Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“A little gambling is fun.”
-Lady Gaga (from “Poker Face”)
Commercial Drive’s new Spade café breaks late out of the gate this year. But if you’re looking for the inside track, they’d be anything but an underdog.
On Stop 136 of our Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, the fact that Piccolo is a former barista (and four-time Canadian barista champion), can give you some insight. Imagine how many baristas dream of owning their own coffee shop and executing what is truly their own vision of how things should be done.
And while Piccolo’s not your average barista, there’s something refreshing about Spade, which flexes the most inventive muscle out of all his coffee shops.
It seems natural The Drive is the home of Spade. While this area, like much of Vancouver, is constantly changing – it’s always been the kind of place that’s open minded and yet grounded at the same time.
So it’s nice to see that Piccolo gets that too. In essence, he’s created a space that has components of innovation but is still a neighbourhood hangout. Think of a swallow of casual and welcoming, without the saccharin aftertaste of high brow polish.
This Sunday morning, we walk up to Commercial and East 3rd. Sure, it’s early. On relaxed weekends like this one, you won’t find a lot of locals who’ve woken yet. Weekdays are a different story though: that’s when you gotta hurry up, get things done.
Sunny in plaster white, we spot Spade which is simply identified with the swooping script of its name on the glass. Details are everything here: on the side of the building is an oversized shadow of the playing card symbol. Only this one is made of thick black lines gradually getting skinnier, like a bar code.
When we enter, a young couple sits at the window with their coffees. Just behind is another spade, this time filled with dark moss, inset into a wood-clad wall.
It’s a long room with plenty of seating – two-seat tables and different chairs simply stroked with a brush of white, cloud grey or dark blue.
The communal table is eye catching. Designed by Piccolo, it’s my favourite thing here and feels like a labour of love. Heavily lacquered with a slippery finish, through its reflective surface you can see multiple slats of miscellaneous woods. An occasional slat is painted a faded turquoise. Which makes me think of 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, also part of the Piccolo family.
It looks like there’s three staff here today. One young woman immediately greets us. We spot their beverage menu on the counter and ponder our choices. They serve espresso and pour over.
They use Kalita Wave, which we rate high on the cool factor. Typically coffee shops don’t have this Japanese pour over, so that makes it a unique offering. Plus, it’s at a very affordable price ($3.50) which really surprises us. Mike orders one.
I decide on a Dolce Lecce Latte ($5.50) that’s pricey for a latte, but I want to try a special drink.
We ask which coffee they’re using; she shows us Spade’s coffee which is roasted by 49th Parallel. There’s three: Settebello Blend (low acidity, bitter chocolate, intense), Bastone Blend (floral, fruity, complex, vibrant) and Spade Blend (sorry we missed the profile’s description).
They use Settebello Blend for espresso. For pour over, you have a choice of Bastone Blend or Spade Blend, so Mike opts for the Spade Blend.
But Spade is actually more than just a café. It chameleons its way through the day – a transformation evidenced in its brunch (8:30 am), lunch (11 am) and drinks/supper/charcuterie/dessert menus (5pm – late evening).
That means some convenient features you won’t normally see in an average coffee shop. By the time they become a bistro in the evening, you get table service and an option to make online reservations.
If you’re thinking of booking a holiday party, they do that too . For dinner, expect delectable Italian creations (in small plates like tapas) including handmade gnocchi and tomato braised octopus.
We’re here for breakfast so we select a cookie from the half dozen glass jars on their counter. Our pick is a Dolce Lesse Espresso Oreo ($3.25).
There’s also a brunch menu: Meat Breakfast Sandwich ($8.50), Vegetarian Breakfast Sandwich ($8.50), Berry Toast ($6) or Eggs In Purgatory ($10). We don’t mind it’s a small menu as there’s pretty good variety here. Plus they make everything fresh in-house.
