Cafe Olé

Making a mountain out of a hill of beans

Ron Cortez has a bean on his shoulder, one that he picked up as a toddler in a coffee plantation in Costa Rica where he was born and, he likes to point out, conceived. In other words, Cortez has coffee in his veins, and he thinks the rest of us should know it.

Yes, the guy's cocky, and what's more, he's on a mission.

Just a month ago, Cortez opened a cafe named after, well, himself. Cafe Cortez is nestled inside Jacqueline's Marketplace and Cafe on Indian School Road just east of Scottsdale Road. And there, the coffee guru (no relation, by the way, and no free cuppa joe) and his fellow partner in grind, Victor Ahumada, have made it their aim to teach the rest of us about java. "I want to educate the people about coffee," Cortez says. "To teach them that what they are drinking is crap."

Hot and steaming: The forceful Ron Cortez (right) and his cohort, Victor Ahumada.
Dan Cortez
Hot and steaming: The forceful Ron Cortez (right) and his cohort, Victor Ahumada.

Sitting at the cafe's counter, which is next to a comfortable lounge area complete with a television, Cortez's bravado kicks into high gear.

"If people only knew what goes into red cans of coffee, Folgers would go down," he says. "I can tell the truth about coffee. I have no fear. Ninety percent of coffee sold in the world is crap. The French call it triage, for commercial coffee. Coffee with no pedigree."

Folgers? Easy target, hombre. But Cortez doesn't miss a beat. He's got plenty to say about that other giant competitor, too, the one that trained a generation to equate "tall" with "small."

"Starbucks has done great things for the coffee industry," Cortez says, sounding magnanimous for about a nanosecond. "Thanks to them, I can charge $3 for a cup of coffee. . . . Except we use fresh coffee. They use coffee that is roasted in Seattle three months ago."

If Cortez lays it on thicker than a double espresso, it's still not too surprising that his shop, which roasts its own fresh beans, is thriving. Partly, the shop's traffic can be traced to its proximity to Jacqueline's, but there's also no denying that the country is in the grip of a coffee mania.

For many, the proliferation of lattes, grandes and half-decafs just isn't enough. Apparently determined to make up for this country's long reputation for weak brews, a growing number of Americans are taking their love of coffee so far, they're shelling out serious coin to have green uncooked beans from the exotic equatorial regions of the Earth delivered to their doors so they can roast them in their own air-heated popcorn poppers, paying up to $24 a pound for varieties like Kona Keiki Peaberry, Ethiopian Yergacheffe or Sulawesi Toraja.

It's this kind of fanaticism that also drives Cortez, who's determined to turn the rest of us into connoisseurs. But first, he admits, he's still getting used to American coffee terms. To him, for example, it's the seeds of the coffee plant that yield the jolting morning beverage. "I didn't call them coffee beans until I came here," he says.

But if Cortez is on his own learning curve, he reacts like someone dropped the brew pot on the carpet when a coffee amateur makes an innocent query, to wit: Does a darker roast make a better coffee?

"That's burning a hole in my soul for you to ask that question!" he exclaims, the answer, he says, too obvious for words -- the more you roast, he eventually explains, the more you roast out of coffee beans. Darker roasts are good for eliminating caffeine, he says, but not, apparently, for improving flavor.

Whew. And that's not the only test we faced. It was also fairly terrifying just figuring out what to order. As in, there wasn't a list of goods for sale anywhere.

"I don't believe in putting menus up. I don't want people to just point at a menu. I want them to tell me what they want," Cortez says. Which led us to wonder: If we get our orders wrong, will he yell, "No coffee for you!"?

Chastened, we left the shop at least happy that the beverages we tasted were, in truth, quite delicious. And for pure entertainment value, we'll be going back to Cafe Cortez to catch Scottsdale's newest character, who's charming in a Juan Valdez-meets-the-Soup Nazi sort of way. And we'll be going back to enjoy the aroma of his beans. Er, seeds. Whatever.

 
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