The Practice and Pleasures of Zendo
Coffee at Zendo ArtEspresso
When my guest and I visited the café in the late hours of a weekend afternoon, we were greeted by a little more than a dozen patrons scattered in and outside of the shop. Once inside, we discovered scratched, paint-strewn, industrial floors, brick walls painted white and illuminated with equal parts natural and track lighting, and airy, wooden ceiling beams. The atmosphere was peaceful and mellow, if a little distant. It didn’t have the frenetic energy of Winning Coffee Co. or Java Joe’s, but then again, it was almost 4pm.
The brew of the day was a lightly roasted Ethiopian coffee. It had a great nose, full of fruity, flowered honey notes, with a pleasant nuttiness at the finish.
Customers have an assortment of seating options. You can cop a squat outside on a wooden patio with built-in benches and planter boxes. Or, pull up a low-seated folding chair at a simple wooden table built for two, maybe three people at the most. Inside, you can snag one of the barstools lining the counter and watch the barista whip up drinks for your fellow patrons. Settle in on the sofa stationed against the back wall, your feet propped up on the low white coffee table. Or, sit picnic-style at a long buffet table with two benches on either side, especially if you want to be closest to the electrical outlets. The last was the most popular spot for the multitudes of Mac users tapping away at separate work projects.
My companion and I stationed ourselves at a two-top right next to the front window. It was the perfect spot to view the scene within and the larger world without, and to observe the sometimes jarring juxtapositions between the two. In terms of the space and its clientele, Zendo is every bit the 21st-century coffee shop experience: WiFi password scrawled on a chalkboard; water served in short, blue Mason jars; library-quiet conversations; cycling hipsters wearing hoodies, glasses and cuffed jeans while carrying messenger bags. Meanwhile, a (seemingly) homeless man in glasses with a white cane asked patrons on the patio-ttachment if they wanted a bottle of water. It was hard to hear over the chatter, music and passing traffic if he was offering or trying to sell it.
The walls were replete with works from Estate of the Union, an exhibit from artist Ruben Cantu (on display through March 6). By far the best pieces were two maps of the United States at opposite ends of the shop. Instead of states, they were overlaid with cartoonish, felt faces, like Charlie Brown with a jack-o’-lantern head, Boba Fett, Mr. T, Orko from “He-Man,” and Sesame Street’s Count von Count. Many had black dot eyes and square-jawed Domo mouths.
I ordered the Aztec latte ($4.50), a combo of robust coffee, milk and dark chocolate, with a speckle of bright cayenne pepper. Although the cayenne’s flavor does make itself known, its heat builds slowly. It could be mistaken for hot cocoa at first, but then the coffee and cayenne come in on the back of the tongue. Still, it all goes down smooth with little residual mouth burn.
My guest, on the other hand, chose the Turkish latte ($4.50), made with honey, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg. She marveled at the quality of the cardamom, praising it for “not being dried out, stale or bitter,” and described the latte overall as “very chai-y.” Me? I found each of its flavors distinct yet cohesive, albeit a little watery for my taste. Neither one of us was brave enough to hazard the Heisenberg, though. For six bucks, you get a quadruple-shot cappuccino topped with blue crystal rock candy. While tempting, both of us also wanted to be able to sleep, so we passed. For non-coffee drinkers, Zendo also offers loose leaf teas like Earl Grey, rooibos, peppermint and pomegranate; hot tea is served in weighty metal teapots.
My guest and I split a perfectly serviceable toasted everything bagel ($3) covered in dried garlic and onion slivers, as well as poppy and sesame seeds. Zendo purchases its bagels from Einstein or, rarely, Nosh. Other menu options included breakfast burritos, fruit and pastries (prices vary). Aside from these, though, there isn’t much in the way of food. Zendo also offers gift cards for that special coffee fanatic in your life. The counter help seemed surprisingly lackadaisical about collecting money for our orders, but that’s just because the customer’s needs came before the cash register’s.
Final assessment: The prices are reasonable, the portions are decent, and the space feels open and airy overall. If coffee goes hand-in-hand with gentrification, then let it be served at a place with a sense of community, like Zendo, rather than some chain.
413 Second Street SW
Hours: 7am to 6pm, seven days a week
Plastic?: Yes, thanks to Square
The Alibi recommends: Turkish latte and Aztec latte