Posted on May 15, 2014
I can’t remember her name, and that makes me feel bad.
I made sure to ask her, but I should have written it down. I wanted to let her know that I really appreciated her — her friendliness, her attention to detail. But no matter how hard I try to remember, I can’t recall.
The entire week I was in Seattle, Tiffanie (my cousin) and Vishal (her husband) had been talking about taking me to Slate Coffee Bar in the Ballard district. One day we spent too long sightseeing and didn’t realize they closed early. Another day, the clouds opened up and emptied torrents of rain over the city. Tiffanie wanted Vishal to come with us when we visited Slate, but he had late calls or brought work home with him several days that week.
It looked like things weren’t going to line up for us, but Tiffanie was determined. In my mind, I had already had quite a few delicious cups of coffee from places all over the city, and even if I had had several cups a day, I wouldn’t have been able to visit every local favorite or must-try cafe Seattle has to offer during my short stay. They would have to wait until I could make my next caffeine-fueled trip. But when Tiffanie suggested we wake up early to go to Slate before my departing flight home, I raised no objections either.
The weather had cleared up after a couple days of steady rain; the sun was shining and the trees’ leaves danced gently in the breeze. Seattle had greeted me with this weather, and it seems it was bidding me farewell in the same way. I had gotten used to the drive from Tiffanie’s studio in Belltown, past the towering Space Needle, past the EMP Museum and the pink, oversized elephant car wash sign, past Frank Gehry’s strange EMP Museum. We headed north up the 99, keeping Lake Union on our right, driving towards the free spirited, increasingly hipster Fremont and Ballard districts.
The familiarity felt nice. All week I had been struggling with the fact that I only had a vague sense of the city; I was worried I would leave with that, too. But now Seattle no longer felt like a cold and distant stranger. A slightly standoffish acquaintance, perhaps, but at least there was the possibility of someday becoming warm and comfortable — maybe even an old friend like London or Hong Kong.
We had some trouble finding Slate, unwittingly passed by the unmarked building cleverly camouflaged amongst the quaint homes in its quiet, residential neighborhood. Looking back, I think that is also part of its charm — the unexpectedness of the place. We found curb parking and walked into the coffee bar. Generous windows let natural sunlight flood the bar, and customers sat perched on high stools soaking up the sun. Rather than being a large cafe designed to accommodate large amounts of people, Slate feels more like a neighborhood hangout. A kind of daytime dive bar or speakeasy, where the baristas and regulars are on a first-name basis.
“Hi! Come in and sit down. Relax,” she said, beckoning us towards two corner seats at the bar. Slate had clearly been a house at one point, and it still had the coziness of having once been someone’s home.
“How are you doing today?” she said smiling as she set a minimalist menu before us on the counter. “What can I get for you?”
“Actually,” Tiffanie said, “my husband came here yesterday with his friend and said you made something for him that wasn’t on the menu.”
“Ahh, I remember. Is your husband the tall Indian guy?” she asked, indicating his height with her hand.
“His friend was having trouble deciding between a mocha and a latte, so I whipped something together for him. So he could try both. Let’s see…I made him a baby mocha, a latte, and a spoonful of our special chocolate with an espresso bean inside.”
“I’d like to try that too,” said Tiffanie. The barista waited patiently as I hemmed and hawed.
“What do you normally order?” she asked, seeing that I had come to an impasse.
“I normally get a latte,” I said. But, I confessed a little embarrassed, “I normally like it sweetened with something like almond.” A lot of these fancy coffee places, in my experience, don’t appreciate customers defiling their perfectly roasted, painstakingly brewed, pure coffee concoctions with things like sugar or syrup.
“We don’t have almond,” she said with neither judgment nor horror. “But we have simple syrup. We can make it as sweet as you like.”
Feeling reassured, I ordered the deconstructed latte. Tiffanie told me a little more about Slate as we watched her go swiftly to work, her movements practiced, relaxed, and efficient. The owners of the coffee bar, she told me, were known for their unbridled passion for coffee. They worked hard to produce the scientifically perfect cup of coffee with each pour, brewed consistently and precisely for optimal flavor. They were obsessed with learning everything there was to learn about coffee. And they, like much of Seattle, were all about buying local. They used only single-origin coffee beans, and they knew their bean farmers by name because they visited them regularly.
My deconstructed latte was set before me, a shallow wine glass of dark, aromatic espresso, a glass of milk from cows grazing happily at a local farm nearby — pasteurized at a low temperature and non-homogenized — and second wine glass containing the finished latte. Per the barista’s instructions, I swirled and sniffed the espresso the way I imagined people swirled and sniffed wine, tasting to see if I could get the graham cracker-y flavor she had told me about, or if I could notice the balance they tried to strike between acidity and sweetness.
Next I took a sip of the milk, not expecting much. I’ve never been much of a milk drinker, and most of my nuclear and extended family are lactose intolerant. To my surprise, the milk was sweet, full-bodied, and flavorful — totally unlike any milk I’ve ever tasted. And the more espresso I sipped, the sweeter the milk became to my tongue. Finally, I turned to the last wine glass, topped elegantly with a velvety layer of milky foam, the espresso and milk working together in latte harmony.
In that moment, as I sipped away at my three glasses, alternating between each one, my mind felt completely at ease. I had no thoughts of my flight back home or my anxieties about the future. I wasn’t worrying about what I would write later or whether my photographs turned out well. It wasn’t a moment of clarity or enlightenment or anything like that. It was more like a pause, or a deep breath. Our barista turned her attention back towards our end of the counter.
Slate Coffee Bar
5413 6th Avenue
(between 54th St & Market St)
Seattle, WA 98107