Henry's House of Coffee

Sometime in early 2001 I had seen an episode of "Bay Area Back Roads", a now-defunct local television program. One of the features was about an Armenian Bakery on Noriega Street at 22nd Avenue in the Sunset District of San Francisco. At the time I lived in San Jose, but my girlfriend (now wife) Nicole had just moved to the Sunset and one early morning I set off to find this Armenian bakery that made it's own filo dough from scratch and was purported to have the best handmade baklava in Northern California. I walked from Nicole's apartment on 19th Ave. at Lawton Street (ironically, we now live on 19th Ave. and Quintara Street, just five blocks to the south) and cut through the grounds of the former Shriner's Children's Hospital and arrived at the store, only to find a hand-printed sign on the door thanking all of their loyal customers for twenty years of happy filo making and expressing their regret at having to close the business due to ill health. The date revealed that I had missed the best baklava in Northern California by one day. Argh.

So I found myself on Noriega Street. Noriega Street contains a commercial area from 19th Avenue to roughly 31st Avenue. There were bars, Chinese bakeries and restaurants, A market, dentists and Optometrists, and a very cool comic book store called "Comics and Da Kine", for runner to the legendary "Isotope Comic Book Lounge" run by the equally legendary James Sime. I decided to explore.

One thing I began to notice was the incredibly enticing smell of roasting coffee. My nose lead me to 1618 Noriega Street. Henry's House of Coffee. My coffee Mothership.

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Henry's is not a cafe. There are no cozy, overstuffed couches; no Parisian cafe chairs; no funky murals or prints of pre-war Paris. There are three small tables inside and two small tables out on the sidewalk. Henry's House of Coffee is a "Coffee Store", if you will; a place for people who are serious about finely roasted coffee. The "bulk" of Henry's business, is whole beans and wholesale. He doesn't even bother with the Starsucks croud. As you enter the small store, there is a counter along the left side and a system of shelves on the right. Halfway down the counter is a scale for weighing coffee and behind that is the register. To the left of the scale are clear Plexiglas bins of various types of whole bean coffees. Behind the counter on the wall is a huge assortment of loose teas. To the right of the scale is a small assortment of fresh pastries (Irish breakfast rolls and scones are available. This is smart; as this is an Irish neighborhood and Henry's is right next to Whelan's Irish Dance School).
Next to the pastries is a large insulated pump thermos with the daily brew (Henry's own Bella Finca Central American blend is one of my favorites) and to the right of that is the espresso machine. On the other wall shelves full of different coffee makers, (including original Hario Syphon Brewers from Japan), Turkish, Persian and Armenian food products and various coffee and tea accoutrement. They usually are playing Classical 102.1 quietly in the background.

Henry Kalebjian is a fourth generation Armenian master coffee roaster. ALL of the coffee in the store is roasted on site, by Henry in small batches. Henry is a friendly man that remembers all his customers by coffee preference, if not by name. He has a personal relationship with most of the growers he buys from and his coffee is always delicious. He also employs helpful and friendly staff.

I love going to Henry's, even though it is not designed for hanging out. It is my own neighborhood spot, and I am so lucky that the coffee there is SO amazing. One of my simplest pleasures is to go there with a book, chit chat with the staff and drink some coffee while Henry roasts on the Franciscan Batch Roaster in the back corner of the shop. Paradise.

Henry explains why House of Coffee is so prized by customers.

Henry explains how he helps guide customers through the coffee selecting process.

Henry explains his personal philosophy of the perfect roast.

The Dance Begins

Legend has it that in the Ninth Century A.D. an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed that when his goats ate of a certain red berry found in the highlands, they had abundant amounts of energy and appeared to "dance". Kaldi and his fellow shepherds tried chewing the berries and even the leaves, but this was rather unpleasant. These raw coffee berries traveled from Ethiopia to Egypt and then Yemen, where they were first roasted and brewed in a manner we would recognize today.

Another legend has it that an eleven year-old boy in Davis, California, while visiting his Aunt Cathy's Northern Italian Restaurant, "Ristorante Mangiamo", finally had the courage to ask for a decaf espresso, even though he had taken sips of his father Mike's coffee and hated it. Adam had spent much of his childhood in the kitchen and dinning room of "Ristorante Mangiamo" and had always marveled at the huge, brass and copper Elektra Espresso machine that sat near the door to the kitchen. He loved the sharp, smokey smell that emanated from it when espresso shots were being pulled. Aunt Cathy brought him his single decaf espresso with a twist of lemon peel. Expecting to hate it, the boy took a tiny, tentative sip. The flavor exploded in his mouth and he squeezed his eyes shut to deal with the sensory overload. He wasn't in love with it, but he definitely didn't hate it. A seed was planted and a quest for good coffee was now afoot.

Many memorable cups of coffee that I have had in the past are memorable for their setting, context, accompanying experiences and company as much, if not more, than for their actual quality. Some were just damn good cups of coffee. This blog will be a chronicle of my life with coffee. Coffee may not always be at the center of things, but it will be there, somewhere, lurking in the shadows or proudly front and center.

Let us begin.

"I learned it by watching you, alright!"

The incomparable Otis Redding's "Cigarettes and Coffee", one of my favorite "Java Jams".