Thursday, November 1, 2007

Coffeehouse Couch-Stink

Location, selection, population. Usually these are the only three criteria I use to determine where I'll spend my coffee capital.

Often the closest places to me are way overcrowded at peak times, or the quiet spots with great treats just aren't worth the trek on a rainy Sunday.

But sometimes it is worth noting the Coffeehouse Couch-Stink factor.

I think it is a combination of second-hand upholstery, lingering hippies and constant espresso machine steam that creates this unmistakable coffeehouse odor.

Prime examples would be Palio Dessert and Espresso House at Ladd's Addition and Common Grounds Coffee House on SE Hawthorne. In fact, SE Portland seems to corner the market on the most Couch-Stink offenses...Fireside Coffee Lodge, Blend, Sweetness Bakery and Cafe...

Not to say that any of these places are unclean or bad choices. Just that maybe this is just another colorful difference between those sterile grab'n go coffee bars, and those living room coffee houses that seem to say "hey stranger, sit over here, relax, I think someone left half a veggie sandwich between the cushions."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tiny's Coffee

Just a little further south on MLK from Goldrush Coffee Bar is a Tiny's Coffee location. Tiny's has two locations, the other being on SE 12th near the Hawthorne Burgerville. I like the MLK location best mainly because on cold and stormy nights, the SE 12th location seems kinda drafty.

They serve Stumptown coffee and Voodoo doughnuts, just in case you've only lived in Portland for five minutes and wanted to do as the tourists do. It may just be that I am burnt out and bitter about the ubiquity of Stumptown coffee, but it seems like the places that have the coolest "living room" spaces, pastries, branding, cute baristas (you know, things that really enhance a coffee experience) are all serving the same drink.

And like I've mentioned before on this blog, I think the Albina Press is the only place that makes Stumptown something to enjoy and respect.

Taking Tiny's drip coffee as an example, I've found on a few different occasions that both the French Press and the Hair Bender they sometimes serve is almost undrinkable. There is way to much acid and really falls flat. Could be just the way they happened to brew the pot that morning but I can always count on both K&F coffee on Clinton St. and Goldrush to have the most consistantly wonderful drip brew.

But, maybe I'm being too hard on a business that plays it safe and consistently keeps it's doors open to the lonely Portlander looking for a place to plug in the laptop and stay connected to the community. Tiny's is great for the people watching and the quick panini lunch. They also have a great website. Maybe a little risk-taking is all this place needs to be a true desitnation coffeehouse.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Goldrush Coffee Bar

A long time ago I had stopped into Goldrush Coffee Bar about 20 minutes to closing time. The barista told me he had already shut the machine down so I wouldn't be able to get any espresso drinks. Bottled juice anyone? Since that experience I never stepped foot in Goldrush again.

Okay, so I'm not that dramatic. I really just never happened to be in that neighborhood and while craving coffee and so didn't really have the opportunity to give 'em a second chance. But still, I think of that incident every time I drive past on MLK or head down the street to Toro Bravo or the Wonder Ballroom.

I've recently been back several times and discovered that they do have a great staff behind the bar and they serve the Seattle brew Caffe Vita coffee.

Caffe Vita Coffee Roasting Company is a great coffee company with their own distinct personality. All their coffees feel dark and almost bitter but without the sour aftertaste. Just nice prickly coffee, like a good IPA.

I'm not sure what was behind the choice to serve a Seattle coffee with all the nice local roasters we have here, but any coffeehouse that decides to offer something other than Stumptown is, to me, a welcome addition to Portland. In fact they do sell a couple Vita blends and always have two regular and one decaf drip brew on hand.

I love this approach as I've often wondered into a coffeehouse wanting a simple mug of drip coffee only to be faced by Stumptown's exotic "Ethiopia Yirgacheffe" or "Harrar" blend as the only drip option. I always thought these brews were way too flowery or complex to be palatable. So why put this out as your only regular cup-of-joe choice?

