Where: Steel Mill Coffee, 253 Main St, Vista, CA 92084
Open: Daily 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
What: Warish batch brew
Region: Mexico Chiapas Turquesa
Tasting Notes: Tangerine, chocolate, juicy
Bonus: Motorbreath Signature Blend Espresso • Mango, berry, chocolate
What I’m listening to: Dead Feather Moon, “My Sun”*
I exit the state Route 76 at Vista Village Drive. There is a corporate coffee behemoth right there off the exit, then another, and another, but I keep going. It is only another half mile to Steel Mill Coffee in the heart of Vista Village. This is my first visit to their new location.
Steel Mill Coffee relocated from Oceanside at the start of the year. They won’t be the only ones. Vista Village is about to be the next hot coffee community in North County.**
I like Vista Village. Parts of it, like this particular spot next to the Avo Playhouse and across from the Vista Village Pub, feel like the kind of place that has been staring into the eyes of gentrification for a decade without losing its soul.***
In Oceanside, Steel Mill was in a long space on Mission Avenue downtown. The space was heavy metal, and the vibe was a little cold. It wasn’t my favorite spot. The new Vista location is smaller, warmer, and friendlier but still with a hint of metal. They share the small shop with a vintage clothing retailer, Oldfield Vintage.
This morning, I pass a rack of pearl-buttoned cowboy button-downs that would have been in my closet twenty years ago to get to the counter. It is free of clutter and holds only the essentials: bags of whole-bean coffee, a register, and a covered plate of glazed donuts.
A record player spins in the corner under a curated bookshelf that holds up a pair of sharp-looking speakers and a motorcycle helmet. The black-and-white menu board reflects the simplicity of focus and features Steel Mill’s selection of coffee, tea, flavors, and specials, including the Bone Tomahawk.
I order a Warish batch brew, a coffee from the Chiapas region of Mexico that, according to Conrad the Barista, “…is a kind-of, punch you in the cheek, sort of coffee.” I’m paraphrasing because I was so delighted by the phrasing that I forgot to write it down. I take it outside and sit on one of two black table-and-chair sets looking back into the cafe.
A line of decaying flowers (mums?) are lined up in a black and gold flower box under the window. They are a near-perfect depiction of the death of the fall season. It’s quiet in Vista this morning. I can see a few late breakfast eaters in front of the cafe down the street, but most shops still need to open. Sidewalk traffic is limited to coffee drinkers and locals walking or biking to work.
According to the staff, there were a lot of reasons for the move from Oceanside, not the least of which was the impact of COVID-19. While they may miss old regulars, this location is more affordable than their old spot, and in a boon to the business, their collaboration with Oldfield Vintage and the smaller size of the shop has led to even more customer engagement.
I sit and sip, and sip and sit. Juicy and chocolate, milk chocolate on the finish, are perfect tasting notes. I get antsy before I finish, so I take it with me for a walk around the neighborhood. I’m not planning on returning, but for some reason, I find myself back at the counter about half an hour later. I order an espresso.
Employees at Steel Mill pull Motorbreath, their signature coffee, as an espresso, served in a brown demitasse cup on a saucer with a silver spoon and sparkling water, displayed on a slab of wood. I take mine back outside to a table and take a moment to consider what I’ve done.
I’m surprised by myself. I rarely order espresso anymore. I’ve been burned too many times, and despite my penchant for immediate gratification, espressos disappear too quickly. I slurp the crema from the top of the mug, and oh! Oh, wow.
My entire body relaxes, and I feel at home, or instead, I feel the comfort that comes with being at home. The richness of the coffee is offset nearly perfectly with a bitter, salty finish. I cleanse my palate with some water and take another sip. Espresso changes quickly as you work your way through.
My second and third sip is sweeter, smoother, and syrupier. This espresso makes me feel things. I’m filled with love for all beings. I’m reminded of how good life can be when focusing on the little things. I want to hug someone to share the warmth that has encompassed my heart.
So yeah, I’ll be back at Steel Mill Coffee in Vista, and I’ll be back sometime soon.
*Dead Feather Moon has long been one of my favorite local bands. Years ago, I used this song in a clip about bicycling at night that featured San Diego. Check it out here: https://vimeo.com/onewildlife. I ran into one of the DFM band members at the coffee shop.
**”Hot coffee community.” See what I did there? Archer’s Coffee House just opened down the street, and another local coffee roaster is moving in soon, not to mention Danny’s Donuts, Curbside Cafe, and Brewed Vista are already in the neighborhood.
***Gentrification is a complex issue. I’ve lived in places that have been gentrified and been part of a gentrification wave. There is often some good that comes with the bad. However, in addition to social and racial changes, one noticeable impact of gentrification is the loss of small, local businesses that can’t always compete with the incoming wave of well-funded newcomers.
Take this as a sign to support a local business today instead of an online big-box retailer. I bought a puzzle at Public Lemon in Vista that I later learned was cheaper than if I had purchased from our future robot overlords at that website we all use, even though we know it isn’t good for us.
Always tip your baristas, and be sure to drink good coffee.
Get more Bean Journal on roastwestcoast.com or listen to the Roast! West Coast coffee podcast on Spotify. Follow @RoastWestCoast on Instagram.