St. John's College is a special place. There are no textbooks, only the classics of literature, philosophy, history and other subjects at the Annapolis, Md., college. The idea is that students digest great books and discuss them, in order to escape the "tyrannies of unexamined opinions." There are no majors and no departments.
This is where Anne Vela went to college before returning to her hometown of Tampa to open Cafe Hey in October. She and her partner, fellow Tampa native Cheong Choi, have arrived at a coffeehouse formula that is at once utterly recognizable and utterly idiosyncratic. It is as if Vela, like a good student at her college, drank in the archetypal bohemian coffeehouses, weighed her choices, and launched one with her own signature style.
It's in Tampa Heights, a little off Tampa's slowly blossoming downtown. Vela perused Department of Transportation traffic studies and figured out that more than 1,900 cars whoosh past this little spot on Franklin Street each day. Surely some of the occupants were in need of a fine cafe con leche or a muffin. Yes, they were.
Cafe Hey hosts regular game nights, features the work of local artists (like Cricky's Vestigial Organ Series on plywood), and its employees have the tousled, unmade-bed-chic of nonconformists everywhere.
Its success starts with coffee. Offered with whole milk, skim milk, organic soy milk and soy creamer, coffee drinks are carefully constructed with exuberance. From an intense Cuban coffee (two shots of espresso, way lots of sugar, $1.50) to a kooky Red Hot Latte (flavored with cinnamon, chili and chocolate; small $3.25, large $3.75), it's a nice cup of joe, with espresso roasted at Naviera Roasters in Ybor City, coffee from Sweetwater Organic Coffee.
At breakfast, the proper grab-and-go accompaniments are fat-topped but not obscenely large blueberry or pumpkin muffins ($1.99) and moist quick breads like chocolate zucchini with walnuts or a banana cranberry (both $1.99). But even better are the vanilla yogurt parfaits with housemade granola and mixed fruit ($4.99). The granola itself is a crunchy mess of wholesomeness shot through with quinoa and flax.
Vela and crew aim to expand the kitchen in the next few months, annexing a storeroom in the name of better preparation space. This will doubtless mean a broader range of menu items, but for now there are a few standouts. The house Cuban and Mi Cuban (both $6.99), though both a little wet, are solid pressed sammies, the latter a kissing cousin of a Vietnamese banh mi with spicy herbed carrot slaw enlivening the shredded pork and molten Swiss.
More spicy shredded carrots are married with raw kale and bits of red cabbage in a salad called "Kale Yeah" ($4.99), a punchy vinaigrette and scattering of sesame seeds finishing the dish. Their own hummus, a 21st century coffeehouse staple, appears in various guises, its best iteration in a hummus and veggie sandwich ($6.49) which is, like all sandwiches, a warmed, pressed job on a crusty length of La Segunda Cuban bread. (I'd choose this every time versus the whole wheat wrap option.) A daily changing soup (one day, hearty beef barley; $3.69 cup, $4.79 bowl), daily quiche (red pepper-tomato, say; $4.99) and changing special salad (maybe a Moosewood-era quinoa) complete the menu.
For now it's got just a few cafe tables inside, another handful out. But Vela and Choi's vision may take Cafe Hey on a trajectory toward full restauranthood, which would be a welcome addition in this otherwise still down-at-the-heels stretch of Franklin. Indeed, as cars zip by outside, one can almost hear drivers rubbernecking at this cool little scene and muttering, "What the hey?!"
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.