For that reason and many others, Goldrush is a great before-work stop. Quick service, lots of breakfast choices (including fruit), and a convenient location on MLK and Russell make it hard to pass up on a dreary Monday morning. The evening scene however is kinda dead. I imagine they don't get much traffic after the workday is done and really can't depend on shows at the Wonder drawing in huge crowds in the early evening. I'm hoping that with all the development on MLK, that will soon change.

It's always been my dream to see coffeehouses so unique and accomodating that they are always teeming with customers and open at all hours. Or at least still pulling shots until they lock the doors and turn off the lights.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Fresh Pot (Hawthorne)

I only recently discovered that you can order books from and instead of paying for shipping, you can pick them up at any Powell's location. I picked up my two books at the Powell's on Hawthorne the other morning and then stepped into The Fresh Pot for coffee.

There always seems to be a line eeking into the bookstore boundary and I absolutely love the utilitarian design of the long bench, small tables and opposing chairs all spaced so evenly like a study hall.

There was a large selection of Sweet Pea bakery treats along with the ubiquitous Voodoos and some Pearl Bakery croissants. I chose a Marionberry muffin from Sweet Pea and a chocolate Voodoo for my coffee partner. (She was next door perusing the books on how to can any type of fruit or veg you can imagine. It is fall harvest time, after all.)

When I got to the counter and placed my coffee order I failed to notice the "No debit or credit cards" sign until my shots were already being pulled. I apologetically explained to the counterperson that I forgot it was cash only and pulled out four ones that I had off-handedly grabbed from home on the way out the door. The total for drinks alone was going to be $6.50.

She seemed unfazed and explained it was fine and I could just pay the balance the next time I was in.

I can recall another instance where a coffeehouse that I visited very often was having problems with their debit card machine and so if customer's couldn't pay cash they just wrote down what they ordered in notepad and asked people to pay next time. This seemed reasonable to me since I and almost everyone else who visited that spot were regulars.

The Fresh Pot, however, is a place I haven't been to in maybe 8 months, so I am anything but a regular. Did the counterperson just not want to deal with denying me coffee since the shots were already out and the milk was already poured? Maybe. But maybe if this happens a lot it's just as well to keep the line moving and count on the nice people of Portland to repay their debts.

But if it happens at all, isn't that reason enough to break down and get the debit card machine set-up? It does cost money, I understand. You lose a small percentage of each transaction you take everytime the machine is used (the cost of having the swipe card service and having the funds deposited directly into your company's account). Plus Visa and Mastercard themselves take a chunk out of your sales too, which is why many shops have a minimum purchase to use the debit machine.

But seeing all those tables full of paying customers and a built in customer base streaming in from the Powell's location, I can't see how denying this service is saving them loads of money. It's a hassle, it's an expense, but being a cash only location is something that keeps me out of coffeehouses all the time.

Luckily I was able to reroute my coffeepartner to the cash machine (where we had to pay the service charge to take money out of a bank that was not ours) so that we could get our pastries and settle our debt to The Fresh Pot. Everything worked out ok, the muffin was surprisingly moist and very cake-y and the coffee was, as usual, a very balanced and chocolately-tasting cup of Stumptown.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Little Red Bike Cafe

Last Saturday I made it out to the Little Red Bike Cafe in St. Johns to enjoy what everyone's been raving about. It is an extra-sweet little place with doting service and a friendly atmosphere.

I normally only go for a simple pastry and coffeedrink in the mornings, but I couldn't resist their breakfast sandwiches. I had myself a Zoobomb which had egg, cheese, carmelized onions and this great creamy-spicy aoili that really made the sandwich.

Little Red Bike seem to be churning out lots of different desserts everyday and I wonder if they are going to settle in to a few rotating ice creams and specials or if there will be a constant "what's coming next" feel for the offerings.

I'm all for mixing it up in the kitchen but consistency and reliability keep me coming back to my favorite places time and again.

Drip coffee was all I had this time around and it was pretty good. The food is what makes this place stand out and so I really hesitate to even label the Little Red Bike Cafe a "coffeehouse," it is more of a cafe or restaurant.

