Saturday, August 13, 2005

Revelation 1: Philz

Philz Philharmonic
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

Getting back on the food tip (as they say), our trip to San Francisco was made up of a series of revelations, some of which had a rather profound impact. Not the least of these occurred on Day 1. Somehow we'd gotten ourselves booked on a hellish flight plan on our way out to California, one that took us from Montreal to New York at 6:00 A.M., then continued on to San Francisco International Airport with a 6-hour flight. The gods were apparently smiling down upon us, though, 'cause we scored these amazing seats on the New York-San Francisco leg that were in their own little quiet compartment, between two sections in coach class and next to a flight attendants' workstation, and that had seats that fully reclined (!). We showed up in San Francisco in half-way decent shape, actually, and because it was still only noon when we got there, we had a half-day to play with.

We decided to not waste any time and just head down to the Mission District from my sister's apartment in Noe Valley and dig in to our first burrito of the journey. For our first one we went to a place I've been going to for about 10 years now and which I've always found friendly and tasty: Casa Sanchez. Not only do they make excellent tacos and burritos, but their salsa and chips are outstanding, free, and "bottomless" (courtesy of a handy self-service bar), and they have a beautiful courtyard.

Afterwards, we were in the mood for our first coffee of the day. We'd made an attempt to score a coffee in JFK, but the results were undrinkable. I'd told Michelle that San Francisco was riddled with good coffee houses and espresso bars--this was her first time to San Francisco, after all--and that, in fact, San Francisco was one of the few cities in America where you'd been able to get good, strong coffee prior to about 1990. A couple of blocks up 24th St. from Casa Sanchez we came across a coffee house, and it looked kind of interesting. It had a generic sign outside declaring that its coffee had won a Best in the Bay award, but what really intrigued us was their own sign announcing the fact that they served "handmade" coffee and that each coffee was made "one cup at a time." We didn't know it at the time, but the gods were smiling down upon us once again.

Behind the bar they had a sign listing all their espresso-based drinks, but they also had a sign with all their "handmade" coffee selections, and each of these sounded a whole lot more interesting. I initially ordered a Arabic-style "handmade" coffee, but when another patron ordered a "Philharmonic" blend I asked the barista to change my order to one of the same. She ground just enough coffee beans for my order, then threw them into a large, long paper coffee filter held in a stand and placed the coffee cup underneath. Then she threw a couple of secret potions into the filter along with the beans and added a long, steady stream of boiling water. She asked me if I wanted cream and sugar and I said, "yes." A minute or two later she handed over my perfectly brewed, perfectly creamy, and perfectly sweetened Philharmonic and I headed over to where Michelle was sitting. I took a sip on the way and it nearly blew my mind. I took the lid off the coffee and saw that it had a mint sprig on top. I handed to cup to Michelle and said, "You're not going to believe this."

Neither of us had ever tasted a coffee as exotic or delicious ever before. We both take our coffee quite seriously and we've both done a fair bit of traveling, but we'd never experienced anything like that first Philz "handmade" coffee, with its strong hints of cardamom, its wonderfully mellow depth, and its mint finish (sounds crazy, I know, but the sprig is really an stroke of genius).

Needless to say, we got seriously hooked by that first Philz coffee and Philz became a touchstone for our trip. We went back at least half a dozen times and we tried almost all of the "handmade" blends they offer. We made a point of initiating my sister into the brotherhood (she'd never been), and then we started making the silliest excuses just so we could pass by Philz. The Philharmonic remained a favorite throughout the trip, but we also became very attached to the Jacob's "Wunderbar," which was a little less spicy, but was made with a stronger roast, and the Phil's Tesoro Mocha was also a big hit, although the intensity of its chocolate flavor made it a "special occasions" blend for us.

One time we stopped by and Michelle ran in for a couple of take-away coffees before we headed out to Treasure Island. When she got to the bar Phil himself was waiting for her. He asked her how she was doing and she responded, "I'll be a lot better once I've had my Wunderbar." Phil looked at her and said, "You're already fine." She was on Cloud 10 when she got back to the car--Phil is a very charming man who sports a dashing and unpretentious fedora and has a sly sense of humor. Which brings me to another point: the atmosphere at Philz takes a close second to their amazing coffees. Like many other San Francisco coffee houses the interior design is whimsical and eclectic and the place is frequented by regulars who can only be described as "true originals," but how many other coffee houses in San Francisco (or anywhere else, for that matter) can you purchase a potted plant with your coffee?

interior decor, Philz
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

By the end of our trip I was only half-joking that Philz alone had been worth the price of our airfare out to San Francisco, but if you don't believe our hype, check out the testimonials that you can find online on the topic of Philz, or, better yet, go there yourself.

Actually, let me finish with yet another anecdote. Last night, we were gathered at Le Pocket Palace, talking with Hermine and Kazi about our trip over a glass of wine. We had gotten on the topic of Philz, as we're wont to do these days, and we were giving them the full lowdown: the "handmade" process, the use of spices and herbs, the devoted following, the rapture, etc. I was going off on some spiel about San Francisco being a city of coffee houses, but that nothing could compare with this coffee house we'd found there, when I noticed a young woman listening in on our conversation, waiting to see which coffee house I was going to name, waiting to weigh in with her own opinion. When I named the coffee house in question as Philz, she turned to us and said, "You mean the place on 24th?" Turns out she had lived just around the corner on 25th St. for six months and had become a very regular regular during her time there. Imagine her surprise. Imagine ours.

Casa Sanchez, 2778 24th St., San Francisco, CA, (415) 282-2400

Philz Coffee (a.k.a. Phil's Coffee, a.k.a. Gateway Market), 3101 24th St., San Francisco, CA, (415) 282-9155



Anonymous said...

An excellent piece on Phil's coffee, and we can't wait to go for a visit to San Francisco and have a cup of fine coffee at Phil's ---

Renee & John

aj kinik said...


You won't be disappointed. In fact, it might just change your life.

Anonymous said...

It's Philz - I am such a noodge for specifics. I have been a coffee aficionado, or so I thought, until I went to Philz last week for the first time. AJ is right; I think it did change my life.


aj kinik said...

Hey, Gizmo,

Glad you had the same near-religious experience we had.

I've started experimenting with spices and alternative brewing methods at home in order to try and overcome the withdrawal symptoms.

Montreal is a long way away from Philz, geographically and otherwise.