We had heard a lot of positive things about Solo Cafe in Tempe before we went there for the first time - everything from "they have my favorite coffee in Tempe," to "my fiance and I went on our first date there," to "Solo looks like how coffee shops looked in the nineties." That last bit had us intrigued, so we decided to check it out for ourselves.
As it turns out, Solo has changed a bit since our sources last visited. In March 2013, the cafe's owners (who also own Altered Ego Salon) converted most of the cafe's seating area into a pretty fancy barbershop called Male Ego. Not yet deterred from the whole experience, we forged our way to the cafe through wafting blowdryers and barbicide.
There's something weirdly intimate about watching somebody get their hair cut and styled. If you're the type of voyeuristic individual who is into watching people partake in personal grooming, you might love this place. But if you're just looking for a great cup of coffee, you might want to go somewhere else.
Solo's now "clean shaven" cafe is pretty tiny - just a few seats, and a handful of bar stools. Two large windows look out into the barbershop. The cafe has discarded much of its nineties vibe, but clung to a few grunge-era paintings and dated pieces of furniture. The bar area reminded us of an old-school general store, which fit nicely with the barbershop vibe.
We have a theory that the number of openly displayed syrup bottles is directly correlated to how good or bad the coffee will be at any given establishment. If there are one or two, you're probably in good hands; if there are upwards of three, you can expect your coffee to be pretty terrible. Solo provided further evidence to back this theory. They had roughly a million bottles of Monin syrups lined up along the counter, and the coffee (roasted by Cortez Coffee Roasters out of Tempe,) was nothing to write home about.
That's not to say the experience was altogether bad; the service was great, and they clearly were trying to make it taste good. We're willing to say in this case that the issue was bad product, not necessarily bad preparation.
We tried three different drinks at Solo. The first, a shot of Cortez Roaster's Primo Espresso, was stylistically outdated. We've learned a lot in the twenty years since this espresso was relevant. A high volume shot with little balance, the Primo was dark, bitter, and in many ways a flavor portrait of Gen-X pessimism. The espresso harkened back to a time before we fully realized that coffee doesn't have to taste bitter, and before specialty coffee taught us that we all deserve better than that.
The next drink, a latte, had sweetness where the espresso lacked it. Unfortunately, the milk seemed to have been scalded. Its flavor completely overwhelmed that of the espresso. The burnt milk's toffee-like toastiness was kind of nice, but we would have preferred an appropriately tempered latte with a more dominant coffee presence.
Last but not least, we tried a pourover of Cortez's House Blend. Solo's barista took great care in preparing the cup, and we were pleased by their technique. The coffee itself, though well-extracted, was underwhelming. We tasted a touch of baker's chocolate and some walnut, which gave some nice sweetness to an otherwise unremarkable cup.
In short, Solo might not be the destination spot that it once was, but it's still got potential. And if you need a haircut - well, they've got those too.