It’s not quite easy to find a place that makes good food AND good coffee, particularly in the South Bay. Purple Onion Cafe nails both, and how. This is the perfect spot for a leisurely weekend brunch or a quick bite for lunch during the work week. It’s a cute little place; metal tables with bright red chairs, a little plant on each table, foodcentric art pieces on the walls. The prolific menu is charmingly handwritten in chalk above the register yet is not always easy to read, smallish, with detailed descriptions for each item. There’s a series of glass cases at the cashier, showcasing quiches, pastries and cookies (try the ‘skinny chipper,’ a moist, delicious cookie boasting half the butter and sugar without the sacrifice of taste.)
Not only do they serve Illy coffee, a brand heralded for its high quality, but all of their baristas (at least at the Winchester location) have been awarded the “Best in Class Designation of Artisti del Gusto” (artists of taste), a prestigious honor that, in order to receive, takes months of rigorous training and education through Illy themselves. This designation has only been bestowed on about 40 cafes in the entire United States, and the craftsmanship is apparent in every beverage made. If coffee isn’t your thing, they also have a decent selection of beer and wine.
It’s surprising that the food can rise to the occasion in the same way, especially for a cafe without waiter service. Menu items can be a bit pricy, but you get what you pay for. Almost all of the menu features produce that is local and organic. Mary’s organic free-range, air-chilled chicken, cage-free eggs, Salinas Valley greens and freshly baked breads are the building blocks for a variety of high-quality cafe fare. The attention to even the smallest details is refreshing. Though Purple Onion specializes in sandwiches and salads, even non-specialty items are well-seasoned, well-prepared, and even well-plated (the breakfast burrito is subtle, clean and tasty, cut in half and even stacked neatly).
For sandwiches, there are a few creative standouts. The thai turkey ($10.95) highlights house-roasted turkey and creamy brie, complemented by fresh basil, sliced cucumbers and spicy mayonnaise on a toasted baguette. The egg salad ($9.25), which normally is pretty pedestrian, is brightened up with the addition of fresh tarragon and arugula, sweetened with sliced tomatoes and served on whole-grain bread. A standard Italian panini ($9.95), made with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, roasted tomatoes and finished with fruity olive oil and sea salt is also superb. Each generously-sized sandwich comes with a house salad, making it easy to share with a friend or take the other half home. Breakfast sandwiches here are also solid, but come ala carte: the simple whole grain scrambled egg sandwich ($6.75) with bacon, swiss and aioli is decadent but worth every gooey, crispy calorie.
The soups that change daily are also quite good. Tomato basil ($4.25 cup, $6.25 bowl + baguette) is their mainstay, but the chowders are generally spot-on. Salads are ample, super fresh and tasty, though sometimes a little busy. The steak salad ($12.95) is super delicious, with plenty of tender flank steak, cooked to a perfect medium rare and chilled on a bed of arugula littered with grilled corn, shredded carrots, tomato wedges, and goat cheese (try substituting blue cheese). The creamy tarragon dressing adds a nice tang and rounds out the dish nicely. Another light and tasty offering is their take on the nicoise salad ($13.50); grilled salmon, baby spinach, sliced fingerling potatoes, hard boiled egg, nicoise olives, blistered asparagus and goat cheese tossed together with the same house tarragon dressing. Although this is a really solid dish, the goat cheese seems unnecessary, and creating a mouthfeel that isn’t exactly pleasant, particularly when eating fish.
One of the most intriguing elements of Purple Onion Winchester is the fact that they have a bit of a dark side with “Purple Onion After Hours,” a series of evening “services” of sorts on the third and final Thursday of each month, featuring small plates highlighting different cuisines from around the world (different month to month) along with vintners for wine pairings. It’s a far cry from the casual day crowd, which gives it a whole other layer of complexity.
Purple Onion proves that cafe fare can be innovative and of high quality, without an unreasonable pricetag. Which is relieving, indeed. And if you want something a little sexier, that’s doable too.
26 E Main St Los Gatos, CA 95030
14107 S. Winchester Blvd.
Los Gatos, CA 95032
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