Their pastry case contains items from what I consider the only bakery in town to rival Crema's baked goods: Fleur de Lis Bakery. If you have not had a scone from Fleur De Lis, then you have not lived life. They are rich and moist without being oily or heavy. And it doesn't really matter which type of scone you get, you will be a fan of them all. (Extracto also carries their goods.)

I will be back to this coffeehouse/cafe/restaurant, if for no other reason than to try the Courier Coffee Milkshake.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Crema Bakery & Cafe

With friends in from Brooklyn the pressure was on to show off as many good coffeehouses in Portland as possible. Duly impressed by the variations and quality goods that came from many of the houses in the city, Crema was the creme de la creme.

It probably helped that it was mid-morning and we were starving. Walking up to stare at the pastries behind the glass and then turning around to walk back to the end of the line was torturous. Often I find myself making a pastry choice and changing my mind around three times before I finally get to the register.

I love the A.M. buns with their true and direct orange flavor nestled among the crunchy-sugary flakes of swirled pastry. The breads are good, the muffins are a little dry, but good. The only item I haven't had too much of is the bread pudding. They have a rotating selection of flavors and it always looks moist enough to go swimming in. (If swimming in bread pudding is a fantasy of yours.) But I've promised myself to break out of my routine and I'll give the bread pudding a go next time.

I'll reserve any long-winded comments about the actual coffee. They serve Stumptown (yawn), just like most coffeehouses and they don't quite pull it off as well as Albina Press. It's great, but not reach-for-the-stars great.

The bakery in the back of the coffeehouse is almost always abuzz with what seems like dozens of busy bakers coated in flour and bringing pan after pan of warm pastries out to torture the line-waiters.

Possibly the best part of Crema, next to the baked goods, is the art. I think they consistently show high quality work without falling into the trite and faddish forms of coffeehouse art that sometimes kills the mood at other places. The art can be audatious and smug but it is always quality work. And looking at great art helps, as I may have mentioned before, waiting in that line is torture.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

St. Johns is So Lucky

There's a lot more to see recently in the tiny neighborhood of St. Johns. A new gelato shop that looks interesting and two new coffeehouses.

Ladybug Organic Coffee Company is opening soon. They are going to be perhaps the first 100% organic coffeehouse in Portland. They really love organics. Really.

Just from viewing their site, and the 5 page employment application, you can see they take this organic/sustainable/local thing very seriously.

While I can appreciate and commend this new company for their endeavor, I can't really see this being their best selling point. Since so many other coffeehouses are already doing their best to offer local and organic products, showcasing this practice isn't that much of a draw on its own.

However, if they also happen to make the best scones, or pull the best shots, or have the friendliest baristas then it will make them a place worth visiting again and again. Otherwise it's just another day in Portland when a green business opens its doors.

As well, the much blogged about Little Red Bike Cafe is now open. I haven't been there myself and so am a little unclear as to whether this place crosses the line between "restaurant" and "coffeehouse" or "coffee shop". Semantics will be the death of me some day.

Can't wait to try it out though, they are the newest place in Portland to serve Courier Coffee. Bravo Courier and Little Red Bike! More small-batch coffee Portland!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Never Too Much Information

Recently Ben Worthen posted on the Wall Street Journal's Technology Blog that:

"The first mistake that companies make when they’re designing a Web site is copying features from competitors. Bells and whistles are worthless if they don’t help a customer find what he’s looking for. Manning says that too few companies take the time to sit down with customers and find out what they’re using a Web site for and what information would make a site more helpful."

What does this have to do with coffeehouses? Businesses where customers are naturally spending a larger amount of time and money on, year after year, need to be able to tell the public as much information as possible about their business. Especially since the number of coffeehouses in Portland has reached near-saturation, the public's choices are so numerous that the smallest bit of helpful and easily accessible information can mean the difference between snagging another regular customer or watching someone walk by to the coffeehouse down the block.

Just because the purchases are smaller, doesn't make the business any less important. I think Starbucks is a pretty important business that makes its billions one $2.00 purchase at a time.

While it is true that location is still the number one reason a customer will patronize one coffeehouse over another, when there are several "near-by" coffeehouses to choose from, which one wins out and why?

