Imagine canoodling in a hot tub with your sweetheart while enjoying a brilliant symphony of light courtesy of the aurora borealis as you both sip on hot coffee in which reindeer cheese bobs luxuriously. It’s likely you find that romantic scenario very appealing save perhaps for seeing reindeer cheese floating atop your hot coffee. While that scenario may sound unreal…maybe even surreal to most of us, it’s a reality in Finland where cheese is a favorite addition to a type of coffee called kaffeost. Not just any cheese can make the cut, however. Finnish folks only use a particular type of cheese called leipäjuusto which translates loosely to “bread cheese.” Despite that translation, “bread cheese” is one-hundred percent cheese. There’s absolutely no bread in it. The sobriquet “bread cheese” comes from the cheese’s absorbent qualities. This cheese soaks up the coffee.
You don’t need to be a barista to make kaffeost. It’s as simple as adding the cheese to your coffee and letting it soak for a few minutes before fishing it out and eating it separately. First-timers and aficionados praise the flavor of the cheese which inherits the roasted flavors of the coffee. The softened chunks also warrant high praise though experienced javaphiles know not to let the coffee sit too long. Cold coffee and curds apparently don’t taste very good. Because it’s not likely you’ll find Finnish bread cheese in your local supermarket, you might be tempted to try an alternative cheese. Critics advise using a soft, porous cheese with light, sweet qualities. In other words, find a cheese that absorbs the coffee.
Now imagine a visitor or expat from Finland driving north on Louisiana, crossing Menaul and espying Cheese & Coffee. With great alacrity and haste, they just might stop for a fix of kaffeost. Stepping inside and looking around, confusion might ensue. Cheese & Coffee looks nothing like a Finnish coffee shop. Perusing the menu, there’s nothing like kaffeost. Apprehension is quickly diffused by the friendly waitstaff…and if the waitstaff doesn’t win them over, sassy owners (and fraternal twins) Anne and Geri will. They’ve been winning over Duke City diners for a long time.
The name Cheese & Coffee hearkens back to the days when (you guessed it) cheese and coffee were sold in bulk. That was about a quarter-century ago–2001 to be precise. Sandwiches and soup were added about ten years thereafter. Peruse all the framed “Best of the City” certificates on the wall and it’s obvious that adding sandwiches and soups was the right move. Better still, ask one of the regulars (and there seem to be a lot of them) about Cheese & Coffee. Sitting on the next table over from us was a burly trucker who has been visiting Cheese & Coffee weekly for about six years. He knows the menu intimately and is on a first name basis with the waitstaff and owner. In his words “there are no better sandwiches or soups in Albuquerque.”
Cheese & Coffee is unlike any other sandwich shop in the Albuquerque area. That’s especially true of the shop’s ambiance, a mishmash of vintage and daily use items on shelves. An antique National cash register is flanked by coffee brewing machines, also of yesteryear. On the shelf in which the days cakes and cookies are on display, you’ll find even more “Best of the City” certificates on one shelf. Another shelf has framed, autographed photographs of Better Call Saul actor Bob Odenkirk and the pride of Albuquerque, Holly Holm. Holly is a frequent visitor. “Very approachable and so kind” was how our server described the pulchritudinous pugilist. Don’t just focus on the walls and shelves. Take a gander at the ceiling which is constructed from pltboard and decorated with burlap bags which once held fifty pounds of coffee.
Neither of the products named on the marquee seem to have that prominent a role on the menu. Freshly brewed Rio Grande Coffee is a line item on the beverage menu, but other than being listed as an ingredient on some sandwiches, cheese isn’t a featured item. The menu does boast that its soups are available wholesale from (fittingly) Twin Sisters. You can find Cheese & Coffee’s famous creamy green chili (SIC) chicken soup by the gallon (boil-in bag). I asked Annie why Cheese & Coffee hasn’t entered its popular soups in the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl. Without braggadocio she told me “we’d win every year.”
Downtown and westside area residents can find a second Cheese & Coffee on San Pasqual. This one is owned by Jan Barringer-Tenchipe. By day, the space serves as Cheese & Coffee. At night, Jan and her husband and business partner Alejandro transform the space into an upscale restaurant called Seared Bistro. Cheese & Coffee closes at 3PM daily, reopening at 4PM as Seared. During the hour in between, Barringer-Tenchipe and her staff add tablecloths and rearrange the movable walls. They also rearrange the art and the furniture, change out ingredients and decorate the front entrance. Last, they will move in the signs and voila! Cheese and Coffee becomes Seared Bistro.
The menu at Cheese & Coffee features specialty sandwiches, made from scratch soups and crisp salads. They proudly feature Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, local produce and bread made right here in New Mexico. The “build your own sandwich” option offers a variety of proteins, breads, cheeses and condiments. Specialty sandwiches (served with your choice of a soup or salad) are also available as are salads, soups and sides. Desserts showcase a cake of the day and homemade cookies. If you’re not early, chances are there won’t be any cake left.
Though Cheese & Coffee’s reuben was calling loudly, my inaugural sandwich at this perennial favorite was the Big Apple (corned beef, pastrami, Swiss, Thousand Island dressing, Dijon, red onion, lettuce and tomato on rye). Few protein pairings are as satisfying as corned beef and pastrami, each of which is fabulous on its own. Like the “other” Big Apple, this sandwich is stacked, a skyscraper tall behemoth between bread. Though quite good, I found myself missing sauerkraut. It would have made the Big Apple even more moist and delicious…more reubenesque. The lightly toasted rye bread is sliced rather thin and has a tough time holding it all together. There’s a reason our truck driver friend raved so much about the green chili chicken soup. It’s the type of soup that’s especially soul-warming when it’s cold outdoors, but you’ll enjoy it anytime.
When my Kim asked whether the Sweet ‘n Spicy (rotisserie chicken, bacon, pepper jack, lettuce, tomato, homemade sweet ‘n spicy chili sauce grilled on a pretzel bun) was “hot,” our server indicated it was pretty tame. Alas, there was too much heat for my poor bride’s taste buds. She scraped off the spicy chili (my spellchecker is going berserk) sauce, ramping up her enjoyment significantly. As with the Big Apple, only Food Network star Guy Fieri can fit this mile high sandwich in his mouth without mashing it down. The pretzel bun was excellent. With her sandwich, my Kim had chicken Florentine soup, a thick, rich elixir with perhaps just a tad bit too much salt. Still, it’s very flavorful and delicious.
Cheese & Coffee may have a different connotation in Finland, but for those of us who live in the Albuquerque, the only connotation is hardy, delicious sandwiches and soups sure to please.
Cheese & Coffee
2679 Louisiana Blvd. N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 3 April 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: The Big Apple, Sweet & Spicy, Green Chile Chicken Soup, Chicken Florentine Soup