Tour de Espresso: Cardinal, Casa de Café (Roma)

I’ve decided that when I return to Mexico City I’ll find a place to stay in the Roma neighborhood. Probably somewhere near Cardinal. Yesterday during my visit, Shak, my barista, told me, “When you come back, this [café] is your home.” I believe he meant it.

Cardinal is tucked into the heart of Roma, surrounded by charming architecture and a progressive, vibrant atmosphere. Something about the space was magnetic—maybe it was the music, the hum of conversation mixed with laughter, the whistle of the espresso machine. Maybe the sensual aroma creeping like a spell from its wide open doors. It drew me in, and even before I ordered I wanted to make this place my place. Stoned on the magic of a well-executed specialty business.

The interior was simple and unpretentious. The décor reminded me of a professor’s office—a shelf of books, a row of globes, brown glass containers spaced equidistant, an old desk fan, a steel rocket ship, red and white checkered tins. Each item mindfully placed to pique curiosity, to inspire creativity. Jazz music bopped loud enough to be enjoyed, but quiet enough to miss. Ample seating allowed for a gathering with friends or an introverted disappearance. Like a yin-yang of open space, Cardinal had room for unfettered coexistence.

Shak greeted me as if I’d entered his own home. Said something about being happy I was there. Asked what he could make for me. Full Disclosure: I earn my living talking about good customer service. I rarely see the basic tenets of amazing service in action, but yesterday I did, and with gusto. I often tell my clients to treat customers as if three things are true: First, they drove 500 miles to get there. Second, they’ve got gobs of money burning holes in their pockets. And third, that it’s their birthday. Shak’s poise and natural desire to connect with me made me feel special immediately. This is rare, even in specialty.

Shak came out from behind the counter and explained Cardinal’s vision. They don’t want to be the sort of café that scares people away. The pay homage to cafés of old, similar to a public house, where folks come to spend time with friends and enjoy good food and drink while doing so. He said their goal is to make the space a relaxing place for anyone. A warm, casual environment. A living room. Well I’d say they nailed it. Specialty retail can be done simply, but it must be peopled with the right employees. People like Shak.

So now the drumroll. Plenty of specialty retail environments have the right feel and the right people but their product doesn’t equate. This is not the case with Cardinal. In fact, I’m not too sure I’ve ever had a better espresso experience. I don’t say this lightly.

After explaining the provenance of my order (Atoyac de Alvarez, altitude 1600m), Shak invited me to take a seat while he pulled my double. I was immediately comfortable, completely at ease. Soon, another employee brought out my shots, then poured me a small glass of water from a corked bottle on the table. I raised the porcelain cup to breathe it in. The rich, heavy, aroma infused me with immediate joy and I suddenly wanted to befriend everyone in the room. Not sure if this is even possible, but I felt more confident and less concerned about being an outsider (who speaks poor Spanish). If an espresso can do that, I, for one, need more of it.

The first sip threw me off. Had I ordered some sort of liquid lemony brownie? I tilted the cup, my lip pushed through toasty foam, and a warm earthy blanket stroked my tongue, slowly working its way across my palate, down my throat. It was full and creamy, and the finish sweet though I’d added no milk or sugar. It left behind a memory—something like love. A amorous combination of bitterness and pure longing. That addictive feeling that causes shaky hands to compose passionate lyrics.

It was so good, in fact, that after bidding Shak and the staff farewell, I accidentally left without paying. Floated down the street riding a high that I wanted to last forever. But even as I double-backed to give Shak my money, he laughed and told me it happens all the time. Yeah, I can see why. Cardinal made me forget all about the retail aspect of the experience. Made me feel right at home.

Since I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, I’m hesitant to call my experience poetic. But it was. And I got it for a whopping 30 pesos. The absolute, no doubt, hands-down best buck-seventy-five I’ve spent in a long, long, long freaking time.

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