One of the cheapest through-lines in food writing is the anti-chain rant: "Chains are soulless, target the lowest-common denominator, etc." Lazy stuff. But I do loathe chain coffee shops. I experience soul shrinkage at those places. If there's one bastion of independent operators worth saving in this world, it's the neighborhood café.
Ula Café, one such indie, located in the Brewery complex in Jamaica Plain, has all the fundamentals: great coffee and tea, very fine baked goods, free Wi-Fi. But what might surprise you is how good its other food is.
About those basics: coffee drinks are expertly done, served in hefty-feeling mugs and priced smartly, like café lattes for $2.50, $2.90, and $3.30 (that's small, medium, and large — no coy faux-Italianisms here). The spicy mocha ($2.95/$3.35/$3.75) adds a little chili kick to its frisson of chocolate. Baked goods, turned out fresh on the premises throughout the day, are wonderful, including muffins, scones, cupcakes, and brownies ($2) and cookies (50 cents–$1.50). The bakery's showstopper, though, is its popover ($1.75), a marvel of crisp, just-browned exterior and eggy interior richness honeycombed with air pockets, at once substantial and ethereal — worth a wait to catch one just from the oven.
Sandwiches are built on excellent Hi-Rise Bread Company products, and this being JP, are very vegetarian/vegan-friendly. Omnivores can enjoy superb egg salad dotted with fresh dill and peas, plus romaine for crunch ($6.75; $4.50/half), while vegans can opt for curried tofu ($7.25/$4.75), a very fine ersatz egg salad with bits of green apple, green onion, raisins, and a toupee of alfalfa sprouts. Daily changing soups ($4.25/bowl; $3.50/cup, including a nice hunk of bread) are also mostly vegan (lactophobes, hold that squiggle of sour cream) and extraordinary, like a thick, Cuban-inspired black-bean soup, an herb-rich lentil, and a pureed butternut squash with a depth of flavor I felt certain meant fine chicken stock ("Mais non," says the kitchen: just an amazing vegetable stock).
Salads ($6.35/large; $4.15/small) similarly impress with freshness and roundness of flavors, such as the vinaigrette-tossed greens topped with dried fruit, nuts, and good goat cheese. Service can be slow, and tables are often crowded with laptop jockeys and stroller-pushing moms, but friendly and unmistakably sincere service ease those irritations. Hokey as it sounds, Ula really is a neighborhood place with soul, an essential corrective to cookie-cutter corporate $5-latte factories.
Ula Café, located at 384 Amory Street, in Jamaica Plain, is open Monday through Friday, from 7 am to 7 pm, and on Saturday and Sunday, from 8 am to 7 pm. Call 617.524.7890.