Where: Old Cal Coffee, 1080 W San Marcos Blvd, San Marcos, CA 92078
Open: Daily 7 a.m. – 5 p.m.
What: Batch Brew of Ascend Roasters Costa Rica House Coffee
Tasting notes: Milk chocolate, grapefruit
Price: $3.50 plus tax
What I’m listening to: Dawes, “All Your Favorite Bands”
The most important note you should take away from this Bean Journal column is that the Old California Coffee House and Eatery in San Marcos is still open.
Yes, there is a proposal for the redevelopment of Restaurant Row, but the future is murky. Until then, Old Cal Coffee is still serving coffee, gelato, tea, pastries, wraps, sandwiches and acai bowls. I mentioned coffee, didn’t I?
There is still Wi-Fi and patio tables shaded by trees and bright red umbrellas that — with a light breeze passing through — remind me of tailgating Wisconsin football games. Inside, there are plenty of tables for remote workers to set up laptops under worn wood ceiling beams. A new, hipster cafe would covet the glossy sheen of wear on those beams, but here it has come honestly. Old Cal Coffee has been in business since 1990.*
The walls are covered in mechanical gear-inspired artwork and framed prints of vintage hot air balloons and trains. The iconic, theater marquee-inspired Old Cal Coffee sign is lit up over a vintage couch that offers an alternative to the tabletops. Silhouetted in the light of the letters is a gentleman clicking and clacking on a laptop. On the morning I’m visiting, all the doors are wide open, blurring the lines between indoors and out.
Erin Nenow, co-owner of the cafe, roasts the cafe’s featured coffee. After 15 years in the coffee business, she launched Ascend Roasters during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The batch-brewed drip coffee I’m drinking this morning is a Costa Rica coffee appropriately named “House.” It’s a medium roast that I would proffer leans a bit dark — just a little bit. Ascend Roasters does a great job of meeting the needs of its customers with more traditionally roasted beans.
It isn’t packed mid-week, mid-morning, but there is a consistent stream of customers lining up at the register. The crowd is a mix of retirees and moms with strollers, remote workers, students** and what appear to be the employees of every business that shares the parking lot at Restaurant Row. Their logo tees and comfortable shoes give them away.
Behind the counter, Erin greets most of them by name, and everyone gets a smile. No one is rushed through, and no one seems to mind waiting a moment for the punchline or to receive an extra dash of cream. There is a sense of neighborliness that permeates the space.
I take my coffee to the patio and settle in the shade under an umbrella near the back. I can just hear the indie rock music filtering out through the open doorways. Cars rush by on San Marcos Boulevard, but it is easy to shift focus to the hillsides surrounding Double Peak Park in the background. The smell of toasted bagel mixes with the sweet sourness of recently watered succulents that adorn the stone half-wall that lines the patio. Someone sits down nearby and opens a book, settling in.
Old Cal Coffee isn’t on my way or even near my home, but while I can, I’ll make the drive. I’ll do it for a cup of coffee. I’ll do it for a homemade chocolate chip cookie, and I’ll do it to bask in the little moments of humanity afforded me here.
*There have been various iterations and remodels through the years. The original coffee shop was called Mocha Marketplace.
**Cal State San Marcos and a couple high schools are nearby.