A small city with a big sense of self, Albuquerque, NM, has an enormous coffee scene. It would not be possible in a week to try every coffee spot tucked into the little corners, buildings, and neighborhood streets.
Known as a permanent stop on cross-country road trips (and located on the historic Route 66), this is a place people stumble upon and never leave, a place so golden why would you ever leave it. Albuquerque sucks artists and writers and vaqueros in at the same time as it firmly holds onto its own people. It is a place of ancestral power, amazing food, and buildings of kaleidoscopic color. The seasons are marked by the chili harvest, the Balloon Fiesta, the few winter snows, and the fluctuating pink of the Sandia Mountains. The pace of life lends itself to long coffee breaks, and in every neighborhood there are places to sit and enjoy time with each other, while the sun warms the rocks and the cactuses grow little by little, their roots connecting us together.
As the city grows, it is ever more important to frequent spaces grounded in the local community and support the city’s investment in itself. In fact, Albuquerque has such a strong sense of self that I as an outsider can only attempt to describe it. In the spirit of staying true to Albuquerque’s own culture, we’ve highlighted only shops owned by folks from Albuquerque and nearby.
Sometimes it feels like all the traffic on the quiet streets between downtown and Barelas is directed towards Zendo, people on foot and on bikes and in cars making their slow morning way towards coffee. If owner Pilar Wendell isn’t behind the counter, a couple very cool and equally sweet baristas will be. The space lends itself to basking: bright white walls with rotating pops of local art, a mansion’s worth of house plants, rows of skylights, and a backyard shared with the next-door brewery. A counter stacked high with cups and condiments, an inset pastry case holding stacks of the most absurdly beautiful donuts and other delicious stuffed things, hot breakfast burritos handed over the counter like blessed offerings.
They serve Odacrem Coffee, and a rotating guest roaster always owned by people of color and women. Zendo’s founding principle was to be a community spot to meet friends, get to know neighbors, and offset the isolation of the digital world, and this shows in the prevalence of conversation and the energy of leisure that infects the space. “People come and they’re kind of unsure,” says Wendell, “and then they realize that everyone behind the bar is super welcoming and wants to know everything about you, and all the customers are super friendly and there’s this encompassing feeling of belonging that I think everyone in the world really wants right now.”
Golden Crown Panaderia
It is very hard to wait patiently in line surrounded by Golden Crown Panaderia’s legendary smell: the toasty cinnamon and sugar melting off of baking biscochitos—cookies that cannot be described, and must be tasted. With burlap bags of green coffee on the floor and sugar and flour stacked chest-high along the entryway, the customer area feels like the antechamber to all that is behind the counter: half-hidden ovens churning out blue corn crust pizza, Original New Mexico Green Chile Bread, fruit empanadas, and trays and trays of biscochitos. Plants cluster in the windows, loaves sit plump and hot on their racks, the coffee is house-roasted and the biscochitos come in flavors like chocolate, cappuccino, and blue corn. Golden Crown Panaderia opened in 1972 and is a family-run business that oozes the tradition, flavor, and invitation to relax with food and friends that makes Albuquerque feel like home. It is possible to stay all day, eating your way through breakfast, lunch, and dinner and sunning yourself on the patio outside.
As traffic bleeds onto the highway, or heads to Old Town or out into the ranchlands that skirt the city, a few cars veer off towards a low adobe building with a great big tent outside.
If his shiny turquoise Ford is parked out front, you’ll know owner Paul Gallegos is inside slinging coffees. A tenured roaster, Gellegos started at Peet’s in 1989 and rode the waves back to his hometown of Albuquerque to open Cutbow in 2018. “One thing about the Third Wave that I really appreciated from the very beginning was their transparency and their sharing of knowledge,” says Gallegos. The space has the roaster at its heart—you have to walk past it to order your coffee—but the focus in general is on community. “Cutbow hosted very popular weekly public cuppings in The Time Before,” says Gallegos, who is rethinking what that kind of thing might look like in the current climate. Gallegos keeps four blends and six single origins in stock, which he chooses for year round consistency in flavor. “I’ve been tasting for as long as I’ve been roasting, almost 30 years. I roasted a New Guinea in 1992 that was perfect, and I’m still chasing that cup.”
In October 2020 two friends banded together to open Slow Burn. Jesus Zamora—who owns Sister Bar downtown—runs the business side of things, and Grey Smith runs the coffee side of things and is the roaster. The hundred-year-old adobe building that houses Slow Burn was originally a general store that Zamora’s mother used to walk to as a kid to buy candy. Inside, pieces of this history are held in the warm wood floor and tin ceilings. Textured clay walls bump against color, just like in the desert landscape outside. Blue tiles edge the bar and a bright mural covers the back wall by the roaster, which isn’t actually a wall, but a divider between the front and another sitting area with low couches. The space feels cozy and awake at once, and everything just flows: the ambiance, the practiced baristas, the caffeinated people in and out.
On Sunday morning, travelers aim for the back corner of the Sawmill Market, home to Blue Door Patisserie, XO Waffle, and Plata Coffee. As the morning glow starts to slant in through the wide windows, families take their coffee to sitting areas throughout the huge space whose restaurants and bars have not yet opened for the day, or to the sun-sodden picnic tables outside. Plata Coffee’s aesthetic is simple and sleek: a Modbar, coffee by rotating New Mexican roasters, attentive design down to the detail. The official story is that Plata started on a whim—the vision of Rose Kerkman, from the nearby town of Magdalena, and Aaron Ketner, who moved here for graduate school and is currently an intern architect at a local firm. The couple noticed that many cafes shipped their coffee in from other states, and wanted to highlight New Mexico roasteries, both the esteemed classics and those that were popping up around town. They spent a year as a coffee counter downtown before starting the build-out at Sawmill, a lumber-mill-turned-food-hall that attracts many out-of-town visitors, who support the local coffee community by buying beans they can take back home.
Due to the rapidly changing COVID-19 landscape, remember to always check in first with any cafe to ensure they’re operating with normal hours.
Oona Robertson is a freelance journalist based in Las Vegas. Read more Oona Roberston for Sprudge.