At Huber’s Cafe, John Pierce Is the King of Spanish Coffee

Huber’s—Portland, Oregon’s oldest restaurant—is synonymous with Spanish Coffee. It popularized the tableside ritual: meticulously lighting overproof rum and triple sec on fire, caramelizing the sugary ring around the rim of the glass, then topping it off with coffee liqueur, coffee, a dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of nutmeg. For more than 40 years, John Pierce has donned the restaurant’s required vest and tie, spinning a glass of blue flame in his hand as he quietly riffs with tourists and regulars. Pierce has made his fair share of other cocktails over the last four decades, ranging from Hurricanes to marionberry Cosmopolitans, but nothing comes close to the number of Spanish Coffees he’s made—more than he can count.

Before Pierce started spiking coffees and stirring Martinis, he was mixing milkshakes at a Dairy Queen. He moved to Portland and started working in the restaurant industry as a means to an end. For years, Huber’s was just a job, a way to support himself while he pursued his landscape and abstract painting, his improvisational music and his love of the outdoors. He’d take off his tie and hike Mount St. Helens, or ride his bike to Seattle. But, after a while, he realized that the people at Huber’s had become the people closest to him. When he went camping, he went with people he met at Huber’s. He spends the holidays with his co-workers, and he plays tennis with owner James Louie—the man who taught him how to make a Spanish Coffee.

“The people at Huber’s have become my family,” says Pierce. “They’ve been very accommodating to my personality—more than you’d expect from a family.”

You’ve worked at Huber’s for 42 years, is that right? Was it your first bartending job, or were you bartending before?
It was my first bartending job. My first job in Oregon, I worked at a Dairy Queen. When I applied, James [Louie, Huber’s owner] said, “What experience do you have?” and I said, “Well, I’ve mixed milkshakes.” And he said, “Well, can you start this upcoming Friday?” I went to Goodwill and bought some black pants, went to Freddy’s and bought a white shirt, a vest, and the rest is history. 

I got into bartending because I wanted to go to art school—I paint, I draw and I play guitar. But I didn’t know the difference between gin and bourbon. I polished all the glasses on the shelves. That lasted for a year and a half, and then I got on a day shift, then that transitioned to a night shift.

How did you get connected with Huber’s? Were you aware of it before you started working there?
No, not at all. I was new to Portland, I’d been there for almost nine months, and I was going, “Okay, this Dairy Queen thing, it isn’t working, I need another job where I can make more money, pay my rent, cover my expenses.” I wanted to work somewhere where I wouldn’t see my friends—I want to be professional, do my job, and leave. Huber’s seemed like a very professional, older place, and I thought, “OK, I won’t have to deal with any immature kids.” It’s an adult place.

They’ve been family to me. It’s not necessarily employment. James and I play tennis together; I’ve been to their house. I was married—they were there when I got married, they were there when I got divorced. People say, “What are you doing for the holidays?” I say, “I’m spending it with my family—my Huber’s family.”

Who taught you how to make Huber’s Spanish Coffee?
James. I was there when James was making them himself, one at a time. Then we worked with a guy named Alex, he was Mr. Personality. I called him the Ricardo Montalbán of Spanish Coffees. He was there for 20 years; he and James made all the Spanish Coffees. He didn’t bartend, he just made Spanish Coffees. I was never as social. James used to say, good bartenders are seen, not heard. I prefer to work. 

What I learned, personally, is not to show off. Hit your marks, but don’t try to get too, “Look at me, look at what I’m doing.” Because when you do that, you have an accident. Keep it simple, and do it the same way every time. The way I do it, it’s a matter of timing my breathing. It’s like hitting a tennis ball. People say, “How did you learn to do this?” And I say, “It’s easy: Breathe, keep your eye on the ball, and follow through.” People say, “Hey, can you do it behind your back?” and I say, “No, that’s a different ticket.” My ex-wife says, “You always have a comeback for everything.” But after 40 years of people making fun of you, you figure out how to respond to people. You just hit the ball back.

Huber’s was one of the first places to serve Spanish Coffee and helped popularize it. Now that more restaurants and cafés around the country have started serving it, what do you think makes Huber’s version so special?
We’ve got the proportions down, and we don’t skimp on the ingredients. We put quality in, so you get quality out. We don’t use cheap coffee liqueur. Triple sec, it’s like soy sauce: A little is great, but too much and it’s all you taste. Some places, they skimp on the Kahlúa, they overdo it on the triple sec. We give a good pour of overproof rum—one part rum, two parts Kahlúa, and just a dash of triple sec, not even a half-ounce. You don’t need to have it dominate.

What do you think your painting imparts on your work as a bartender, and vice versa?
Everything I do, I put art into. It comes naturally for me. If I’m riding my bike, I’m into the art of cycling. I know how to ride in a pack, with 40 or 50 people; being in the restaurant, I used the same kind of instincts. I learned a lot about coexisting with people. That’s one of the things I always appreciated about James—he’s always calm, no matter what. He might be raging on the inside, but you can never tell.

Huber’s is a Portland institution, the city’s oldest restaurant, and Portland restaurants and bars have a very short half-life in general. What do you think has kept it alive, when so many others have gone under, especially in recent years?
I think familiarity: the familiarity of the place being the oldest place in Portland. A lot of people have memories. They met so-and-so there; they came in with their father years ago—it becomes a monument. I’m glad Huber’s has survived, but Portland is not the same city I moved to 40 years ago. For somebody who moved here, this was such an idealistic place. To have it kind of be where it is right now, it’s hard. It’s emotionally hard. 

How has Huber’s survived? I think that they never tried to use a gimmick. They kept the turkey dinner consistent; their presentation has been consistent throughout. You know what you’re going to get there. It’s like coming home.