Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where We Eat: The Blind Tiger Cafe

My first coffee experience is something I will never forget. I was sixteen, smack dab in the middle of a trans-Atlantic flight from Washington, DC to Amsterdam, when a waitress approached me and asked if I wanted anything to drink. Following in the footsteps of some guy I saw in a movie, I asked her for a cup of coffee, black. She brought it out in a little styrofoam cup, thick enough to protect me from the scalding liquid but not so much so that I couldn't feel some of the warmth radiating from it. I took a sip. My immediate reactions were who are the people that drink this stuff regularly and why do they hate themselves so much to repeatedly participate in such a disgusting ritual. I snuck off to the bathroom and dumped the remainder of my drink down the drain.

Eighteen years later, after countless sessions of therapy and sugared coffee cups, I finally got myself to a place where I could give black coffee another go. This time, however, there would be no cheap styrofoam cups provided by some business that specializes in something other than coffee. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. I was going to do it Blind Tiger style.

The Blind Tiger Cafe, at the time, had one location right in the heart of Ybor City. The inside of the cafe, thanks to its largely brick and wood design, felt like something industrial and working class. It was lightyears away from the fake fireplaces and sanitized seating that make up a lot of the corporate coffee places I've visited. One of the services that the Blind Tiger provides is a class about coffee making. This class shares some of the different methods that the Blind Tigers uses to make their cups of coffee. These include the Chemex, the Melitta-Pour Over, the aeropress and the vacuum method. Each method is explained and then modeled. After modeling, samples are handed out for discussion and comparison. There was no sugar, cream or milk. It was just you, your tastebuds and a black sample of coffee. To my surprise, not only did these samples not suck (I know this because I wasn't actively seeking out some bathroom to dump them in) but I actually enjoyed them. There was a depth to coffee that I had never experienced before. These different methods brought that depth out. In only one sitting, eighteen years of tortured memories, therapy and sugared coffee cups all withered up and died.

Demonstrating the vacuum method at The Blind Tiger's Coffee Class

               They call this black?

I actually began driving to Ybor just to drink coffee. While I enjoyed the black stuff that the class had to offer, when it came down to it I couldn't completely kick my coffee sweet tooth so I began drinking regular cups of their Cafe Mocha with almond milk (they also offer soy). The drink is a latte with house-made sauce. The Blind Tiger's emphasis on selecting the best coffee and pairing it with a sauce made from scratch that is free of high fructose corn syrup becomes apparent after the very first sip. This drink is sweet but not synthetic sweet. Typically I paired the Cafe Mocha, with a plain bagel that my daughter and I would share. The bagels, unlike the pies, cookies and banana/pumpkin bread, are not made in house. They are brought in from Brandon Bagels. But just like the breads and cookies, the bagels are vegan.

        Cafe Mocha with almond milk

                   Plain Bagel

A few weeks ago, the Blind Tiger Cafe opened a second location in Seminole Heights. I paid my first (and second) visits this past week and I was shocked to find that while the name is the same, there are some stark differences between the two versions. For one, the new location doesn't have the same industrialized allure to it. I would describe it as the younger brother who leaves the blue collar family in search of a college degree and a slightly higher paying job. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that it shares a space with Christopher Wayne Home, a business that specializes in custom furniture, accessories, lighting, draperies and made-to-order linens. If the place didn't feel homely and warm, Christopher Wayne Home isn't doing their job. The bigger and more notable difference was the menu. This version of the Blind Tiger Cafe doesn't offer the specialty drinks that are available in the Ybor location (Update: According to Roberto, one of the owners, as of November 20th they do have capabilities to make specialty drinks at the new location). The Seminole Heights menu contains two black, two green and two herbal teas (courtesy of TeBella Tea Company), six types of coffee and local Kombucha on tap.

When I realized my drink wasn't on the menu, I freaked out a bit. I was in no shape to make a decision between the Chemex or French Press Method. So I channeled sixteen year old me and decided to get what I saw someone else drinking. The couple in front of me ordered a drink from a tap that looked very light and creamy. It looked like a coffee that had already been infused by milk. When I asked the barista about it, she ensured me that it wasn't milk, just coffee on nitrogen. I went with it. Whoa! The nitro-brew had a nice coffee taste to it. It wasn't bitter. It was more sweeter and less acidic than other coffees. The nitro-brew went down super smooth and super fast. The sweet tooth in me asked for a little simple syrup. That wasn't enough so I ordered a vegan chocolate chip cookie. Drink a sip of nitro-press, take a bite of cookie. Repeat until both are finished. By pairing the cookie and nitro-press, I basically created my own nitro-press cafe mocha. It was so good, I returned a second time to do it again. I tried a third time, today, but didn't make it before closing (they are only open until 4:00 on weekdays).

The Blind Tiger has created a coffee drinker where once there wasn't one. The fact that they are one of the few businesses in the Bay area that know how to pull off vegan desserts just adds to their allure and my willingness to spend my cash there. They are by no means cheap. But as their owner Roberto points out on Yelp, their prices are aligned more with specialty craft roasters not with the corporate chain coffee businesses. If the product is worth it, I'm ok with paying craft roasting prices. I am of the opinion that it is.

By the way, if you are a vegan in the Bay area I just got word that the Blind Tiger and Cafe Hey will actually be pairing up for a brunch on December 13th. The cost is 20 dollars and it is limited to 20 people. You can sign up here if you are interested in going.

Find the Blind Tiger on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram.

Blind Tiger Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

A trip to Blind Tiger pairs nicely with the music of Jacob Faurholt. His electro-tinged "Future Wife" is both catchy and memorable: