I think my blogging spirit died a little with Bella’s Garage.

Bella's Garage

R.I.P. Bella's Garage. You were...a garage.

Sure, I took a hiatus while my wife/partner/sidekick and I merged into a new apartment and while I gallivanted around the globe (Jakarta, Venezuela, Palm Springs, etc.). Sure, I had a busy holiday season with the fam(s), and I have new iDevices to erode my self-dependence. Clearly I’ve still been tweeting, snapping, gigging. As for blogging? No excuses. If good, consistent, blogging were easy, I’d be charging ad revenue on this damned thing by now.

Outside of pure laziness, the hiatus has gone on longer than expected largely due to my 7am-8am blogeriffic self being sadly displaced due to the recent departure of Bella’s Garage coffeehouse on Terwilliger. Being a stones throw away from work, the place couldn’t have been a more convenient hangout for my morning commute. They also only charged $1 for 8-16oz morning coffee, which I dare someone to beat. I’m still not sure what exactly happened to Bella’s for it to so abruptly shut down, so I’m going to blame the Los Angeles Lakers because I already despise them and lumping this in just makes things more efficient.
Latte Da on Urbanspoon

Interior of Latte Da

Dude, your living room has a lot of chairs. And a lot of tables. And a cash register.

Latte Da has somehow crept up behind me and set itself down, like, two blocks from my apartment. Seriously, I have no idea how I missed it since, for a coffee shop, it’s absolutely ginormous. While Latte Da is on the wrong end of my commute to be a morning hangout destination, it’s  a quaint, community-oriented coffee destination that brings back the home-y vibe that the dearly departed Marcell’s had once epitomized. Friendly folks, good coffee selection, and quiche!

The problem? It feels too much like home. Perhaps this is because it’s a house that happens to sell coffee. It reminds me of a hotel in Fiji where I could retract the bathroom walls, and thus create a giant bathroom with a bed in it (which was awesome, by the way). The interior of Latte Da feels like a house except you can buy espresso in the living room. This would be great if it were my house, but with them being only two blocks from me, I just end up wondering why I’m not using the espresso machine sitting in my living room.

Oh yeah, they also have sandwiches and wine. Bravo, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In short: Do I like Latte Da Coffeehouse and Wine Bar? Yes. Will I go there a lot? No, but once a week on Saturday morning is a possibility. Is it for a petty reason that has little to do with the quality of their products or establishment? Yes. Do they solve my morning commute hangout issue? No. Do I recommend? Yes, particularly if you like drinking coffee in someone else’s living room.

Coming Soon: Why the bland, pricey, uninventive, Los Angeles Lakers, trashcan-lacking JoLa Coffee is not my new morning hangout. Wait, I kinda just explained it. Never mind.

You’ve got to have something of a coffee fetish to operate a coffee blog–even half-assedly like I do. Being the coffee shop junkie that I am, I always considered the coffee shop to be an ideal social destination–mainly because I couldn’t really think of any other ideas. That said, I also considered the coffee shop an ideal place for doing homework, business meetings, family reunions, and sleeping. Coffee’s a social drug drink, and is therefore adaptable to a variety of social situations.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not that simple You may recall my report on my hometown being overrun by bikini coffee shops. While the subject inspired some spirited (and entertaining) debate, I never made any serious correlation between coffee and sex. I mean, bikini-clad women and coffee seemed like a pretty arbitrary pairing to me, and  it turns out that business model may not really have much to do with the coffee anyways. I figured since you could substitute wings, burgers, and internet domain name services, sex and marketing is a proven formula, coffee was just replacing the variable.

…or so I thought. To start things off, let’s hear from executive transvestite (not “weirdo transvestite,” mind you) Eddie Izzard who shares an often quoted anec-joke about the coffee/sex correlation:

So “coffee” is street slang for sex. That’s cool, but at the same time it just seems…confusing. Sure, there’s the possibility of social faux pas with heads of state, but given coffee’s wide social presence, that can’t possibly be a hard and fast literal rule. Perhaps, like all slang, you’ve got to pay attention to the context. Case in point:

Hearing this information again flashes me back about nine years to one of my very few experiences cold-asking someone out on a date. I asked a barista out for coffee and she declined, having already made plans to go to an Incubus concert that weekend. Realizing now that I had possibly propositioned and been turned down for sex certainly changes the flavor of that interchange. In my defense, she was sending mixed signals by being a barista.

Perhaps it’s not entirely about the coffee, but more about opening that door to extend (or start) the evening. If there’s anything we learned from the Land Shark, you’ve just got to have the right line (everyone loves candy!). Perhaps if your date is on the fence about you, you’ll sell them on the coffee. “Would you join me for a cup of coffee?” certainly beats a number of alternatives:

Holy hell, they totally went there.

Being a married man now, I’m forced to re-evaluate the role of going out for coffee in my life. What kind of signals am I sending when I join a friend for a casual cup of coffee? Are others whispering behind my back about my coffee shop promiscuity? Am I being honest with my wife about going out for coffee and what role should it play in our relationship? Before you ask, no, I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore, but I will say that if you don’t have an honest coffee talk with your spouse, your feelings may surface in inappropriate ways.

Yeah, I’m sure he’ll get some at the plant. Perhaps the plant has a “desk sergeant” as well. Ugh. Men are such dogs. Actually, if I’m going to cite advertisements as proof, I should point out that coffee also apparently turns women into dangerous vengeful maniacs. Par for the course I suppose.

Do you know Mon Ami?

September 5, 2011

Mon Ami on Urbanspoon
It’s a shame I haven’t really written about Mon Ami, the West ‘Couve community caffeination epicenter. I don’t mean to slight the other phenomenal coffee shops in Vancouver, since, as I’ve said before, there are plenty. In every good community, however, there’s the community coffee shop that’s the default choice when you talk about going to chat and grab a coffee.

Interior of Mon Ami coffee shop

See, if you're going to do the chalkboard menu thing, get creative with it. Boom! Menu...in 3D!

Mon Ami is a community coffee shop, meaning they’ve got a lot of local–and loyal–regulars. They’re a Stumptown coffee institution, which is cool if you’re into that kind of thing. Even if you aren’t (*ahem*), they’ve come up with some great coffee concoctions, such as the “Cuppa Cho” latte special, so they aren’t just sitting back on their haunches. The floor plan leaves a bit to be desired, with about half of the seating stretching into a narrow corridor between the counter/kitchen and wall. Fortunately that works well in catering to the drop-in-and-chat-with-a-friend crowd. This also serves the I-love-my-laptop clientele with wifi and lots of wall outlets, because who wants to lean under their table to plug things in?

There are a few other shortcomings as well, most of which are really pluses with a slight drawback. Their crepes are excellent, but they’re also their only non-pastry food offering. From a craperie perspective, that’s great. From a coffee shop perspective, it can leave you wanting. This can be limiting to those craving a simple and cheap eats from their local cafe. In addition, with typically two folks working behind the counter at a time, orders can run into a bit of bottleneck, particularly when one of the folks is making crepes. If you want a crepe in a hurry (and who does?), you may be out of luck

The thing is, beyond the tasty crepes and reliably good coffee, Mon Ami is just simply a great place to hang out, and it’s a community location. If you live in the West ‘Couve, you’ve likely already been there, and know the name of most of the baristas. So to you folks, keep going there. If you’re from PDX and you haven’t been there, it’s a definitive answer to the question “why the hell would you want to live in Vancouver?”

Because Mon Ami is there.

You are Not a Profile.

August 17, 2011

I am so close to dropping off Facebook. Someone push me. Please.

I have no real illusions about anonymity. While I’ve had this blog–in some incarnation–for seven years now, I launched a website for myself as a musician barely a year ago. It didn’t take me long to start considering combining the two, but as soon as I began planning to do so, I ran into a host of problems. Many of these are a result of own laziness (I struggle to update my gig calendar or promote my shows, unless it’s on Facebook), but there are greater identity and self-image concerns as well. Do I want to unify the guy who writes stuff like this and this, with the guy who wrote this?

The funny thing is, show promotion and a couple groups (ok, one actually) are the only reasons I’m still on Facebook. The most common reason I’m so disdainful of Facebook is because there are so few things that I want to say to my family, lifelong friends, recent friends, grad school friends, and musician peers. It’s an opt-out system where unless I take the time to categorize my friendeds, everything I post goes to everyone. After silently saying “I don’t care” to myself with every status update, I realized that I just didn’t want to add to the information pollution. Granted, I still check Facebook semi-regularly just to read status updates with the same casual interest that I read celebrity gossip blogs.

