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Cafe Culture

A hideout as much as a hangout, La Bon Cafe entices those looking for that special place to relax

By Kevin Samson

I'M ALWAYS LOOKING FOR that special place where I can drop in, relax and hang for a while without feeling like I'm obstructing business or sticking out like a sore thumb. I like to be able to spread out the newspaper and my notebook, sit and muse, write down my thoughts, catch up on business, vacantly stare into space or rap my fingers nervously to the beat of a song in my head. It helps immensely if the joint has a working pay phone, ideally with a chair, but not mandatory. The phone should not be near a lot of clanging noise or squashed next to the bathroom door in a dark corridor. Open air and a view are always a premium. A deck or patio will suffice. Lastly, the place doesn't need fancy food, just good coffee and something to absorb caffeine, like bread or pastry. Am I asking for too much? I don't think so. I know this because I've found just the right spot.

It's called La Bon Cafe, and it breaks my heart to tell the rest of the world about it. I fear that it will be overrun by scads of people and be ruined for those of us who enjoy a more discerning hangout. My trepidation is unfounded, I'm sure. I sincerely doubt that hordes of coffee-swilling madmen (and women) are going to invade my secret spot in the Town & Country shopping center in San Jose. And besides, any publicity that proprietress Mary Nguyen Do receives will be good for her business. I applaud that.

This wonderful place also features entertainment weekend evenings and Sunday afternoon. I've never been there when the music is played; I find the atmosphere musical without the accompaniment of instruments. It's a meeting place for many besides me who order coffees and talk and laugh. The conversational music is exotic. You might be in the Casbah or some Graham Greene novel. I don't understand some of the languages, though I hear French occasionally. I feel safe there. It's a hideout as much as a hangout.

I made my discovery on a day when the valley temperature broke 100. I was out on business calls, driving my 505 Peugeot without air conditioning, perspiring like a broken fire hydrant, looking for a pay phone. I don't carry a cell phone. I have, but find that they are like drugs--easy to abuse--and before you know it, you're deeper in debt of one kind or another. The thing about La Bon is that there are two pay phones, obligingly placed around the corner from each other, so that two telephone conversations can be made simultaneously without infringing on the other. The ambient noise here adds verisimilitude that business is getting done.

I pulled into the Town & Country lot and spied lovely shade. It appeared like a mirage in the desert, an oasis with everything I was after. I parked, walked inside and ordered a cappuccino. There are various methods for building a cappuccino. There is the variety involving a thimble of espresso and seemingly two gallons of steamed milk, which I heartily spurn. There is the college student­made cap, which is unpredictable but generally well-intentioned. If I must, I'll go with it and keep my fingers crossed. I walk if the Styrofoam cup comes out.

Mary Do does not do Styrofoam. Nor does she skimp on the all-important espresso grounds, which she expresses with prodigious steam. Hot coffee on a hot day? I'm afraid it's an occupational hazard. I'm in sales. I am a viper. I seek out clients and take their POs. The warmer the joe, the better.

La Bon is my office away from the office. All roads lead to La Bon when I need a place to sit and sip.

La Bon Cafe, 210 Town & Country Village, San Jose (408/243-3052).

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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