Have you ever loved the bread offered in a restaurant’s bread basket so much that you discretely tucked all the pieces into your dining companion’s purse for later use and then asked the waiter for refills? I hadn’t until I ate lunch at Station Café in San Carlos, a café that just opened in November. All quarter, Stanford’s Program for Ethics in Society has been feeding me weekly, in-class lunches catered by the Station Café (full disclosure: the program coordinator’s husband owns the place). And although I’m all for actually learning in class, going to a seminar every Wednesday knowing that really, really good food lies in wait has become a major weekly highlight. And after a month of watching otherwise tame ethics honors students (aided and abetted by our instructor, himself a tenured professor of political philosophy) rhapsodize about lemon-blueberry tarts and argue about who gets the last of the parmesan cheese, I knew I had to go straight to the source.
Station Café could be closer to campus, but the drive up El Camino is straightforward and not really longer than an In-N-Out run. Plus, driving up to San Carlos is a nice break from University Avenue and Town and Country’s eerily tidy, Disneyland-like qualities. As an added bonus, the café is literally across the street from the San Carlos Caltrain station, making it a convenient pit stop for all you train-riding enthusiasts in the Stanford community.
Inside, the place looks like the kind of casual, cute bakery you could find in any European country that’s embraced the welfare state and whose people sit for hours lingering over espresso, arcane philosophical discussions and deserts with hard-to-pronounce names. The sun was shining, so we decided to nab a table in the small but very pleasant outside area — although it was hard to leave the gleaming, incredibly fancy-looking espresso machine indoors, which had a magnetic quality for a coffee nerd like me.
Station Café’s menu is simple and brief, restricted largely to pizza, pasta and salad offerings; for people overwhelmed by the total glut that is the 20-something page Cheesecake Factory menu, this makes for a great change. The salads are all excellent — I especially liked an avocado, orange and almond concoction that we devoured during one in-class session on the ethics of online anonymity. For our lunch at the café, however, my friend and I ordered heavier but equally amazing dishes — a plate of prosciutto mixed with fresh pear and parmesan cheese for her and fusili pasta in a classic tomato sauce with capers, sundried tomatoes, spinach, olives and sausage for me. Both were really amazing; in an age of molecular gastronomy and fusion foods that take the paradigm way too far (Korean tacos, anyone?), it becomes easy to forget the value of basic foods prepared well and with really good ingredients. Their addictive bread — fresh and homemade, but not some kind of crazy nouveau take on bread by any means, serves as further testament to the power of food that’s just simple and really yummy. The best part of Station Café, however, comes at the end of the meal — their deserts are straight up amazing. The actual offerings seem to change from day to day, but whoever is cooking them deserves some kind of highly prestigious award. The unequivocal favorite, however, are the zepolle, a kind of Italian doughnut — think flaky, puffy pastry coated in coarse-grained sugar. At only $0.75 each, these zepolle are, in the words of an anonymous Ethics in Society student, “so good it shouldn’t be allowed.” Honestly, I think that’s a quote that applies to the entire establishment. Station Café is definitely worth trying.