Ode to Soma
I thought that since I’m back from Bloomington and my photos are fully uploaded, I would start with the cafes and restaurants without which, I might not have survived the summer. Some might call that an exaggeration, but I can say with full confidence that out of the 9 weeks (x 7 = 63 days) that I was there, there were maybe 5 days where I didn’t go to Soma. One of those days Soma was closed.
Before I attempt to describe the wondrous baked goods, coffee and smoothies, here is a little anecdote I wrote about the cafe. Maybe it’ll give you a sense of what the place is like. I was frequently made fun of for going there so often (or labeled a hipster), and by the 9th week I could tell that I was there maybe a little too much. Not enough to be sick of it, but when you become such a regular that when someone walks in and you know not only their name, but who they’re dating and what they’re going to order, is that borderline pathetic?
4:00 PM. The door swings forward and in walks Santa Claus in his summer uniform: blue button down, suspenders holding up his starched jeans, his belt loosened just enough for his sizeable belly to protrude comfortably. He approaches the counter and orders black coffee. Blackbeard’s Blend “organic fair-trade. Dark roast. Full of caffeine.” No need for a book or newspaper—whose work can he interrupt today? As always, the conversation will start innocently enough. His name is Jim, he’s been coming here every day for seven months, was born and raised twelve miles east of here, and he enjoys reading about Sumerian tablets and astrology in his free time. He prolongs the conversation by asking pseudo-existentialist questions: “Gemini is the only sign that starts with G and ends with I, did you know that? You see, I bet no one ever again, will ask you the same question I just did.”
“Mmm… interesting,” his daily victim answers, thinking “get me the hell out of here!” She tilts her empty mug towards her, praying Jim won’t announce that he also reads coffee grounds.
Monocle Man is thinking. His pose is almost a caricature of the thinking process: fist curled under his chin, furled brow, the ghosts of muttonchops on his cheeks. Paying homage to Rodin? In front of him, a blank notebook and a half-eaten Vegan Decadence cookie.
Sarah saunters in, clad in her daily uniform of black knee socks and clunky leather shoes. Both she and Monocle man look straight out of some old cartoon. Sarah in particular looks quite Velma-esque, her hair impeccably curled at the ends and wearing rectangular black glasses. She approaches the counter—on the left side, the baked goods case. All vegan, all organic. The daily scones (how do you make scones without butter?) studded with local blackberries or peach chunks. The linzer cookie, which can only be described as orgasmic: velvety raspberry jam encased in a crumbly walnut crust. The laminated card on the counter says “Our level of hiring today is green (little to no chance),” as always. A trio of Magic 8 balls with the words “Do Not Shake!” taped on them. Tacked on the wall, the Virgin Mary and “Geology and active faults in the San Francisco bay area—Are you prepared for the next major earthquake?” A jungle of electrical umbilical cords joined to their MacBook mothers.
The tipping jar—“Big tippers never get mauled by bears!” The local fliers—among them “Acupuncture Happy Hour” and “Zombie Pirate Dance Party.”
The bathroom is a 3D chalkboard, a bucket of chalk always provided. The toilet is comically elevated on a pedestal, and extra (recyclable) toilet paper rolls fit snugly between the legs of an inverted mannequin. The floor is stenciled with molars and stars.
Sarah and Monocle man are discussing their mutual acquaintances—“You know him, the guy who writes incest erotica.” The barista, another skinny, flat-chested pixie-like girl, plunks down Sarah’s drink: “Iced Mice, no ice!” she hollers.
Translation: “Did you just order an iced mocha with no ice?” Monocle Man asks her.
“Yeah, I hate it when it gets watery!” answers Sarah. “And I hate raisins!” she fishes through her granola with her spoon, pushing the unwanted raisins to the side. After she has finished her granola, Sarah will go to the back room, where her boyfriend owns the used record store. Her hipbones are two points about her waistband, where a stripe of pale skin is stretched tight like elastic.
Monocle Man will continue working, stopping every now and then to chat with the tattooed couple who come here exclusively to play Scrabble.
In the couch area the dreaded vegetarian debate is raging on:
“So, if you have rice and beans or corn, that’s a complete protein.”
“Well, I for one am glad you’re a vegetarian… more meat for me!”
“You say that, but if I were walking down the street and saw a bucket of pig intestines or some nice, fresh vegetables, I would choose the vegetables.”
“Well, yeah… but when was the last time you had pig intestines?”
There is something in the air here. Caffeine fumes? Pulverized frozen banana chunks? Whatever it is, it is potent and highly addictive. The next day, Sarah will return, this time in combat boots and jeans. Her record store boyfriend will ask if she’s hungry. She’ll say no, she had a tomato and cheese panini earlier. But coffee? She’ll take an iced mocha, no ice.
Monocle Man is working away and Santa decides to harass the barista today. The daily scone is apple cinnamon.
The one day Soma is closed, 8/11/09, everyone flocks next door to the Pourhouse, where the coffee is fair-trade (to be fair—no pun intended)—but $3.88 for a double cap? It’s not even in the right kind of mug. And gasp—animal by-products in the baked goods!
