Three-Alarm Umami

“I started out leasing my own food truck. I was 20.”

What a bite! The “Carmine” sandwich
  • What a bite! The “Carmine” sandwich

Ryan Brothers Coffee

1894 Main Street, Barrio Logan

Sunny, breezy day. Walking through the barrio, heading down César Chávez toward the trolley. Pass ye olde brick building that used to be Chuey’s bar-eatery. ’Course, for years it’s been Ryan Bros. coffee-roasting and sipping place. And what great roasts I’ve sucked down on my way to the trolley.

Plus, you feel good about it, because the three brothers — Tom, Harry, and Carmine — are into fair-trade coffee.

I have 15 minutes till the next Blue Line, so I hop up the Ryan Bros. steps and pass under a sign that says “Life Is Too Short to Be Bitter.”

Inside, I walk over a wild-colored, stained-cement floor, an abstract in golds, blues, and greens, past that famous old rickshaw of theirs and into a big yellow, red, and naked-brick space that ends in a way-long wooden counter.

Bunch of people are lining up, and I remember the plastic banner outside: “Now Serving Lunch.”

One board touts low-fat tuna or turkey wraps ($5.95), but the main deal seems to be the panini of the day.

Hmm… hot paninis. This is new.

They’re all on focaccia bread “baked right here.” And they’re all the same price, $6.95.

The Very Veggie has red peppers, Swiss cheese, spinach, onions, avocado, and hummus. Wow, quite a mixture. The Slamming Hammin has ham, onions, honey Dijon, Swiss, and lemon aioli. The Tuscan Turkey is turkey, peppers, Swiss, pesto, and lemon aioli. All sound pretty great, but the gal at the counter, Angie, says the TAB (turkey, avocado, bacon, plus spinach, tomato, and aioli) is the most popular.

It also has an alternate name.

Head chef Christina McMahan: “I bake my own focaccia bread.”

Head chef Christina McMahan: “I bake my own focaccia bread.”

“We call it the ‘Carmine,’” says another gal who emerges from the kitchen to help with the crowd. Christina McMahan. She’s the head chef.

“Carmine’s one of the Ryan brothers,” she says. “He’s always hungry, but he never gets fat.”

The “Carmine” comes with chips, fruit, or soup. Today’s soup is sausage Florentine — low-fat, says the blackboard, but hearty. (To have the soup separately costs $3.95, with bread. Other days they have white-bean linguiça soup or a “three-alarm chili.”)

“We make it all here,” Christina says. “I bake my own focaccia bread, too.”

Sounds serious. I go for the Carmine TAB and soup ($6.95), plus a coffee ($1.75) called Coronado Moonlight, a combo of Indonesian and African Arabicas. Mmm…smoky.

And now I remember: the Ryan brothers grew up in Indonesia. That rickshaw is an Indonesian becak.

I’m just heading for a table when I spot yet another sign. This one says: “Historic bar. Outlaw Jesse James sat here, 1870.”

Harry Ryan comes out of the roasting section. “Jesse’s distant cousin Tobin James had a winery up in Paso Robles,” he explains. “Jesse stayed with him after the Civil War. This was the [wooden] bar they drank at.”

It ended up in San Diego, in the Brick Tavern — the W Hotel is at that location now. When the hotel was about to be built, Jesse James’s bar was abandoned for destruction. But the Ryan brothers got ahold of it and put it into storage till they could think what to do with it.

The bacon-turkey combo panini is fine. A little pleasantly pungent, even. “I put some coffee into the meat, too,” says Christina, “just to punch up the flavor.”

Aha. So that’s what it is.

“Coffee is like wine,” she says. “It provides another note. We were taught at culinary school that your taste buds need sweetness and acidity, delivered in fat to bring the flavors out. What we’re always aiming for is umami, depth.”

Christina says she’s been here six months. She’s 25, a graduate of the San Diego Culinary Institute.

“I started out leasing my own food truck. I was 20. We were always chasing construction sites. I’d cook everything from biscuits and gravy to short ribs. It was fun. The chase!”

But then the recession hit, and construction sites dried up. Christina worked as a line chef at Bertrand’s at Mr. A’s, then she got this offer.

“I took the job because I could bring in my own food program,” she says. “Make up my own menu.”

Have to ask if she feels awkward, cooking Anglo in maybe the most Latino neighborhood in the county. “I would never make tacos here,” she says. “But, basically, my cooking’s artisan. It’s not Anglo, not Hispanic, it’s artisan.”

What truly gets to me is her focaccia. So tender and crisp, with a tang of fresh rosemary scattered on top.

Sculptures from coffee countries.

Sculptures from coffee countries.

Uh, strike that — I mean, the focaccia was great, but what I actually take away with me is the taste of the soup. Incredibly excellent. Winey! Hot! Like, muy picante. It’s the sausage Florentine, chunks of sausage along with veggies and I don’t know what-all swimming around. I would walk a mile for this. You might say it’s three-alarm umami.

“The Ryan brothers have been working for months to get a beer-and-wine license,” says Christine. “So now we’re looking at a happy hour, live music, movies, even. And expanding our food. It’s exciting.”

Sigh. To be 25 again, one of the Che Guevaras of this food/artisan/cultural thing.

I’ll just have to enjoy the fruits of their labor from the sidelines. ■

The Place: Ryan Brothers Coffee, 1894 Main Street, Barrio Logan (at César Chávez Parkway), 619-546-6314

Prices: Panini (all $6.95) include the Very Veggie, with red peppers, Swiss cheese, spinach, onions, avocado, hummus; Slamming Hammin (ham, onions, honey Dijon, Swiss, lemon aioli); TAB (turkey, avocado, bacon); sausage Florentine soup, $3.95, with bread

Hours: 5:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., daily; lunch, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., daily

Buses: 11, 901, 929

Nearest Bus Stops: César Chávez Parkway and Logan (11); National and César Chávez (901); Main and César Chávez (929, the closest stop)

Trolley: Blue Line

Nearest Trolley Stop: Barrio Logan (one block west)

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I was stuck in traffic this morning and after 45 minutes crawling down the 5, I couldn't take it any more. I had to pee, I was already late for work and thought, "it's not like a 5 minute stop is going to change the pace of traffic". With César Chávez exit 3/4 a mile away, I remembered what Ed had written..I jitterbugged in my TC till I saw the 15 minute parking come into view. Two things came to mind Ryan's Brothers equals a coffee and bathroom. Although I didn't get the chance to enjoy the wonderfully open space to the Coffee House I did enjoy their French Roast (bold on the tongue and smooth down the throat)paired with the Savory Ham and Swiss. I will be going back to lounge around on a lazy and enjoy the Ryan's Brother's Coffee.

Yes, that lounge is a blessed retreat from the "pressures" of life...

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