Fast Food International: Caffe Bene
Country of origin: South Korea
Locations worldwide: Over 500 in South Korea and the United States
NYC locations: One, in Times Square
With its airy wood and concrete interior, staff in fedoras, indie pop soundtrack, and library-style back room with walls of books illuminated by a cluster of dangling light bulbs, you'd be forgiven for not realizing that this is the first US outpost of a popular South Korean chain. It's in, after all, Times Square, not a hotbed of small businesses.
The concept isn't unfamiliar: the emphasis on coffee drinks and customers parked with laptops feels Starbucks-y; the pick-your-own pastries in the front wouldn't be out of place in Au Bon Pain; and the refrigerated case of salads, sandwiches and wraps is reminiscent of Pret a Manger. The Korean influence is not particularly obvious.
To find it, you should bypass the espressos and cappuccinos for misugaru, a multigrain blend that tastes distinctly of barley but also contains black beans, sesame seeds and brown and black rices. It's said to grant amazing health properties to those who imbibe (gray hair prevention and heart disease risk are just two). It's available as a hot latte (small, $3.95) as well as iced, jazzed up with flavors like cinnamon, caramel, and whipped cream, as a frappe (small, $4.95). The lightly sweetened warm beverage is soothing, almost like liquefied oatmeal. The chilled version can be a little gritty if you're accustomed to a smoother blended coffee drink.
Cooked to order waffles are one of Caffe Bene's signatures, and some of the flavors skew outre, but none so much as the chili, cheese and fried egg waffles sold in Korea that didn't make the trip to America. In New York, the one topped with ricotta, almonds, fig jam, and bacon ($6.95) is an attention-grabber, but the thick cheese dominates, as if they were afraid of being too aggressive with the smoked pork (I was warned about its presence when I ordered). Bacon doesn't demand subtlety.
A blueberry and cream cheese waffle ($5.95) hits on more typical breakfast flavors, though it also translates well as a sweet snack. I wouldn't exactly call these a meal—or a bargain exactly—since each is a fairly small raggedy-edged square. The cardboard to-go containers they're presented in are handsome, though, and if you order hot food you'll get a classic chain restaurant accoutrement: the plastic beeper.
Soon enough, anyone looking to take a break from the usual coffee chains won't have to travel to Times Square; Caffe Bene has an aggressive expansion plan that calls for 50 more shops in New York.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and reformed librarian. Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.