Monday, September 08, 2008

Mexico City: Cafe Passmar

Two time Mexican Barista Champion Salvador offers a cappuccino.

After an excruciatingly long day at Teotihuacan, I just wanted to rest up on my last morning in Mexico City. But when I returned to my room, a message was waiting for me: "Salvador Benitez will be here at 8am to pick you up and take you to his cafe." Cool, after all this time, I was finally going to see his place. But I still needed to get up early and pack, and with a 7am wake up call on the horizon, I went to bed.

The problem was that I really couldn't sleep. I don't know why. Anxiety? I tried. I struggled. Finally, I fell asleep but it was fitful and full of nightmares. Nightmares of me having to get up early, go to Salvador's Cafe and then spend the morning judging drinks but be finished in time to get to the airport. Is this what barista competition judges dream about? It was terrible.

Then, for whatever reason, my dreams shifted gears and I was with this beautiful woman at some bar and she was getting a bit cuddly with me. Sarah Allen (editor of Barista Magazine) was across the bar watching and I remember thinking in my dream: Is she going to write about this in the magazine? At first, she gave me that shy, stolen kiss - a quick peck on the lips to let me know that there was more to this than just friendship. Oh, la la! Now things are getting interesting. It was time to ramp it up a bit - pull her closer and forget that Sarah was watching and probably taking notes. Time to get my groove on.

That's exactly when the phone rang for my wake up call. Son of a Bitch.

The girls work the machine.

Just when you're about to pull back the curtain and reveal the Wizard, that's when it all falls apart. Life Sucks.

With the air of disappointment surrounding me, I started to pack. Luckily, I've learned to pack light. What I haven't learned is how to acquire light. Seems that wherever I go, I end up with much more than I left with. With that in mind, I usually bring along a collapsable duffle bag that can be used in a jiffy for more purchases. It's saved my butt more than once. And since I'm currently enjoying Star Alliance Gold status, I don't have to worry about excess weight or check-in baggage fees.

Packed up, I headed downstairs to find Reg Barber waiting for Moises to take him out for a day in Pachuca. Reg is here for a couple more days and I'm a bit envious - I need more time to explore the city. What I've learned after two trips here is that one week just isn't enough. There are still so many places here that I want to see and check out. The Mercado de San Juan is big on my list, not to mention the real need to find some nice ollas, cazuelas, molcajetes or other interesting cooking apparatus - maybe even a Mariachi uniform and guitar.

But that's going to mean more ingenius ways of packing and larger pieces of luggage. Next time, I guess.

Roasting coffee.

Brent shows up and we're waiting for our ride to Del Valle. It's a nice morning in Mexico City and a shame that it's my last. Soon after, Salvador shows up in a taxi and we're off.

It's a quick and short cab ride to the mercado, which is only a kilometer away. We're riding in those ubiquitous white and green taxis you see all over the city but, as a tourist, are told never to ride in because of the potential for robbery. Our taxi is a simple affair: a compact car with four seats and we fit comfortably.

We've been riding in the tourist taxis all week and I find it interesting to see the difference - especially in fare. Our cab ride costs eleven pesos. The tourist taxi will easily cost twice that. Of course, the tourist taxis usually have drivers that speak a modicum of English, the cars are nicer and the chances that a gringo like myself will get robbed are infinitely smaller. So, while the lure of low fares is strong, the desire not to be robbed is greater.

That's not to say that all the green taxi drivers are robbers, but they say you never know...

Happily, this is Salvador's city and he's in control. We're dropped off at the market and head inside. It's before 9am and the market is surprisingly quiet. Many of the vendors are still closed and others are in some state of opening. The market opens at 7am and I find it odd that it's not bustling yet.

Coming out of the roaster.

Cafe Passmar is located in the center of the market. As far as market vendors goes, it's pretty huge - taking up at least six stalls. Three are dedicated to seating, two are for the kitchen and one is for the coffee making.

Over the years, I've seen some small work spaces for baristas, but this has got to be one of the smallest. There's a front counter with a two group La Marzocco GB5EE espresso machine, one grinder, a knockbox and two coffee bean display cases stacked on top of the other. The back counter has a blender and assorted syrups, cups and a telephone. To the left is a small sink used for rinsing. To enter the workarea, there's a small crawlspace between the end of the counter and under the stacked coffee displays - just crawl through. It's tight and you have to contort yourself a bit to get through.

Once inside, two people can work comfortably. Three would be tight and four would be an orgy. Brent and I stand back there with Salvador and it's exciting. Actually, I always get a tinge of excitement anytime that I'm invited to step behind the line. Workspaces are typically cramped and personal and an invitation to step into the personal workspace is an honor - especially since you know you're in the way.

Our coffeee

In this space, you can only be in the way for so long before you're necessarily pressed into service. Seemingly out of nowhere, a line forms and there are too many of us in here for Salvador's working baristas, Fernanda and Biri, to get back in and I'm pressed into service.