Take the three coffeehouses within blocks of each other on Alberta: Random Order, Star E Rose and Concordia Coffee House. I think it's a given that if you want to find out some info on a local business, or any business, or anything in the world you are going to hit the internets first. So I did. (What else would someone do? Find the Yellow Pages?)

Star E Rose has no website that I could find. Furthermore, I didn't see any posted hours of operation when I walked by the other day. Isn't posting your hours Small Business 101? (The counterperson said they close at 10pm.)

Concordia Coffee House does have a website. They have plenty of info on their site like a list of menu items, their "coffeehouse" philosophy, and photos of the space. They even mention that they are "open late for the night owl". Fantastic! But I could find no hours of operation on the site. What does "open late" translate to in real time? Apparantly 8pm. At least those business hours were written down on paper and taped to the front window.

Random Order, however, has a smokin' website. Looks very expensive and is loaded with great graphics and tons of info on the food, coffee, art, crafts and neighborhood. Best of all they have their hours right there on the home page: "6 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday". Except they actually close at 9pm.

In the end I stopped by Star E Rose as it was the only place left open when I was out and I dropped over $6.00 on a brownie, iced coffee and tip.

I have coffee money I want to spend! Finding a place to spend it shouldn't be hard to do.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Shout out!

Thanks to the Food Dude for giving a shout out to this blog!

It's still in the early stages, but soon there will be snapshots, more links, and most important - a list of the hours of operation for the coffeehouses of Portland.

Because there is nothing worse than trekking out to visit a new coffeehouse spot only to find a CLOSED sign instead of a latte.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Half and Half

Last weekend I tried out Half and Half for the first time. I guess anytime I'm near the Pearl or Downtown I don't immediately think to stop by Half and Half for coffee. It's kind of hidden away, which is great - makes it a special treat when you wander past it on your way to Powell's.

It's a tiny location, perfect for it's style and coffee. They brew Courier Coffee, a small - very small, roaster in Portland. David to Stumptown's Goliath.

A friendly, hulking figure greeted me and my coffee partner. From the look on his face, I think he thought we were tourists. There was a group of tourists at the end of the block following a man with a megaphone who was trying to explain the concept of "Zoobombing" without much luck.

I probably looked as wide-eyed and confused as the tourists when I ordered my coffee and asked what was in all their pastries. When I go to a new coffeehouse and there is no line allowing me to poke around a bit before I order, I get a little flummoxed. I settled on the lemon muffin, with a nice, tart glaze on top.

The coffee took a bit to come up and when it did I wondered over to the milk and sugar bar. My coffee partner was in a hurry and as we left I was certain I didn't see any half and half! The amazing irony I thought! Was this purposeful? Was it an unfortunate oversight?!

"No," my coffee partner explained, "it was on the table behind you."

Monday, August 6, 2007

Albina Press

I don't often visit Albina Press because of the hype. And the anti-hype. Some of the public chatter about the coffeehouse has been that the baristas are both snobby and drop-dead gorgeous, that the coffee is the best in town and totally overrated, that you can see rock stars there and that there are too many hipsters. It's a mixed bag of reviews though most are glowing reviews of the actual coffeedrinks themselves.

Since so many people in Portland have such strong opinions about Albina Press I have been scared to either love it or hate it, and therefore tried to keep my experiences with the coffeehouse ambivalent.

I did drop by this past Friday morning before a weekend drive to Seattle to fuel up. That would have only been my fourth or fifth visit to Albina Press and so far I have not been snubbed by a barista, they were relatively attractive, I did see a rock star once, and the coffee drinks are certainly the best-crafted ones in Portland that I have tasted so far.

The even-keeled coffee kept it's great flavor all the way to Centralia. The day-old pastry I bought with the coffee did not. (Pastry note: Crema's Morning Buns, or "A.M." Buns as some coffeehouses refer to them, are not day-old worthy.)

The drink was encouraging and since I now live the NE 'hood, I'll keep going back to taste and to try to explain here why I think the way Albina Press pours Stumptown beans is better than even the Stumptown coffeehouses themselves. Maybe it's the extra hype included with every cup.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Busy Coffeehouse? Save Your Seat!

