highlight is the charred chicken, for both its density of flavors and its presentation. On a round plate, he’ll ladle out four rings, one inside another: gazpacho, smoked eggplant, mashed baked pears, and, nestled in the center, delectably scorched boneless chicken. The trick is not to mix it up but to shovel from the outside in, collecting a bit of each layer into a single bite.
The other day, a cautious man urged his date to order something normal. “To be normal is idiotic,” El Sayed retorted amiably from his post. “You should not be normal—you should be who you are.” (Prices are subject to El Sayed’s discretion, with entrées around $15-$27.) ♦
When the first customers enter the new Berkeley location of SF’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters tomorrow, they’ll see themselves in an eight foot mirror above the bar. It’s a sort of “visual metaphor” according to co-CEO Nick Cho — Wrecking Ball’s goal, he means, is to reflect its community.
Cho and co-CEO Trish Rothgeb, who roast their own coffee in a Folsom Street space, opened Wrecking Ball’s first, petite cafe in Cow Hollow in 2014. Their new Berkeley location, a former Philz Coffee shop at 1600 Shattuck, is much larger. There’s more room to serve coffee drinks from a new Modbar espresso machine, more space to stock a variety of food and baked goods — vendors TBD — and even enough room to set up a stand for custom lemonade beverages. There’s also more space for the community: More seating and tables for conversation and inclusion, a major goal of Wrecking Ball’s business.
“This isn’t an art piece,” says Cho of the new shop, “ the whole space is about ‘how do we want to make people feel?’ It’s a space for people to interact.”
Up some stairs in a loft-like area, visitors can gather at 12-foot, public library-style table. A large bookshelf will serve as a sort of take-one, leave-one community library. There’s a coffee shop couch that “feels like a vestige of the ’90s and Friends and Central Perk,” some chairs — and a striking mural of a French and Jamaican woman wearing traditional Korean clothing. It’s a nod to Cho’s Korean heritage by the Korean artist Chris Chanyang Shim, commissioned for the space.
Cho and Rothgeb, as customers quickly realize, aren’t just coffee professionals: They’re idealists championing diversity in the often white and male-dominated specialty coffee space. They’re also frequently-cited coffee experts — Rothgeb is credited with coining the term “third wave coffee.” That position of authority comes with responsibility, says Cho. “We’re sort of uniquely positioned to help design and articulate where we’re from and where we’re going… the next era [of coffee]”
One small way Wrecking Ball puts its values in practice will be through its wi-fi. The cafe will encourage patrons to make small donations to a designated charity in exchange for internet access. Up first will be RAICES, the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas. It was RAICES, after all, that inspired Wrecking Ball to turn down a $40,000 contract to serve coffee at a Salesforce conference, a move to protest the software company’s collaboration with US Customs and Border Protection.
Starting tomorrow, Wrecking Ball’s new cafe will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends.
Like the Guitar Hero version of Tom Sawyer set to Expert level, this Rush demands to be Crushed. Or since this is Chicago, maybe it needs to be Shellac’ed. Either way, the La Marzocco team competition is coming to the Second City tomorrow, August 23rd, and there’s still time to get involved!
Taking place at the Caffe Umbria roastery, Crush the Rush is essentially a coffee good time in the guise of a competition that pits teams of three against one another in hand-to-hand barista combat. Combat in this case comes via eight pristine drinks—no spills, no stains, just a perfectly made beverage—and the requisite “side work,” which could be anything really, all under the immense pressure of a time trial. After the time trial, a finals round will occur, and the team with the best shops will be crowned the Rush Crushers of Chicago.
But it’s not all go go go competition, Crush the Rush is so much more. Along with coffee and pastries as well as lunch provided by La Marzocco, attendees are welcome to take part in a barista ergonomics talk, “The Right Way To Stay Health Behind The Bar,” delivered by the Director of Physical Medicine at Aligned Modern Health, Dr. Steve Heffner.
Due to cancellations, competitor slots have re-opened for Crush the Rush Chicago, so if you’ve got two other quick-acting friends, you can sneak right and steal all the glory for yourselves. All you have to do is register via Eventbrite, which can be done here, all for free!
