“You’re going to laugh at me, but I really prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee,” says Nael Khalil.
A believer in cheap coffee, Khalil is the co-owner of Hot Press, a panini deli at 26th and Mission. It’s this week’s destination for the Mission’s secret coffee cup.
“Coffee in the Mission is extremely expensive,” he says, “and some of it isn’t that good.”
Hot Press offers honest joe at $2 a cup. The coffee station setup here is simple: a thermos of coffee sits on the side of the front counter, and it’s all self-serve.
Khalil lists a number of seriously spendy coffee offenders. No need to prod him into agreeing that coffee is too expensive in our neighborhood — and also that delicious cups of it can be found at cheaper prices.
High-priced coffee that’s often disappointing may reign in the Mission, but not here at Hot Press. That reign has held many Missionites in thrall for far too long. Rarely is it justified.
Take the history of this columnist, for example. The only place I felt comfortable buying expensive coffee was in Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island. I lived there for a summer, just down the road from a coffee museum. On certain days, as I drove around the island in a borrowed Puna car (what some people on the island call a hoopdy), I could smell roasting coffee drifting with the ocean breeze.
In Hawaii, the delicate and smooth Kona variety of coffee is very pricey. This is one of the few coffee-growing places in the world where the bean is harvested and cared for by people who are paid a living wage.
I remember feeling totally strapped each time I purchased Kona, but I had to have it. It’s not just coffee, it’s a delicacy, and if you’ve never tasted it fresh and direct, you wouldn’t understand. It was so genuinely good to drink that I couldn’t justify buying the cheaper stuff on the shelf just to save money. This kind of coffee doesn’t really need cream, or sugar, or anything. It tastes just as good cold from a French press that was made earlier that morning as it does steaming hot just out of the pot.
Tasting Kona at the point of origin, one understands the need for fair-trade, ethical coffee, and I know how much you have to pay to get it.
But back to the Mission. At Hot Press, Khalil is not brewing fair trade. His Castro Coffee Company Guatemalan blend sells for about $7.50 a pound, and he passes that low cost on to his customers.
“I just calculated price per pound and figured this is as high as I could go before people would not buy it,” he says.
Castro Coffee Company, as its name suggests, is a local supplier and one of very few in the city that offers good, smooth beans at low prices. It carries a number of fair-trade varieties, as well.
It’s quiet at Hot Press today. Here at the south end of the Mission, drinking coffee is more peaceful than at Chile Lindo or Jim Georgie’s, two other locations in this series on cheap coffee. The interior resembles a ’90s Internet cafe: gray metal chairs are arranged around birch tables, there’s a big-screen TV on the wall, and the bright fluorescent lighting gives the place a stark, cold look.
The door stays open here, and in the afternoon a cool breeze is a welcome respite from the Mission sun. There are two tables outside in a small patio seating area. Khalil DJs some Euro trance mix on his old-school boom box. The speakers sit atop a drink cooler.
The most charming thing about Hot Press — a comforting trait shared with other cheap coffee places — is that there’s no place to plug in your laptop.
I finish my coffee and feel the familiar pangs of electronics withdrawal, but my phone battery is running low. I take out my charger and instinctively find the nearest outlet.
How embarrassing to discover that Khalil has outfitted his plugs with thick plastic behind each plate. There’s no way to steal power from Hot Press. I try about three times before I realize it isn’t happening, turn to the person behind and strike up a conversation. Hot Press is for cheap coffee, quietude behind a trance beat, and conversation. Try to find that at your favorite pour-over spot.
Hot Press is located at 2966 Mission St., San Francisco.