This was supposed to be one post about a coffeehouse far to the north in a secluded valley near Pottsville. Instead, it has blown up into a four-parter on the post-plague renaissance of Pennsylvania’s capital city. Granted, I live here, so I’m biased, but this year there has been an explosion in the number of coffee shops and other restaurants as the city digs out from disaster. The phenomenon has been too fascinating, too inspiring, and too far-reaching in terms of both its audacity and success not to cover. So without further ado, here comes part one in the Harrisburg Renaissance series: Cafe de Olla.
First a little background: Cafe de Olla isn’t just the name of the cafe that opened on Third Street a few short months ago. It’s a very specific variety of spiced Mexican coffee. Traditionally, an earthen clay pot is used to brew it. The basic version of the beverage is made with ground coffee, cinnamon, and piloncillo, an unrefined whole cane sugar. You may recognize it by its other name, panela. Those aren’t the only spices it can include, just the ones it should.
Our new Cafe de Olla (the shop) is deceptively unassuming on the outside. It looks like a tiny Mexican street cafe from without (the lettering and awning give its heritage away), but on the inside, the space opens up into a stately series of white cubes that look for all the world like a downtown art gallery. In fact, there is art hanging everywhere on the walls and hidden alcoves concealing streamlined, modern architectural details. I’m a hardcore modernist both aesthetically and philosophically (love me some Gernsback and Buckminster Fuller) so this space really spoke to me.
On to the coffee. Unsurprisingly this was not your basic coffee. Indeed, Cafe de Olla was first on my list because it was so unique. Plot twist: The woman who served me the coffee, as well as the coffee itself, were both Colombian. I have no idea if the Colombian brewing style is different traditionally from Mexican. I do know that Mexican beans are milder and brighter. Mild and bright are two words I would use to categorize this Colombian. Another two words I’d use are cinnamon power! You could really taste the cinnamon, but it didn’t feel like a face full of Christmas like a pure cinnamon addition to a coffee drink. There were some special spices in there but I didn’t ask exactly what they were. It was a bit overwhelming for me, but then I eat cheese sandwiches for lunch with just the cheese and mustard. Hence, I’ve always been slightly biased against flavored coffees. This one, however, was such a distinctive and well-formulated recipe that I must recommend it to connoisseurs.
Cafe de Olla makes a great addition to Harrisburg. So many coffeehouses tend to follow the same paradigm in terms of offerings and atmosphere. Cafe de Olla does neither (although you can get regular coffee here if you want it). What it offers is variety. Why is there a Mexican specialty coffee in the middle of the Burg, and why is it succeeding? Because if you didn’t think variety was the spice of life, you probably wouldn’t stay long here yourself. If you do like the unexpected, stop by Cafe de Olla and get a taste of Mexico without having to trek across the high chaparral.
The next installment will be posted in a couple of days. I’m spacing out the coverage so that a story about one doesn’t drown out the story of the next. There are going to be four in all, showcasing some of the greatest standouts of the Harrisburg area. Be prepared for surprises, and as always my friends, stay caffeinated.