Where: Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe, 127 North El Camino Real, Suite A, Encinitas, CA
Open: Daily, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
What: Drip black coffee and a pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant)
Price: $2.90-3.35 plus tax
Tasting Notes: Roasted, baker’s chocolate
What I’m listening to: Jill Barber, “Petite Fleur”
It’s only 9:00 a.m. mid-week, but the baked goods cabinets are already primarily empty. That has to be a good sign. Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe is tucked into an Encinitas strip mall next to Ralph’s grocery and a Nektar Juice bar. They serve coffee which is why I’m here.
It is busy. A steady stream of customers order pastries and cups of coffee that get poured from an oversized, commercial brewer behind the counter. It looks like bags from local wholesale roaster Cafe Moto are stacked on top, but I can’t be sure, and I never get a chance to ask.
The line moves fast. A mishmash of French and English comes from an energetic woman behind the counter. The efficiency and confidence in her commands give her power.
When it is my turn, I panic. I know I want coffee, but I don’t feel like I can leave here without something buttery. I go for the chocolate chip croissant. I always love them, but I’m filled with instant—albeit momentary—buyers remorse. I should have tried something new! I should have gone for the picturesque macarons or slice of quiche!
When I feel the weight of the croissant in the paper sheath handed to me at the register, my FOMO dissipates. There are tables inside, but they are mostly covered with boxes to be assembled or baking utensils. I head outside, where there is plenty of outside seating, both shaded and in the sun.
I find a spot with just the right amount of both next to an oversized flower pot. I try to imagine I’m at a table by the square in Paris, or perhaps, Grenoble. There isn’t quite enough magic in the parking lot this morning, but I can get close.
Across from me, an older gentleman counts change. Neighbors join neighbors at the table behind me. The laughter is immediate, and the visible teen angst enables me to infer that at least one person at the table isn’t happy about the story being told.
I take a sip of my coffee. It is fine. It is black coffee. It is fine, but coffee isn’t really why anyone is here. Customers come for butter-filled pastries, cakes, crepes, and croissants. They come for the flakey and tough exteriors and the soft and fluffy interiors. They come for the banter with the owner and the chance that they’ll run into one of their neighbors.
I dip my croissant into my coffee. It’s a thing I do. It is perfect. The flakey crust softens and tears easily, and the coffee’s heat melts the chocolate just enough. I almost get up to order another, but I force myself to stay seated. I chew slowly. I savor the pastry, and my coffee disappears.
I make my way down the hallway to use the parlor. I pass the kitchen, which glistens. The chrome counters shine, and trays of soon-to-be-baked cakes have been lined up in precise rows. I imagine those future cakes on a table in front of me. I have the only fork, and life is good. La vie est belle, d’accord?
Head to www.ibcafe.com to see the full Isabelle Briens menu, which includes a lot more than croissants for breakfast and lunch, and to learn more about their crepe parties.
The Bean Journal is a new column by Ryan Woldt, host of the Roast! West Coast coffee podcast, which can be streamed at: TheCoastNews.com. Look for features on North County coffee shops, cafes, and coffee roasters.