Making the rule

There's been a whole lotta coffee talk going on during the last few years. Mainly, it's been about beans and that's what it amounts to. Bad coffee used to be a hallmark of the cuisine of America, home of the percolator. Now, on every block, there's a place where you can have your choice of Columbian, Kona, Mexican, Java, or Blue Mountain beans, roasted to your specification. You can get latte, espresso, cappucino--you can get frozen coffee. Occasionally, you can even find a cup of decent, straight American brew, but in all the chatter about these caffeine cafes, there's something missing: coffee culture.

Starbucks set the style in this new wave of '90s coffee bars. Starbucks is based on the assumption that you want your coffee to-go. They know you're in a hurry and they assume that though you do want the finest fuel available, coffee is fuel, it's not something to sit and savor. It's not something to share. A coffee bar is a place to get a jolt and go. Those sleek Italian-style interiors are designed to move you in and out, ASAP.

I know, I know. There are exceptions. The main exception--the granddaddy of qualifying clauses--is the Cosmic Cup on Oak Lawn.

Before my time, "coffee house" used to be cliched shorthand for beatnik hangout: It was a place to discuss philosophy, preferably existentialism, preferably with scraggly-bearded guys, perhaps with berets, a place where the beats hung out and banged on their bongos and stringy-haired girls recited obscure poetry. A few years later (during my time), coffee houses became community clearinghouses, crossroads and information sources, places where a longhair could sit all day over a cup of coffee and a book and not get hassled. When I left college the only way I could reach a certain friend was by calling the coffee house where he parked himself daily, all day.

When the waters of '60s and '70s hippie culture receded, little pockets were left here and there--and the Cosmic Cup is such a tide pool. The minute you walk up the steps of the old house, the boards of the porch creaking under each footfall, you realize you've entered a slo-o-ow zone, where styrofoam go-cups have no place. Inside, the dining room, with its tables gathered around the fireplace, has a homespun feel, despite the vinyl tablecloths. There's a calendar of weekly events available, a bookshelf of thoughtful titles, and leaflets on West African dance workshops and the benefits of massage.

This is a different kind of coffee house. It feels more like you're entering a meeting place than a dining room. There's not a biscotti in sight.

Cosmic Cup was Dallas' original coffee house, if you're talking about the kind of coffee house where you sit and sip, talk and meet people, slow down for a minute and reflect on how everything in life really is connected. "Cosmic Cup has been there forever," was the response when I said this was the place I wanted to write about this week. Well, what's old is news again. Cosmic Cup is once again a hip center, full of neohippies and earnest young vegetarians. I keep hearing about the Cosmic Cup from the next generation--teen-agers that I know go to the Cup on Thursdays to beat drums, people "recovering their centers" who go there for instruction in yoga. There's live music (like "improvisational world music," "groovy space-age music," "post-apocalyptic bebop") some evenings.

They're not all just drinking coffee. Cosmic Cup is a fully realized restaurant. There are blackboard specials, and the so-called "Solar Menu" includes sections called "offerings," "libations," and "allah cart." The menu, full of one-liners, makes you expect (with trepidation) Adelle Davis-based cuisine, "health food" minus the brewer's yeast, but the flavors of the food we ate were way beyond the throat-choking horse fodder that used to be what was meant by "vegetarian."

This food is good for you, too, body and soul, heart and palate. The Cosmic cook must realize that "nutritious" is not an adjective that makes you ask for seconds. "Sacred Cow Pie" is a tasty layering of tomatoes, onions, spinach, zucchini, and mozzarella on nan bread, a lot like soft pita without the pocket.

Some dishes, like the nan, have an Indian reference, culinary or otherwise: "Papa's Dahl" is a thick yellowish broth based on hearty stock and searingly hot; "Ganesh's Favorite" is old-fashioned peanut-butter-and-banana with honey and tahini; samosas are the traditional Indian pastry stuffed with potatoes and peas.

There are other references, too. You might start with a plate of Arabic hummus, a generous portion in an oval dish, the slightly grainy smoothness of the purŽed chickpeas oiled and garlicked. Mexican-inspired soft tacos or fajitas are a good choice; we tried the soft flour tortillas stuffed with sautŽed portobello-mushroom pieces as sturdy as steak, sweetly soft wilted onions and red peppers, glistening with oil, seasoned with soy; they were drippy and delicious, with a salsa of mint and tomato on the side, a gratin dish full of black beans and a serving of fragrant long-grain rice (remember, together they make a complete protein).

Nothing is expensive: Everything we tried was less than $6. How cool is that? We tend to skip dessert here and have a cup of--what else?--coffee to linger over, though the chai, a floral Indian tea dosed with milk, is popular with some of the young drum-beaters.

Baseball caps may have replaced berets on most hip heads but what goes around, comes around. Here comes the Cosmic Cup.

The Cosmic Cup, 2912 Oak Lawn, 521-6157. The menu says, "Open many days except Sunday." That means open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; for lunch only Monday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Cosmic Cup:
Papa's Dahl
Sacred Cow Pie $4.59
Ganesh's Favorite $3.51
Hummus Plate $3.51

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