Courtesy of geekandpoke.com

Perhaps I’m subscribed to the idea that in your virtual life, if you don’t establish a strong identity, one will be established for you. I realize that doesn’t really differentiate it from real (analog) life, but I harbored this illusion for a while that if I didn’t do anything online, I wouldn’t be there. Being an actively performing musician and a member of at least a few geek social circles, pictures of me just kept popping up on Facebook. To this date I personally have uploaded one picture (nearly a decade old) of myself to Facebook, and yet there are 318 tagged photos of me currently uploaded on their network.

I’ve in the past been dubbed a “contrarian” by some of my peers. I can’t really argue, since I do seem to have an inherent suspicion of social trends (Facebook, Twitter, Portland, etc.). I don’t necessarily believe that all social trends are inherently brainless and driven by mob mentality (or worse, marketing). I am just a big believer in the adage “Don’t let anything be automatic.” I believe that regular assessment of our routines is important to promote our intellectual, social, and technological development. That said, I agree with Jaron Lanier that social networks encourage users to dilute their individuality humanity, allowing it to be quantized into what essentially amounts to census figures and voluntary market research data.

Or, maybe I’m just tired of being a product.

The Red [and Black] Scare

August 10, 2011

I met with a new manager the other day, and I was told how my observations as a new employee were valuable since I still had the perspective of an outsider. I can understand that, since once you’ve been tainted jaded on the job for a while, you can’t shake the burden of expectations. For example, I’d love to meet President G.W. Bush, but I don’t think I could shake the expectation of him being an absolute imbecile just like I’d sit down to dinner with Mike Tyson expecting my ring finger to be bitten off. Some would argue there is evidence to support these expectations, but in reality, I’ve never met either of them personally, so there’s no reason for me to expect G.W. Bush to cut himself with a butter knife or Mike Tyson to mutilate me with one.

This brings me to the Red and Black Cafe.
Red and Black Cafe on Urbanspoon

The counter at the Red & Black Cafe.

See, it looks like just your average cafe, but that's how they get ya'.

The Red and Black Cafe, a “worker owned, collectively–managed, IWW-member vegan café,” certainly has some revolutionary undertones (Their PCs run on Linux! ¡Viva la Revolución!). I’m sure I should be saying overtones, but there was something…subdued in their revolutionary attitude, and it’s not just the heart-shaped anarchy symbol on their logo. I admit, I know about as little about anarchy as I do about chemex brewing or ancient anglo-saxon literature. A reading over of their blog convinced me I was dealing with bona fide anarchists, just ones with values like job security, civic-mindedness, and sanity. I must admit, though, they dropped the word “radical” like a Gatorade bottle uses “electrolytes” or Flash comics use “molecules.”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

Myself and my dinner companion enjoyed some light conversation as we took our merry time ordering from the rather diverse menu. I had misconstrued R&B Cafe as merely a small vegan cafe when apparently it’s a cesspool of radical liberalism that serves espresso and vegan food. I ordered the hummus sliders (which were great, by the way) with an iced coconut latte, and after having a seat it became apparent that my iced coconut latte had been forgotten. I certainly did not slight them for a minor oversight, since they apologized and promptly made the drink. On the other hand, I did have to wonder, what kind of self-important radical establishment simply forgets to make a drink? This wasn’t a strike against them as a cafe, but rather as revolutionaries. It is possible, however, that they were just cool people who made a minor oversight, but I imagine one of them recognized that I had recently worked for a state institution and was striking back at the man.

Iced coconut & hummus sliders.

Vegan fuds. Om nom nom nom.

In short, it was a pleasant, quirky dining experience. Their portions were generous to the point that my dinner companion mentioned “I always like what I get here, but they give me so much of it!” I don’t claim to be the anarchy auditor, but I guess I just want the “radical left” to be as unhinged and crazy as the right paints them to be (notably, I haven’t been disappointed by the opposite). In fact, one of the goals of the Red and Black Cafe is to show the reasonable, practical side of anarchism. Red & Black definitely had a revolutionary air about it, but in a way that said, “Yeah, whatever, we’ve been doing this for years. Take it or leave it.” It’s almost as if they had something they believed in rather than merely something to prove.

Ugh. That is soooooo un-Portland.

