For 20 bucks and some center-console change, there are two sandwiches — one with a heaping scoop of chicken salad and the other with hot ham and Gouda — two bags of chips, two Topo Chicos and a chocolate-dipped cookie the size of an American Ultimate Disc League Frisbee in the passenger seat.
It’s a hectic day on Northwest Highway — the left turn lane that pushes cars onto Shelby Brook Lane has snarled into the highway, which means honking horns and those death stares from passing drivers as they zoom through the lanes. Don't worry. If you’re headed to Black Forest Coffee, you’ll be fine. The volume on everything — the street noise, the sputtering engines and the roar of U.S. 75 — will turn down.
The coffee shop, not pretending to be any more or less than that one thing, has thumped espresso into Half Price Books patrons’ veins for more than 15 years. There’s good coffee, hot sandwiches with a German twist and not a single paramecium of pretension in this bookstore cafe. It’s an escape inside a book church.
If you’re unfamiliar with this location of Half Price Books, know that it should be a Texas landmark: It is a Spielbergian fantasy of reading and vinyl and tapes, a wonderland of everything that was once pre-digital. The entire store smells like the rough-cut pages of an old paperback. Yes, there’s plenty of modern everything. The real treasure, however, is the novel, the one you're looking for by eye and hand, that you can lift from the shelves while your heart rate thunders from too much espresso.
Stacks of heavy textbooks, from geometry guides to World War II, are a common find on Black Forest’s wooden tables. For less than six bucks, a Hot Amsterdam sandwich — ribbon-thin layers of ham and quickly nuked Gouda — is a good, hot meal with a real-deal newspaper. Happiness is a warm lunch. Sheared corned beef (many of the meats and desserts, including the titanic slices of chocolate cake, are from Henk’s European Deli & Black Forest Bakery across the street) with cold Swiss cheese on Empire Bakery rye bread is just fine, too.
For $5.95, each sandwich is modest and soul-warming after a blast of individually packaged brown mustard. They’re not fantastic sandwiches, and they are a few light years from bad. It's just a corned beef on rye, wholly uninterested in being anybody’s Instagram subject. If we’re in the age of cocktail menus on tablets, that's great. It’s just refreshing to have a little bit of analog.
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One hidden gem among the cake slices is the giant Florentine cookie, made with shaved almonds, sticky and pressed into a sharp circle that's about the size of a go-kart steering wheel. Half of the thin almond cookie is dipped in dark chocolate, which melts between a thumb and forefinger at normal body temperature. If you brought your fist down on the Florentine, it’d bust into shards that you could instantly weaponize. Throw it whole like a ninja star if you’re about to be mugged. It’s sweet, a little salty and oh-so crunchy. The chocolate fuses to the almonds while it melts. It’s a superb handheld dessert.
After a small lunch rush, the shop quiets down again. Sandwiches drop on paper plates as the espresso machine fires up. A cookie smacks into the bottom of a paper bag. Take an hour over lunch, or hunker down after closing time, and you’ll realize the beauty of this place: It’s the secret, very quiet weapon of one Dallas’ best bookstores.
Black Forest Coffee, 5801 Northwest Highway (Vickery Meadow/Northeast Dallas)