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A Cup Above

Coupa Cafe offers elegant cafe fare with a Venezuelan touch

By Stett Holbrook

DOWNTOWN Palo Alto has more than its share of cafes. University Avenue and its side-street environs offer a multitude of choices for all your caffeine, pastry and light-bite needs. But Coupa Cafe stands apart.

Owners Nancy and Jean Paul Coupal have given their 6-month-old cafe a distinct Venezuelan flavor. The Coupals live in Venezuela, where they run a coffee-roasting business and a cafe in Caracas. But they have three children who attend Stanford University, and they thought that Palo Alto would be the perfect place for a stateside taste of Venezuela. While Venezuela is best known for its oil production and resilient populist president Hugo Chavez, Nancy Coupal focuses attention on the country's premium coffee and chocolate.

"We're really trying to bring back Venezuela coffee, which is superior to anything next door," she says, a thinly veiled reference to neighboring coffee powerhouse Colombia. "I believe coffee from Venezuela has a perfume and aroma that is different from any other coffee."

Coupa Cafe's coffee is flown in from Venezuela every two days. It's rigorously hand-selected for the best beans, and the Coupals pay growers three times the going rate to ensure the best-quality fair-trade coffee.

Coupa Cafe's chocolate products come from Chuao Chocolatier, a premium Venezuelan chocolate producer. The company is named after a region in Venezuela known for producing premium-quality cacao, the raw ingredient of chocolate.

The cafe's hot chocolate ($3-$3.50) made me sit down and pay attention. Hot chocolate has been consumed for thousands of years. It's believed the Maya were the first to enjoy the beverage. They made theirs with wine and chiles, but without sugar. Coupa Cafe serves two kinds of hot chocolate, traditional and "spicy Maya." The latter approximates the beverage consumed by the Maya. In addition to bittersweet chocolate, it's made with cinnamon and the flickering heat of pasilla and cayenne chile peppers. It's a dazzling cup of hot chocolate.

Coupa Cafe also serves truffles and bonbons ($1.45 each, cheaper by the dozen) made by Chuao. The confections come in nontraditional flavors like "chevere": goat cheese, pear, butter cream and black pepper inside dark chocolate; "java": coffee butter cream inside a dark chocolate bonbon; and "picante": raisin and Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon caramel with pasilla and cayenne chiles covered in dark chocolate. They're quite good.

The cafe occupies a historic building on Ramona Street that used to house an art gallery and a men's store. Saffron-colored walls, peaked, exposed-beam ceiling and big windows give the place a bright, airy feeling. Framed black-and-white photographs of lush Venezuelan coffee plantations recall the cafe's art-gallery past. In the front, the windows look out onto a covered patio and the street. Outside, window showcases display handmade Venezuelan hammocks and an antique wooden coffee grinder.

Gleaming display cases are filled with wonderful-looking pastries, various salads and the cafe's signature chocolates. At the end of the counter, there's a metal bucket filled with iced Chilean and Argentine wines.

Along with the chocolate and coffee, arepas ($4.95-$6.25) are the other stars at Coupa Cafe. Arepas are Venezuela's national snack. Little bigger than a White Castle hamburger, arepas are white-corn griddle cakes with a crispy exterior and a moist, gritslike interior. Slit in half, they make a perfect container for various savory fillings. They're eaten between meals and as late-night snacks on the streets of Caracas.

"In Venezuela, you eat them like bread," says Nancy Coupal.

Coupa Cafe serves about a dozen variations including stewed beef (carne mechada), chicken and avocado (reina pipiada) and grilled eggplant and mozzarella. They make for a perfect light snack. The mixed-greens salad that comes with them is pretty good, too, but could use less vinaigrette. The cafe also serves excellent pastries, panini sandwiches and various salads and soups.

Up a few steps at the back of the restaurant is a room that feels like a private retreat. There's a big, stone hearth as well as several comfortable chairs. On one visit, burning candles gave the room a serene, escapist atmosphere. Find a good spot, order a cup of tea or coffee and you could spend hours alone with a book or in quiet conversation with a friend.

Coupa Cafe
Address: 538 Ramona St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.322.6872
Hours: Daily 7am-11pm
Cuisine: Cafe with Venezuelan specialties
Price range: $2-$9.25

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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