I recently found myself lamenting the loss of the coffee shops of my youth. These shops—dimly lit, open late, with a name like Insomnia or Jitterz or Red Eye—are a far cry from the bright white and clean lines of the modern cafe I frequent nowadays, where you’re more likely to see a refractometer than a can of whipped cream or a drizzle of anything. But these were the places I found my love for coffee—not specialty coffee, mind you—but coffee, that sugary, caffeinated beverage that over time became a latte, then a cappuccino, then simply an espresso or pour-over. The coffee shops of my formative years, the ones where I’d meet up with a friend for a few hours with no real plan in mind, have been effectively erased from my cosmology. It was this realization that left me longing for a past I thought never to return.
Then, joy of joys, on Monday, February 5, Coral Sword in Houston opened. Part coffee shop, part gaming and comics hang out, Coral Sword is the 90s cafe of my childhood, and it is perfect.
Coral Sword is a collaboration bridging multiple industries, starring some rather big names in their respective fields. Along with Greenway Coffee’s David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto (the creators of some of my favorite cafes in America) and Espresso Bar in Ann Arbor’s (now Literati Coffee) founder Sanford Bledsoe, the gaming cafe is the combined effort of two-time World Series Champion and three-time All Star right fielder for the San Francisco Giants Hunter Pence (pictured above in bobblehead form), his wife Lexi—herself a well-known vlogger—and Ming Chen, star of Kevin Smith’s AMC reality series Comic Book Men. If opening a gaming coffee shop was a D&D campaign, this is the sort of skill tree variety you’d be looking for on your team.
“Our friends in Houston, now our business partners, shared our love for coffee and interest in board games, video games, and comics,” Hunter Pence told me by email on his way to spring training. “We came together and really developed the vision to have a coffee shop where people could enjoy great menu items while gaming,” the All-Star and two-time World Series champ continued. “We met Sandy and Ming through David—that guy knows everyone!”
While very much a collaboration, Coral Sword has all the hallmarks of a Buehrer-run cafe; they all have a way of saying, “yeah, ok, coffee. But what else?” Be it donuts at Morningstar or really, really, unbelievably good food at Blacksmith, there is always an assumption that the coffee will be up to snuff, but never the solo headliner. But coffee is nonetheless the backbone of Coral Sword, represented visually by the custom-painted La Marzocco Linea and Curtis Gold Cup (used only for batch brew). I visited shortly after opening day and was taken by the equipment’s ability to blend into the variegated background of the space, inhabiting some technicolored plane of existence between graffiti and stoner doodling.
“I think we as a specialty sector have reached a point where creativity can come back in balance with quality,” Buehrer tells me over a game of Hey, That’s My Fish! “I find myself attracted to concepts that have something more to offer than just a specialty coffee experience. Sometimes we as coffee professionals get too stuffy and forget to just have fun and go back to your roots. A sense of wonder with working in coffee can make such a huge difference.”
What Coral Sword offers is an experience, one that echoes my most cherished memories of being a 90s coffee shop kids—just better in just about every way. The space itself is cozy and lived-in, dare I say dark by the modern cafe’s 9000 K white balance standard, and like any hang out spot worth its salt, Coral Sword is open late, 10pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends. But perhaps what strikes a chord with me most as a coffee shop that I’d want to spend all my free time at: Coral Sword has not-coffee. Their menu is full of fun drinks like Rice Box’s milkless nitro Thai tea on tap and the Phoenix Down, a non-alcoholic frozen piña colada with a yakult float.
To pair with these not-coffee options, Coral Sword has a menu full of what Buehrer calls “gamer food”—another way of saying pizza. This isn’t an “elevated take” on the classic Neopolitan style or some other fanciful reinterpretation; this is eat-with-one-hand gamer fuel. It just so happens to be really well-made using good quality ingredients. All the pizzas, like the “Letoto: The Hawaiian,” a Canadian bacon, caramelized pineapple, and Tajin pizza—named after Jon Letoto, Greenway Coffee’s head roaster with an uncanny ability to eat heroic amounts of food and seemingly gain no weight—are prepared daily at Morningstar and then cooked to order at Coral Sword. It’s the food you crave when you’re in hour three of a 7 Ages session and you need to right the ship after one of your civilizations has come under heavy attack.
But all these things—the coffee, the not-coffee, the pizza—are auxiliary to the primary focus of Coral Sword, the common bond that brought such a diverse ownership together in the first place: gaming, in all its many forms, and comic books. At Coral Sword you’ll find a variety of board and card games—both for sale and to play in-store—and “trades” (multi-edition comics released as a single book). The in-store games range from classic mainstream titles to off-the-beaten path indie darlings, but with an eye towards progressing players out of their gaming comfort zone. You may, for instance, find yourself picking up Jenga to pair with your Jimma, because it is one of the only games that you’ve heard of. Buehrer and company may then try to direct you toward something more indie, like Rhino Hero, an addicting cross between Uno and Jenga.
They can make these recommendations because every game on offer is hand-selected by at least one of the owners because it is a title they enjoy. If it’s a resource management game, it’s probably something Bledsoe plays; if it’s Magic, then you can bet it is Hunter Pence and David Buehrer (but not Bledsoe—he teased Buehrer constantly for his Magic love during my visit); the comics could be from Chen—who has brought over a handful from Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash—Buehrer, or Pence. It doesn’t matter what you grab, someone there will gladly teach you how to play it. And probably destroy you at it.
And then, of course, there is the podcasting/video gaming area, which would be the domain of Hunter, Lexi, and Prabanto, given their remote-controlled prowess. Shining in coral, teal, and purple from the logo’s color scheme, the back area of Coral Sword has been transformed into a four-person audio-visual broadcasting station. Here, you may find any of the owners along with a few special guests broadcasting a video game session via live-streaming service Twitch.
I Twitched. We played Overcooked on Nintendo Switch, which, as best I can tell, is a shot-for-shot remake of my service industry-induced night terrors. It was, uhhhh, too real.
Horrifying flashbacks aside, fun is what Coral Sword is all about. This isn’t the sort of place where you sit quietly and have a love affair with your cup of coffee. This is place where you go with a few friends, grab a game and a cup of coffee (or not), maybe even some gamer food, and just hang out for a few hours.
Do I want Coral Sword to replace coffee palaces like Onyx’s Bentonville lab? No. I want more of both. Places where coffee is given the reverence it deserves and places where good coffee can slot in alongside old-school fun. Coral Sword represents a bold new execution of the games and comics cafe concept—it’s the coffee shop I want to hang out at, just like I used to 20 years ago. More of this please.