Baca Railyard Teahouse Takes Root

Opuntia brings coffee, tea, food and cacti to burgeoning district

New teahouse Opuntia has officially opened this week in the steely industrial nucleus of the Baca Railyard that is the Trailhead Design Center (922 Shoofly St.). I'm already impressed at the level of talent on display. It's obvious that co-founders Todd Spitzer (formerly of Iconik and also involved in the other up-and-coming original Railyard café, Sky Coffee), Jeanna Gienke, Solange Serquis and Andres Paglayan each contributed to the creative and aesthetic input that transformed the wooden bones of the old Monte Vista Fuel and Feed warehouse into a working restaurant. All of its facets, from the menu to the ambiance, mesh harmoniously and flow together remarkably well.

A water feature runs blithely along the side of the 5,000-square-foot building, emptying into a gravel cistern where rainwater is collected and re-pumped into the fountain. The clean, cavernous space inside is beautiful. It would feel empty and exposed, all large glass windows and steel underneath old wooden timber and ferrous ceiling panels, were it not purposefully softened with various potted plants littering the floor and wooden shelves. This creates an emphasis on organic irregularity with a Southwestern feel, with succulents and cacti side-by-side on display in small, handmade ceramic pots, or tucked into corners on the floor; Opuntia itself is named after a genus of cacti, the most famous species of which is the prickly pear.

The pots and plants are also for sale, alongside wooden spoons, chocolate truffles from local chocolatier Kakawa, coffee from San Francisco-based Blue Bottle and tea from Samovar, another Bay Area company. Inspired by craft beer and coffee movements, Samovar focuses on single-origin tea sourced through farmers from India to China, and provides staff training and education for their assorted teahouses.

Like Spitzer's previous work with Iconik, Opuntia acts as a retail space, although here the emphasis on retail is decidedly more lifestyle-oriented. Through its ambiance, Opuntia highlights notions of what makes the Baca Railyard area so visually appealing: There is no kitsch or bright colors and patterns, only natural textures and organic shapes, cleanly rendered in neutral shades of cream and taupe. It makes a beautiful restaurant space, and Spitzer tells me the plan is to bring in a small beer and wine list and eventually extend the hours to include dinner service.

But all of it would fall apart into pretention and annoying hipster artifice were the food and coffee not so damn good. Chef Kim Müller, formerly of Izanami and The Compound, designed the menu, which includes everything from a polenta bowl ($9) to grilled cheese ($9 and dressed up by the addition of Gruyere and Fontal and house-cured pickles) to cinnamon tartine ($5). It's designed with the vegan/vegetarian in mind, but bacon and eggs are available and some items feature alternative protein possibilities. It's not outrageously priced; then again, in this town, getting a decent sandwich for under $10 feels like a steal.

The tea list is interesting but purposefully not expansive. With three or four options each of green, black and tisanes (herbal teas), Opuntia features a curated selection designed not to overwhelm but to highlight the very best of the global tea offerings presented quickly and efficiently in small glass kettles and smooth ceramics.

I had the avocado toast ($9) and the mushroom tartine ($8), both of which were clean, fresh and lively—similar in style to the kind of food I like to make for myself at home. The avocado toast was piled high with green fatty goodness, served on top of crisp radish and salad greens and dusted with lemon dressing, aioli and grated parmesan. The mushroom tartine was spicy with roasted garlic and kale, and two different kinds of cheeses melted on top.

All the coffee is made with an AeroPress, providing an especially rich taste. This day it was single-origin Kenyan ($5 a cup; a little steep if you ask me). It was fruity, earthy and balanced, served in the same kind of ceramics sold on the shelves.

Of course, it's still very early in Opuntia's timeline, and there are definitely kinks to be worked out. A recent revisit precluded me from ordering food because of a staff training, which was disappointing, because the food is the most exciting aspect of the restaurant. But considering it had only been open a few days, I was heartened that they were at least taking the time train their servers properly; it seemed slow the first time around, but that's a pretty average experience at soft openings.Once the adult beverage program starts up I'll probably be back. Besides, I'm all about an avocado toast dish that is just a bit more labor-intensive than I can pull off at home.

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