For those looking to Rush but maybe not so much Crush (read: compete), the whole shebang is completely free to attend and no tickets are required. La Marzocco does ask that you RSVP via the Facebook event page. It’s all going down tomorrow, August 23rd at Caffe Umbria’s roastery. For more information on Crush the Rush, check out La Marzocco’s official website, their Facebook event page, or the Eventbrite page.
All images via La Marzocco
Disclosure: Sprudge is the official media partner of Crush The Rush.
Not to get all Guy Fieri on y’all, but we here at Sprudge love diner coffee, dive coffee, and of course, drive-in coffee. Or drive-thru coffee, as it stands in this case. And that’s exactly what Fayetteville, Arkansas’s Arsaga’s Coffee Roasters is delivery up.
After nearly 30 years in business, the family-run coffee company is opening their sixth cafe location, but their first drive-thru, one that used to be a former meatloaf drive-thru spot at that. But don’t let the homey past fool you, the newest Arsaga’s is fit out is about as modern as they come. A Modbar AV, PuqPress, and all manner of Mahlkönig grinder, this ain’t your granny’s drive-thru. So grab your sunglasses, bleach your hair, and hop in that ole 1967 Chevy Camaro SS Convertible, we’re heading to Flavor Town, which just so happens to be at Arsaga’s Coffee Roasters in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
As told to Sprudge by Jason Arsaga.
For those who aren’t familiar, will you tell us about your company?
We’re a family owned and operated coffee roaster with five cafes all on the south side of Fayetteville, Arkansas. We opened in 1992. We delight in making great versions of things that people often take for granted or have a low opinion of.
We hope to create spaces that we’d like to be in and work in… alongside our friends and family.
Can you tell us a bit about the new space?
Our new space is a drive thru coffee spot that our community has lovingly renamed “Carsaga’s.” This is our first and only drive thru. We made this spot for parents with cars full of kids that they can’t drag into a cafe and for the people who want good coffee but don’t want to put on pants or be social before coffee.
We built out this space to be efficient, ergonomic, and to reduce waste as much as possible.
The space was originally built to be a Rally’s sometime in the 80’s probably. At one point it was allegedly a drive thru meatloaf spot.
What’s your approach to coffee?
We make the coffee that we want to drink. We try not to chase fads but we also love the improvements that come from constant engagement and being aware of trends.
We tend to favor a medium to medium light roast for most coffees but we try to pay attention to what a particular coffee wants and to bring out what’s best in it… not too light and not too dark but the sweetest spot we can get it to.
We’re in an industry built on being the side hustle for artists. We try to harness and direct that powerful creative force. We’re on a ride with coffee and each other.
Any machines, coffees, special equipment lined up?
The drive thru gear features a two-group ModBar AV and Steam, Mahlkönig PEAK, Twin, and EK43 grinders, PuqPress, Curtis G4 batch brewers, Rhino pitcher rinsers, Acaia Pearl scales, Hario v60 scales, OCD V2 distributors, in counter milk ice bin, all cold coffees (flash brewed nitro and cold brew), and soda water on tap. We also have nice sounding Sonos speakers inside the building.
We built out the cafe so that we can add to it as we learn its limitations. The entire setup can be built again on the opposite side of the cafe if needed. So far this is our fastest and easiest to work bar.
For coffee we have a house espresso/batch brew blend named Daily Driver. As batch brew it’s a bold medium dark cup with tasting notes of chocolate and walnut with an apple acidity. As espresso it’s much sweeter and has tasting notes of chocolate, almond, and cherry.
We have a rotating single origin espresso and a decaf espresso. We have two cold brew options available at all times. One is nutty and mellow and the other is a wild card. We have two batch brew options available at all times. One is Daily Driver and the other is a rotating single origin.
How is your project considering sustainability?
This was a big concern for us going into such a disposable situation as a drive thru coffee spot. Our cups, lids, and straws are compostable. The city of Fayetteville is starting a restaurant food waste compost program very soon and we’re one of their first participants. We currently compost our food and coffee waste but it’s a big chore to keep up on.