There is another interesting food service-related discussion on the Portland Mercury blog about coffeehouses. Particularly the "homogeneous" and "daylit only" coffeehouse and bakery Crema.

I agree with the majority, if the coffeehouse is busy and you have come specifically to sit for a while with your coffee mug and food item, then yes, saving a seat is necessary. Beyond that it is not against any rules, spoken or unspoken.

Monday, July 30, 2007


I had heard about Extracto before I had been inside Extracto. The name made me think of an industrial space with metal-art on the walls and stainless steel coffee cups. It's not like that.

It's a toddler-happy place in the Alberta neighborhood and the only coffeehouse within easy walking distance of my new home. With a long low counter that shows off their Tiffany-teal espresso machine, the space reminds me more of what a montessori school cafeteria would look like. Lots of toys in the corner, happy art, large pastry and bottled soda selection, and school-house tables and chairs.

Last weekend I had walked there with the family to pick up breakfast. It being a Sunday and late in the morning, there was, of course, a line. Almost to the door but not quite. The person in front of me hung in there for about 2-3 minutes before she went ahead and walked out the door. (She must have been from out of town.)

The guy in front of her was hugging his laptop and a few magazines glancing often at the dwindling number of free tables. I envied him. That looked to me like the recipe for a perfect morning: some reading, web surfing and a chocolate croissant with coffee that he would eventually order.

Even though the line was long and the place full of people, I half resented and half admired the counter-person's personal attention to each customer. She offered suggestions, asked for clarifications, inquired if they had a stamp card and smiled often.

This would annoy almost anyone in a long line who are probably waiting for their first nourishment of the day. But in a small neighborhood place like Extracto, you have to come in with that expectation. The house is on its own clock, they've got the urgency to get you your drink fast, but not at the expense of a smile and comment on how the Garden Bread is tasting that day (moist and fruity).

So it was with great confliction that when I got to the front of the line I offerred up my complicated drink order (sure, please mix the non-fat and whole to make a 2%-ish drink) and pastry selections and also asked for a stamp card...and then paid with a debit card.

Long lines like these at serious coffee places always remind me of standing in line at Vivace in Seattle and hearing a certain flabbergasted customer exclaim, "why would anyone wait in a line for coffee?!"

I guess it is because it is not just coffee that we're getting. We wake up with not just a coffeedrink and donut in mind before starting our day. The drink is just the least we expect from our daily coffeerun. We really wake up with a hunger for a certain place, certain smells, and certain smiling faces. We wake up wanting to spend a good amount of time sitting and reading or catching up on work.

If we just wanted to get some caffiene and sugar we would've gone to a fast-food restaurant or one of those coffeeshacks holding down empty parking lots.

The coffeehouse is an entirely different place and the premium you pay for your coffee also covers the rent of your seat and table. You are allowed to sit and loiter as long as is reasonable.

My college English teacher explained that this concept went back at least as far as those expatriated American writers and artists living in Paris during the early 20th century. They may have only been able to afford a cafe au lait and bread, but it would let them occupy a "clean well-lit place" to sit and daydream, sketch and write, for as long as they wanted.

So to be awarded the chance to sit, relax, read and generally enjoy a lazy Sunday morning with good quality coffee, waiting in a line is the least we can do to pay for that coffee experience.

I Am Not a Coffeehouse Expert

I am not a coffee or coffeehouse expert, but I've enjoyed many coffeehouse spaces around the northwest for about 15 years.

The coffeehouse as our society's "third place" (a place that is not home or work) has always excited me. To describe a place that is not solely defined by its products and location, but by its "feel" and "personality" is one example of how our changing economy and culture have collided into this relationship between customer and coffeehouse.

And in this relationship people demand certain traits in their third places: convenience, originality, stewardship, variety....there as many coffeehouse experiences as there are coffee drinkers.

This journal will be my attempt to record my personal perspectives of those third places around Portland, OR, so that others may read, argue and learn about the coffeehouse culture and how it adds to our larger culture.