** UPDATE! Jason Calhoon is now a partner at Avenue Coffee and no longer utilizes the Bookmans spot.**
** UPDATE2! Jason Calhoon is not involved in making espresso or coffee drinks anywhere in Tucson at this time, to our knowledge.**
I frickin’ love coffee. Espresso, cappuccino, French press – love it. Early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon, yes, please. But it can’t be from any ol’ place. Oh, no. It has to be from a place that takes pride in what they serve. A place that knows the difference between light, medium, and dark roasts. A place that won’t ask me when I buy beans, “would you like us to grind this for you?” A place that knows a cappuccino has specific ratios of espresso to froth and ain’t just a smaller version of a latte. A place where they don’t make drip coffee. And of course, a place whose barista(s) know this, in addition to the owner, and strive for perfection. In San Francisco, the lines at coffee shops with this kind of attention to detail are usually so long that I would find myself questioning the worth of the effort only to be gleefully reminded each time, that, god yes, it was. I had nearly given up hope for something this good here in Tucson until a slight tweet from an unknown Twitterer, “espressojunky,” perked my ears up. In the least likely of spots – the Bookmans parking lot at Grant and Campbell – is a red trailer serving coffee and espresso called Cafe VanGo.
Jason Calhoon, owner and operator, won 2008’s Southwest Regional Barista Competition. Now, I can’t imagine what that contest entails, but he won the damn thing. For all I know, Jason can do cartwheels while juggling coffee beans with his feet. But in all seriousness, he knows what it takes to make an amazing cup of coffee, espresso, and cappuccino. So far, that’s all I’ve had, and I think those staples are the true tests of a good barista.
You might be wondering, “what makes his brewed coffee so much better than other cafes’ coffee?” Well, he’s got a Clover machine. According to this article in Wired, the Clover machine made such an impression on the CEO of Starbucks, he purchased the company leaving only 250 Clovers in existence. Without getting into the details, it brews a cup at a time – to order. You never know when you walk into a cafe how long that carafe of drip coffee has been sitting there. At Cafe VanGo, there isn’t any drip coffee. When you order a cup of coffee it’s fresh ground and brewed to perfection.
Unfortunately – or fortunately depending on who you ask – coffee has become something of a fad drink. A frappuccino, while a super-sweet and tasty drink, strikes me as more of a melted milkshake than coffee. And an iced, double soy latte with hazelnut is just plain amusing. It’s sort of the equivalent of mixing 7-Up with a nice Pinot Grigio. With all of this going on, there is a huge movement towards straight up coffee, espresso, and cappuccino. No frills – just like it’s been being made for eons. The beauty of this movement is it’s hard to find this kind of coffee without an ear to the ground, especially in a not-so-upwardly-mobile town like Tucson. The reason I bring all of this up is that, while I’m sure Jason at Cafe VanGo can make you anything you dream up, you’d be under-utilizing his wonderful coffees – and skills.
Cafe VanGo features coffee from at least four different regions daily. The roasts range from light to medium-dark. It’s a huge misconception that a dark roast is a stronger coffee. It tastes stronger, but caffeine-wise it’s actually less caffeine than a a light roast. A light or medium roast allows for the full flavor of the bean to shine – another element of the new-wave coffee movement. All of the beans Jason uses are from PT’s Coffee Company out of Topeka, Kansas. I’m a huge proponent of going local whenever possible, but not at the mercy of quality. PT’s is Roast Magazine‘s 2008 Micro Roaster of the Year. They have direct relationships with artisan farmers and adhere to strict guidelines which you can find on their website here.
Okay, so what’s not good about Cafe VanGo? Well, it’s a trailer. Tables and chairs are provided outside, but once it warms up, it won’t be a desirable place to hang out unless you plan on running inside Bookmans for a Dog Fancy magazine from 1979. Even now, it’s more of a walk-up counter, chit-chat with Jason and the regulars for a few minutes (I met Bob Bookman there) and then hit the road kind of a place. Wifi is provided via Bookmans. But again, if you’re looking for an indoor spot with air conditioning where you can meet a client, this isn’t it.
Hours are 7am-3pm daily. I think it’s the best coffee you can get in the city. Check it out. Let me know what you think.