Photo by Lara MontagneHey,recentuniversitygrads:Rememberyour backpack adventures across Europe? Those squeaky hostel bunk beds? That swarthy Italian boy? The rumpled journal that housed extensive reflections on the best bars, cafés and places you shared petitmortswith said swarthy Italian boy?
Miss it? Of course you do. Gypsy Den notwithstanding, Orange County just isn't conducive to reliving Italy's café tradition. There's no nearby Po, no tolerance for unfiltered cigarettes burning long into the day, no claustrophobic streets spilling into more claustrophobic streets. But in the midst of a Windex-clean Orange shopping plaza, adrift in a sea of asphalt and parking stalls, stands a caffeinated oasis to those northern Italian jaunts of yore: Kaffa.
The pristine space Kaffa proffers the same atmosphere that makes a European café the gathering spot for villages, and has become a salon of sorts for Orange County's BoBos. Behind glass counters, multicolored rows of old-fashioned bottled sodas and sugary baked desserts greet the friendly CHOC nurses who trample in from across the street for their morning dose of coffee and coffee. Rich brown wood surrounds the Santa Ana City Council members and local activists who huddle to discuss the latest Mike Harrah development. Students sink into the overstuffed couches as they pore over White Pages-thick textbooks, pots of steaming loose-leaf tea at their side. Local artists admire their work on the walls. Coltrane vibes on the stereo, softly.
Kaffa is a place where you can walk in for a pick-up or lounge for hours, so its menu offerings are both elegant and portable. Paninis are the main attractions, and Kaffa crams them with a concentrated savor befitting the best Roman street vendors. Skew Continental with the Italian florentine, a veggie godsend of glistening tomato slices, snappy basil and mozzarella housed within an olive-tapanade-covered focaccia, or a southern France-style lemony tuna fish with provolone. Or be an Ugly, Satiated American with Kaffa's answer to the Western bacon cheeseburger, a smokehouse turkey sandwich topped with bacon, tomato and a tangy barbecue sauce. The Kaffa kids bake and grill all of these rectangular delights in a George Foreman-like contraption that allows the accompanying cheese to cement the bread loaf shut.
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These paninis are spectacular, so it's rather disappointing to see that Kaffa's salad collection of Chinese chicken, Mediterranean and caesar is seemingly mundane. But Kaffa tweaks these standards toward new planes of yumminess. The Chinese chicken contains a salty mixture of sesame seeds, fried wontons and crunchy cashews that complements the sweet-and-sour dressing. More intriguing is the Mediterranean, accompanied by a cool cucumber raita and toasted pita bread. And the caesar artfully manages to avoid the nearly inevitable anchovy taste.
For breakfast, you can choose from fresh pancakes filled with fruit on the weekends or a grilled-egg sandwich with Black Forest ham and tomatoes during the week. But whatever you may scarf down, chase it with a shot of Kaffa's rightfully renowned espresso: dark, earthy and lush, with berry caresses and a foamy, eye-popping top. Before opening his pride, Kaffa owner Justin Wong traveled across the world, sitting at the grinders of the espresso masters—Florence for the proper bean-roasting techniques, Hawaii for marketing tips, Central America to witness coffee's fruition from planting to harvest. And he trains his baristas rigorously; it may take months before he judges a staffer ready to approach the store's espresso machine with a load of the rare stuff. Once properly trained, though, the lovely baristas are as dependable as the gibbous moon. In addition to the espresso, they also brew a scintillating version of yerba mate, mellowed with steamed soy milk and sugar.
Just two quibbles with Kaffa: orders take their sweet time, and everyone who enters leaves with a strong panini stench. But, hey: Italy was pretty grimy, too. So close your eyes, knock down that espresso, and weep for the days when you wore yesterday's underwear for weeks and anticipated the adventures that still lay ahead with that swarthy Italian boy who just never left your soul.?
KAFFA, 424 S. MAIN ST., STE. K, ORANGE, (714) 978-1992; WWW.KAFFAINC.COM. OPEN MON.-FRI., 6 A.M.-7 P.M.; SAT., 7 A.M.-6 P.M.; SUN., 7 A.M.-3 P.M. NO ALCOHOL. BREAKFAST OR LUNCH FOR TWO, $8-$14, EXCLUDING THAT SWEET, SWEET COFFEE. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.