|Sea Cream Black Coffee||7/10|
The University of California, Riverside has long been cursed with a terrible affliction: our local coffee options are atrocious. Aside from The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf found toward the center of campus, almost every other coffee shop within walking distance is a Starbucks. Likewise, new dining fixtures, such as the recently constructed Emerbee’s, also serve Starbucks products, and when a store closes, as was the case with the Starbucks located in the nearby University Village (UV), another pops up across the street to take its place. Like weeds in a garden, Starbucks has sprouted up and spread all around UCR, leaving students too few options.
Too few options, that is, until very recently. Last Saturday afternoon, the 7 Leaves Cafe hosted its grand opening in the UV, taking the place of the aforementioned Starbucks. The line to get in wrapped around the UV water fountain, and extended past Pho Vinam, with the first 200 people in line receiving a free drink. Whereas before students would have to make the trek out to Augie’s or Arcade Coffee Roasters if they wanted a decent cup of joe, now we have a tasty option right next to the UCR campus.
Sonny Nguyen, one of the founders of the the 7 Leaves Cafe, made an appearance at the grand opening. Having left Vietnam after the war, Nguyen and his three brothers eventually settled down in California. Alongside his brothers, two of their in-laws and a good friend, Nguyen opened the first 7 Leaves Cafe in Garden Grove, Orange County. They were the 7 co-owners; the eponymous seven leaves.
“We didn’t come from food and beverage,” Nguyen explained. He himself was an executive at Bank of America, and his brothers worked in a variety of fields, ranging from medicine all the way to software engineering. “That diversity helps build the business,” Nguyen continued, and, judging by the length of the line right beside us, it seems the business was built quite well. Despite the fierce coffee competition in Orange County, the 7 Leaves chain has not only survived but opened its doors in 26 new locations, with the most recent opening taking place here in Riverside.
As is the case with any good cafe, when you walk in you smell the heady aroma of sweet coffee before you even notice the decor. Speaking of decor, the store itself is fairly unassuming. With a somewhat rustic aesthetic, the setting is fairly basic. Wooden barrels have been placed around the room to fill in some of the empty space, and big red bows are tied to the lamps that hang over the seating area. Near the lamps, a television set hangs above the customer’s heads, but it doesn’t appear to be set up yet. Other than that, the room was surprisingly sparse.
Luckily, decor alone does not make the cafe. The staff was incredibly helpful and kind, recommending menu items, providing samples and going out of their way to offer me a free drink when they realized they would have to cut more mint before making my Mint Sereno. After placing my order, I realized my only other gripe with this particular store location: it appears as though, with the transition from Starbucks to 7 Leaves Cafe, customers have lost access to half the store. Before, you could go to the back of the restaurant to find more tables, but now all of that space is part of the kitchen. The only seating available is by the window and it’s in an uncomfortable bar style. This is not the kind of cafe you sit and study in.
Of course, the great drinks easily make up for the lack of seating. Before long the barista called my name and handed me the House Coffee, priced at a reasonable $4.00 for a regular-sized drink. The staff was quick to inform me that it is their most popular item. The drink itself looked appealing enough — iced coffee topped by a layer of white sea cream, and it tasted even better. It possessed the refined bitterness you’ve likely come to expect from Vietnamese coffee but the sea cream leant it a layered and smooth sweetness.
The House Coffee was a little denser than the coffee I’m used to, and that was by no means a bad thing. But don’t take my word for it: Sierra Lopez, a fourth-year bioengineering major at UCR ordered the same beverage and had no complaints, going so far as to say that, while she doesn’t “usually like the taste of coffee,” 7 Leaves is definitely a go-to for her now. Suffice it to say, there was no mystery as to why the House Coffee was 7 Leaves’ most popular drink.
If you’re looking for something sweet but not quite as sweet as the house blend, the Sea Cream Black Coffee is another stellar choice. Priced at $4.00 just as the House Coffee was, this particular blend was equal parts refreshing and flavorful. “You can tell that the quality of the coffee is better than something like Starbucks” said Timothy Hughes, fourth-year environmental science major, after trying the blend. “The sea cream is a light flavor that has a little bit of saltiness to it,” he continued. The drink went particularly well with the cafe’s $2.00 Strawberry Macaron, which was satisfyingly crisp on the outside and delightfully gooey on the inside. Though it wasn’t my favorite item on the menu, I would gladly recommend it to anyone who thinks it might strike their fancy.
I also had the pleasure of tasting their delicious Mint Sereno, which was my personal favorite drink. It only comes in one relatively small size and is 25 cents more than the two aforementioned drinks, but it was incredibly smooth. The balmy mint sprigs, the cream and the brown sugar they use make for a drink that is not quite as sweet as the rest of the menu but is just as good. While I probably wouldn’t get the sweeter drinks with any regularity, the Mint Sereno is something I will try again soon. Like most items on the menu, it’s the perfect pick-me-up.
UCR coffee addicts rejoice — we have finally been gifted a tasty alternative to the humdrum Starbucks coffee that plagues our campus. If you too were of the opinion that there were no decent Vietnamese coffee options within walking distance, you might want to check out the 7 Leaves cafe; you won’t be disappointed.