8/12/09—Soma reopens. Scone of the day, local raspberry, thank god. The grinding sound of the espresso machine starting up. Of life starting up again.
In case that didn’t give you a sense of how delicious everything at Soma is, allow me to list what I have sampled.
Coffee. Their cappuccinos only come in 8 and 12 oz sizes. The milk is so perfectly foamy, stiff as beaten egg whites. The coffee is strong, just the way I like it– even if you order a single– its flavor permeates easily through the milk (default 2%, but substitute skim, soy or organic at your leisure). Iced lattes are maybe not quite as good as they are at my beloved Istria (where I’m blogging from at this very moment), because they don’t bother to steam the milk at all—just espresso + cold milk, but the coffee is still good. Plain iced coffee is also good and strong. In addition to classic espresso and drip coffee (and French press), they have so called “specialty drinks” (sugary concoctions that consist of different flavors added to a basic latte and topped with whipped cream) that purists would surely turn up their noses at. Among these are “peanut butter cup of Joe” (chocolate and peanut butter), the Swamp Monster (a lurid green iced coffee with mint and soy creamer) and the White Zombie, which is so popular that it has made it on to Wikipedia. The Zombie is made with barely roasted “white coffee” beans, which apparently have a much higher caffeine content. This brings up what I like to call the “Coffee Paradox:” if it is barely roasted coffee that allows beans to retain the most caffeine, why is it that dark roast is considered more caffeinated? Surely the flavor is more potent, but what’s going on here?
Anyways, by my first visit at Soma, I had already decided that the night before my Russian final, I would order one of these famed Zombies (white not only because of the coffee, but also due to the addition of white chocolate). Of course, I had to ruin it by 1) getting it iced (it was too hot!) and 2) getting it with skim milk and no whipped cream. I just wasn’t in the mood for one of those meal replacement/ dessert drinks that day. The verdict? Tasted like faintly sweetened milk. Apparently white coffee beans, which are usually described as “nutty-tasting,” have no assertive taste of their own. One of my good friends ordered a White Zombie our last day there, and, having good sense, she ordered it hot with whipped cream. Soma clearly whips their own cream and adds vanilla and cinnamon. The drink was delicious, but not even a whisper of coffee taste could be detected. As for the caffeine buzz, there was none. I was wide awake, but there was no jolt of hyperactivity or any sense that the world was suddenly brighter. I say that if you don’t like the taste of coffee but want to stay awake, this drink is for you.
Wow, I certainly didn’t mean to write an essay on that one drink. Let me breeze through the rest of this:
Yerba Mate Latte: great for when you want some caffeine but you’re not in the mood for anything as aggressive as coffee. The tea is somehow run through the espresso machine, then added to steamed milk and a little honey. Very soothing.
Dr. D’s Tonic: this is, without a doubt, the best cure for any kind of malady. They don’t call it a tonic for nothing. I suspect it would also be a good hangover cure. All it is is hot water with lemon, honey and ginger, but somehow they get it to be wonderfully frothy and at times, even a bright orange color! From the ginger? I don’t get it. After I realized I had been drinking too much coffee, I started to order a “Dr. D’s with extra ginger, please” almost every day. I love this drink because 1) it completely clears out your synuses and makes your ears burn and 2) I have a tendency to drink everything too quickly, and unless you want to start tearing up on the spot, you have to sip this slowly.
Smoothies. Soma’s smoothies are overpriced, it’s true. Come on, almost 5 dollars for a smoothie and more if you want to get anything other than the combinations listed? But I am addicted to the PB and J (banana, strawberry and apple juice, but I sub soy milk for juice to make it creamier and more filling). God knows how much peanut butter goes into that thing (I’ve seen them making it and apparently they use an ice cream scoop), but it really does taste like a PB and J sandwich, only you don’t have to chew it. Remind me to try and duplicate this when I get my wisdom teeth pulled on Friday.
As for their other smoothies, I find them too thin because they’re all made with juice, but I love the Fruit and Cream smoothies, which use vanilla and soy creamer and come in either strawberry, peach or blueberry. I always ask them to use the minimum amount of juice so that they come out so thick you have to eat them with a spoon, almost like soft serve.
Baked Goods. Everything is vegan. It doesn’t look as glamorous wrapped in plastic wrap, but once that comes off and your indulgence of choice is arranged attractively on a plate, you forget everything. How could anything vegan be so good? (Answer: lots of soy margarine, but we choose not to think about that). I already described the vegan linzer cookie, but I asked and apparently the only ingredients are whole wheat pastry flour, walnuts, vegan margarine, agave nectar, and raspberry jam. Other cookies I’ve tried are the pumpkin chocolate chip (which has a much cakier texture), cappuccino (which is like a cross between an oatmeal cookie and a coffee dessert), and oatmeal raisin. Their muffins are also incredible: the Cosmic muffin is huge, probably the size of 3 or 4 sanely sized muffins, and is a heavily nutmeg-scented pumpkin-based blob of awesomeness. The blueberry buckwheat muffin is much smaller and is so crumbly that it falls apart once unwrapped. Never got around to trying their scones, but I’m sure they’re also good.