We order the Meat Breakfast Sandwich (ham, aged cheddar, basil mayo, onion jam, greens, egg) and Berry Toast (house made raspberry compote on sourdough toast). They hand us a laminated number and tell us they’ll call it out when our order is ready.
If you haven’t heard, their pour over is not done by hand with a kettle. They water is heated and poured using the Seraphim, which the staffer describes as a programmable brewer. The barista still grinds the beans separately. They position the mug and dripper under a “tap”.
When we see it in action, the staff are put to the test. A customer suddenly walks through the door. Our barista quickly punches brewing instructions on the machine’s small screen (built into the counter), before leaving to serve the customer.
The Seraphim looks like a small lamp with an arching gooseneck that hovers over the dripper. Except instead of light falling, small amounts of water shower in silent intervals over the grinds. Kind of like a shower head where water falls in a pattern through different holes.
It’s neat to watch and easy to see the benefits of using a machine that does pour over. Coffee is brewed quickly without delay. On the quality scale, Mike likes his drink and finds it technically executed: it’s tasty, with clear cocoa and buttery flavours, low acidity.
I don’t watch my latte being hand poured by the barista. But I like the presentation, which feels special in an artisan ceramic cup and saucer that’s been fired in a kiln to uneven shades of blue. It’s a deliciously big drink that has a thick, creamy body and tastes like caramel. I think it’s from sweetened condensed milk (ie. dulce de leche).
The food is what blows us away. In no time, Mike’s cleaned off his plate. He had the Meat Breakfast Sandwich which is luscious from a carmelized onion jam he can’t stop talking about. The brioche bun is sweet and fluffy, which is very different from sandwich breads. Different textures from the layers of toppings make it an enjoyable experience.
Prado has always been talented at making cookies, and I can’t help but think of Piccolo’s predecessor when I sink into the Dolce Lecce Espresso Chocolate Oreo. It’s not your typical crispy Oreo with overly sweet icing. Instead, the filling tastes like a smooth whipped buttercream and the cookie has a soft bite.
I love the simplicity of the Berry Toast. The thick jam looks exciting in a bright fuschia and tastes juicy. Even though they use raspberries – not my favourite fruit – it’s ripely sweet and smooth, without annoying little seeds scattered throughout. And the sourdough isn’t tough, like some handmade breads can be, but tender.
Mike comments on the plate they use, which I simply see as a delicate pattern. But he has a good eyes and points out it actually looks like the Chinese plates his mom has at home. You know, those traditional pink-toned ones Asian families use everywhere in Vancouver.
But when we take a closer look, we realize they’re actually painted blue. Maybe just a modern spin of what is ubiquitous around here.
During our visit, as we often do, sip our drinks. Watch people strolling on the street, pushing strollers and going for their morning walk. and listen to the music.
That’s when we usually have a debate. What kind of music is this? Today it’s something that sounds Marvin Gaye, but then we’re thrown off by the next track, which comes off with a heavier sound.
Mike finally offers up that it’s acid jazz rock. At which point I accuse, did you just make that up? Eventually though, we settle on an answer we both agree on. Of course, it’s soul.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: Spade’s Spade Blend
Location of roaster: 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, B.C.
Brewing method: pour over with Kalita Wave dripper, pouring by the Seraphim
Roaster’s tasting notes: n/a
Mike’s comments: “Cocoa, butter and caramel flavours. Low acidity and easy to drink.”
- Loved the quality of their food. We’d come back to try them as a bistro in the evening.
- Enjoyed trying the Seraphim pour over, which is also at a great price. Like how they don’t take the easy route, and decided to make their own independent coffee lineup.
- Great ambience and neighbourhood to hangout.
- Overall impressed. The only oddity? For food of this quality and price point, service seemed to call for food to be brought to our table when it was ready.
Seating availability: 4.75/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 4.63/5
Subscribe to Blog via Email
Want to visit?
1858 Commercial Drive (at East 3rd Ave)
Operating hours here.