A strip of 16th Street between Mission and Folsom is dotted with random storefronts, an abandoned automotive shop that resembles an archaeological dig, and a trio of small cafes offering Chinese food, burgers and tacos. A towering Indian laurel fig tree, taller than the nearby palms, provides shade for a small empanada restaurant, Chile Lindo — this week’s destination for the Mission’s secret coffee cup.
Chile Lindo is just a short walk from Jim Georgie’s Chinese Food and Donuts and its cheap coffee, which we recently reviewed. But Chile Lindo is different. It’s clean and small, with a short, laminated paper menu and an equally short coffee drink list.
Inside, a giant espresso machine sits in the corner, but please consider the drip coffee first. A 12-ounce cup is only $2 — so cheap that I’ve made excuses for it to myself since I ordered my first cup. The employees at Chile Lindo go beyond nice customer service. They are kind and thankful for your patronage. They put the coffee cup right into your hand and smile, “Thank you so much.” Chile Lindo’s coffee is just good enough, but I really want it to be much more.
And it could be. Maybe it’s just strong and really nutty, rather than overheated and burned? If I keep telling myself that, I can continue to buy cheap coffee at two locations in the Mission without regretting my purchase. I bought another cup on my way to work from the 16th Street BART station. I filled a quarter of the cup with Chile Lindo’s thick whole milk.
My obsession with burned coffee began when I waited tables at a bistro that passed for a fine dining establishment in Tulsa, Okla. I woke up far too early to serve the brunch crowd overpriced eggs and terribly burned, over-roasted coffee. It was a shame. The beans were the irrevocably bitter remains of what they had been before sitting in a plastic bag for days. This bistro really tried to care about coffee: they ground just enough before every brew and used fancy French presses at the tables. But the fine texture produced from a professional grinder and the organic cream we supplied in fancy white carafes couldn’t help this coffee. It was beyond repair. I felt guilty each time I served it, and amazed when I was asked for a refill.
That’s what I remembered the first time I drank a small coffee at Chile Lindo. The knowledge of what can go wrong when a cafe owner tries to do coffee the right way has stayed with me for years.
These companion flavors of nutty and bitter walk the tragically brewed coffee line together at Chile Lindo. After several cups in one week, I stopped searching for an answer when I remembered the cheap price and zero wait. I needed cheap energy that was palatable even when cooled, and Lindo’s solid drink slipped in right under the line.
Sometimes coffee appeals to much more than our tastebuds. Trendier coffee house patrons will forgo affordability and quietude for the chance to be seen, feel important, imagine they are contributing to some greater good. Similarly, Chile Lindo has an attribute that helps it maintain its secret coffee cup status: you can’t go inside. No outlets to plug in your laptop, no comfortable place to read. It’s just you, an empanada and the coffee. Charming high stools line the outdoor dining counter under the shade of that Indian laurel on the sidewalk parkway. At Chile Lindo, you pay very little for 10 minutes alone with a warm drink in the shade.
Sit here in silence. Watch the 16th Street BART residents noisily interact with commuters who ignore them. A coffee-dressing cart is right at the edge of the order window. Whole milk and skim, with a variety of sweeteners, enhance this cheap coffee that is almost, maybe, just good enough to sip. And it goes down much easier with a drop of denial.
Chile Lindo is located at 2944 16th St.