Stepping behind someone else's espresso machine and being expected to perform is always nerve-wracking. Whatever reputation I have in the business, this isn't my shop. Different coffee, different grind, different dose, different styles - and I'm approaching it cold. As most baristas will attest, grind is of utmost importance, as is dose - and I'm a slightly coarse and updose kind of barista. Worst part is: I don't know what kind of technique they employ here and I don't want to adjust the grind because the girls will be back here soon and it might disrupt their flow.

I have no choice: I must adapt to their style and must adapt immediately.

Thinking back to the CMB, I remember that both Aleli and Alvaro did short doses with taps and take the chance that this is how they must do it at Passmar as well. Compared to my personal style, I do short doses and work the grinds into the portafiter. Lock it into the grouphead and we're off. It's a few tense moments while the water pressure ramps up but when the espresso starts to flow it looks pretty good. I'm slightly relieved.

Pan Dulces

Of course, the girls have been watching to see what this gringo barista from the United States can do. They're watching my technique and it's instantly nerve-wracking. Now is not the time to screw up. If I screw the pooch, then I'm just some wanna-be hack poseur. Merde.

Well, can't dwell on that now, Salvador needs more shots for his customers who are ordering a barrage of drinks: chais, cappuccinos and who knows what else. I'm just making shots and that's what I'm concentrating on, but the equipment is conspiring against me. The grinder is insanely slow compared to my Compak K10. As it grinds, I'm waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Good Lord, where's a towel to wipe the portafilter basket dry? Ah, there's some napkins I can use.

Working in someone else's space is always tough because you don't know the flow yet. Making drinks is a staccato because of your unfamiliarity with the space and I'm swimming. Hard. Decisions on where to rinse the portafilter become difficult. I want to use the hot water tap to rinse, but that gets in the way of Salvador's steaming of the milk. The sink to my left is much easier but the cold water would drop the temperature dramatically. Crap.

Making our enchiladas in the Passmar kitchen.

In the end, we manage to pull through most of the rush and the girls take our place. I'm relieved.

But we're not done yet. Up a narrow flight of stairs by the kitchen, we emerge on top of the stalls to find ourselves in Passmar's roasting operation. Up here they've got a converted corn roaster that can handle five kilos of coffee at a time, roasting the beans in eleven minutes.

For coffee people, there's always something special about seeing a roaster. There's a kinship to the coffee and the method. Passmar uses a fluid bed (or air) roasting system that's been specially engineered to reuse the generated heat for greater efficiency. What this means is that the roaster does not need to preheat, just turn it on and go. And go it does. As the fans spool up, it sounds like a jet engine whirring. The coffee part of me is thrilled, the aviation guy in me is thrilled. I wish I had a tape recorder.

Salvador loads up the roaster with coffee from Oaxaca and we're off.

Enchiladas de Mole

The one thing you notice about the difference between air roasting and the traditional drum roasting is that air seems much more simple and easy. Watch a drum roaster and he's usually fiddling with some control to adjust this or ease that. With an air roaster you simply let it go and drop the coffee once you reach a certain temperature.

Once the coffee is ready, Salvador drops it into the cooling tray. An unmechanized cooling tray, meaning you turn a hand crack to roll the beans and cool them. It's odd and funny in a way but also very cool (as in hip, not temperature).

I'm having deja vu at Passmar because I know one of the baristas, Biri, but I can figure out how. Then it hits me - she was the barista I snapped a picture of last year when visiting Cafe Europa in Polanco. Turns out that Salvador's place is closer to school for her and why not work with the best? That's when I see a customer who also looks so familiar to me, but I can't place him. He introduces himself as George but it isn't until later that I remember: I snapped a picture of him at last years' CMB drinking one of Salvador's signature drinks. Weird to remember these faces one year later and then run into them.

Brent and I are feeling a little bit hungry and lose a our inhibitions when they mention how good the food is here. In no time, we're seated at a table being served pan dulces and enchiladas de mole. Oh, and how good the enchiladas were... Filled with chicken and smothered in mole negro. God help me. It's beautiful.

Brent holds up a bag of Passmar Oaxaca.

Unfortunately, it's 10am and Arturo calls to see where I am so that the driver can come pick me up and take me to the airport for my 1:30pm flight back to the United States. Sucks! We bid Fernanda and Biri goodbye and head back to the hotel to check out, collect my bags and go to the airport.

At the hotel, we find Reg still waiting for the boys to take him to Pachuca. He tells us that they called to say that they were running late and would come to get him at eleven. Considering that Pachuca is an hour away and traffic in Mexico City can be atrocious, I'm not surprised.

In short time, Rael arrives to take me to the airport. Salvador heads back to work in his uncle's green taxi, Brent is off to explore the city and Reg is still waiting for his ride to Pachuca. All of them will be going to Seattle this weekend for CoffeeFest.

I wasn't planning on going to Seattle but with their encouragement I think that maybe I'll have to check when I get home...

With Fernanda and Biri.

Cafe Passmar
Mercado Lazaro Cardenas
Adolfo Prieto s/n local
237 Entre Romero de Terreros
y Avenida Mexico Coyoacan
Col. Del Valle