We purchase milk from a local dairy named Ozark Mountain Creamery that uses glass bottle packaging. They sanitize and reuse the glass bottles. Their milk is very good too! Our loyalty card is a “bring your own cup” card. We give customers a discount for bringing a reusable cup and eventually they also get a free drink after purchasing 14 drinks. We offer a few of our food items in reusable glass jars that customers can return for a bottle deposit. We make our syrups and sauces in house under the name Queen Cadwallader’s, and source all our chocolate from a local chocolate company named Markham & Fitz. Besides increasing quality, sourcing ingredients this way also results in a less waste and shipping.
What’s your hopeful target opening date/month?
We opened two weeks ago!
Are you working with craftspeople, architects, and/or creatives that you’d like to mention?
All of our carpentry and so much more is done by Marc Gunter and Al Kennet. Our signage was hand painted by Joe Alexander. Our metal menu boards were made by a local fabricator named Modus. Our flowers and trees were put in and are maintained by Rachel Lyons of Bee Well Gardens. David Lamont, Scott Manley, and Will Frith of La Marzocco/ModBar provided tons of help and ideas for this project.
Fiona Parson from Rhino made a lot of helpful gear recommendations. Ari Fasanella of Cafe Imports, Dean Kallivrousis of Ally, Jennifer Huber of Royal, and Mark Bray from Airship are green importers who all keep us informed about and supplied with great green coffees.
Thank you too!
The Build-Outs Of Summer is an annual series on Sprudge. Live the thrill of the build all summer long in our Build-Outs feature hub.
The owners of the Kiesling in Milwaukee Junction are preparing to open a new coffee bar this fall. Owner Carlo Liburdi and partner Ashley Davidson are in the process of building out a compact espresso counter called Milwaukee Caffe next door their hit cocktail lounge.
Milwaukee Caffe is the latest step in Liburdi’s multi-year redevelopment of a property at the corner of Beaubien Street and East Milwaukee Avenue. It started with the renovation of lofts and was followed up by the opening of Kiesling in 2018. Like the Kiesling, which gets its name from a circa 1920s saloon that was once located on the site, Liburdi and Davidson are also drawing on the history of the building for their coffee shop. “We have an old photo of the building that has a storefront called Milwaukee Cafe,” Liburdi says of the inspiration for the name. From there, the pair decided to build on their mutual appreciation for Italy’s coffee culture (Liburdi’s family is from Italy) by using the Italian spelling for “caffe.”
The space for Milwaukee Caffe is located along the East Milwaukee side of the brick property. While it has its own entrance from the street, the coffee bar will also have access to Kiesling through two different doors — leaving open the possibility for some sort of coffee tie-ins to the cocktail lounge down the road. Working within a very limited footprint, Davidson and Liburdi are aiming to bring a urban, standing room-only format to the space similar to Italian espresso bars.
The shop will feature a small coffee bar with an curved counter where customers can walk-up, place their orders, and take their coffee to-go. Two large windows look out on the sidewalk with one that will swing open during warm weather and allow Milwaukee Caffe to add a small amount of outdoor seating along the window sill.
“We wanted it to be open to the street, especially because one of the goals for us for being a neighborhood bar — and now a coffee shop — is you want to see that traffic out there,” Davidson says. “You want street life to come back in an a really healthy way, and I think one of the ways that that happens is when you have inside, outside access.” The bright interior of the space is also designed as a counter balance to the darker interior at Kiesling. “It should feel very light and airy, but super welcoming,” she says.
The shop is expected to offer the standard drinks including pour-overs and espresso drinks. Davidson and Liburdi are still in the process of determining what coffee they’ll use, but say it’s likely to be a mix of different beans sourced from around the country. “I think one of the unique things about what’s going on in coffee right now is there is such a local approach and everybody’s like doing something a little differently,” Davidson says.
Milwaukee Caffe is aiming to open by late summer or early fall. Meanwhile, Liburdi and Davidson are working on an expansion at Kiesling including adding a kitchen and a new seating area. Stay tuned for more updates on the progress.