Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: Colombia
Locations worldwide: 147 in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain and the US
NYC locations: One in Midtown and one at JFK Airport
While Juan Valdez with his trademark mustache, white sombrero and burro is as fictional as Max Brenner--the mascot was invented by an advertising firm in 1950 to represent the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia--he was played by a real person, Carlos Sanchez, who retired at 71 in 2006 after 37 years in the role. In 2007, a new Juan Valdez, Carlos Castañeda, was chosen through a reality show competition on Colombian television.
It was around that same time that Juan Valdez cafes, a not-so-subtle advertising vehicle for the third largest coffee producing country in the world, started appearing in NYC. To open branded cafes around the globe is certainly opportunistic, yet patronizing one doesn't feel weird as if you were in, say, a Maxwell House café.
The only remaining Manhattan location (the Times Square and Grand Central spots both closed last year), spacious with plenty of comfy seats, WiFi, bags of coffee for sale and limited edition beverages like the Harvest Spice Latte, could be mistaken for a more stylish Starbucks. But look closer at the corporate coffee house, and you'll notice arepas next to the croissants in the pastry case and arequipe, Colombian dulce de leche, as a drink flavoring.
I happen to be a no-frills black coffee drinker, no sugar or cream needed. But I didn't mind the aromatic cardamom undertones of the Café Cardamomo (medium $2.35) which seemed suitable for fall even though it's not a seasonal drink. If you like a little more sugar and spice, Café Campesino is served with brown sugar and cinnamon. Both styles of coffee are still very purist despite the extra ingredients, though there is no shortage of frothed milk, whipped cream-topped, and ice-blended beverages if you prefer your caffeine more dressed up.
Despite being made violently sick by a guava pastry from Newark Airport's Juan Valdez over Labor Day, I was not deterred from sampling more of their edibles. (I don't hold food grudges.)
Pandebono ($2.79) is Colombia's answer to Brazilian pao de queijo, a glutinous bun made with cassava starch and cheese. This version was light on the cheese. Take the counter person's offer to warm these up seriously, because it's as close as you'll get to replicating the fresh-from-the-oven effect.
Pan de guava ($3.79) contains not just fruit jelly, but also a fat stripe of cream cheese inside the thick, bready exterior.
The substantial arepa de choclo ($4.99) is similar to a cornbread pancake, not the handheld English muffin-like arepas you might be familiar with. The slab of queso fresco adds saltiness to create an compelling sweet-and-savory treat that's definitely worth trying. Typically eaten for breakfast, the corn cake makes a hearty snack later in the day, too.
Juan Valdez Café
140 East 57th Street, New York NY 10022 (map) 917-289-0981