Note: I read a few other reviews mentioning incidents involving a police officer (and other folks deemed “to be causing a worker or patron discomfort or distress for any reason”) being asked to leave. Perhaps they’ve gone soft, or maybe I just came on an off-day. I’ll drop in again and bring an on-duty police officer, Dick Cheney, and an intoxicated Larry the Cable Guy and see if sparks fly.

The front window of Grounds for Thought, looking out onto Wooster St.

Flowers in the window, another thing we don't really see in NW coffee shops.

The appeal of small towns and (some) college town communities is that ordinary places become extraordinary. Extraordinary places, however, like Grounds for Thought become legendary. I took a recent sojourn back to Bowling Green, Ohio, my old graduate school stomping grounds (no pun intended) where, for three years, I lived close enough to Grounds for Thought coffee shop that it was significantly faster for me to buy coffee than make it.

Grounds is greater than the sum of its parts, which is saying a lot since it is a used bookstore, used record store, coffee shop (with pastries and sandwiches), and community study area all in one. It sits in a prime location on heart of Bowling Green. So prime, in fact, that a Google map search for Bowling Green puts the pin less than a block from Grounds’ roasting center. Grounds for Thought is the kind of place where—provided that you are a resident of Bowling Green—you imagine who you want to see and they just may appear. An understated hub of the community, where you’ll find college and high school students alike all congregating, studying, and chatting well into the late evening.

A city shot of BG.

Am I in "real" America? I think I might be.

Of course, I can’t mention Grounds without mentioning Cosmo’s Coffee, a poorly managed offbeat coffee crash that was my true first coffee love in Bowling Green. Cosmos was the misbehaving, underachieving kid that lived next door (or a couple blocks away, in this case), whose parents couldn’t help but look over at your honor student and say “why can’t you be more like Grounds?” Cosmos would then shrug, and say something like, “I dunno, but we’re out of espresso today.” It goes without saying that Cosmos eventually went out of business, but not before throwing a rather impressive funeral which featured live music, belly dancing, and a lot of alcohol.

Anyways, on a personal note, Grounds aided me in building the foundation of my record collection, which consists mostly of Paul Simon, Billy Joel, a couple Stevie Wonder, and a few jazz records that I keep saying I’m going to listen to. Their record collection has expanded from being a half-dozen rows wide to now taking up an entire wall (…though they still didn’t have “Listen Like Thieves.’ Come on, guys). I still have the entertaining memory of showing up at Grounds to search the “S” section for Paul Simon records, and finding thirty-seven unique Barbara Streisand records. I’m sure there’s a great story there.

Have I not said anything about the coffee shop? Oh…um…okay.

Coffee, water, pastries, and gift certificates for the band.

Guest performer shwag. Oh, I'm sorry. Did I not mention The Student Loan performed here? Well, we did. It was awesome.

Well, first of all, Grounds for Thought uses a whiteboard, rather than a chalkboard for their menu. It seems trivial, but when practically every damned coffee shop in the greater Northwest area defaults to the chalkboard, it’s a refreshing change–not to mention just a bit…brighter. They make sandwiches, and their pastries are excellent. They roast they’re own coffee, and should you find yourself on vacation in Bowling Green, a bag of GFT coffee grounds is a popular gift. They’ve got a number of roast flavors that I can’t tell the difference between (hey, I never claimed to be a coffee reviewer), but all taste pretty good to me. My only strike against them is that they still use Styrofoam cups, which would get them a vicious liberal-lashing if they were based in the NW.

But they aren’t and they shouldn’t be. Grounds for Thought is Bowling Green, only with better climate control and fewer college chachis.

La Douche Vita

July 14, 2011

Caffe Vita on Urbanspoon
I like to think that my visitors use this blog as a resource. Going out for coffee sounds simple enough, yet such an action is layered with deeper considerations. When choosing a destination for the procurement of caffeinated beverages, it is important to seek a venue that not only fulfills your needs, but resonates with your soul. Caffé Vita (“Caffé?” Really? What language do I not know, to not get that spelling?) has a definite vibe that could have been pleasant had I known what I was walking into. Of course, I was on Alberta St., so I should have put two and two together and assumed I’d be getting a healthy side serving of the self-important.

Entrance of Caffe Vita, from the inside.

That's a big freakin' door. Seriously.

I initially had a hard time assessing whether Caffé Vita was a slummy coffee shop with nice  furniture, or a an uppity shop slumming it. The extra-wide open door on a warm, dry day aggravated my allergies and invited in a swarm of flies to circle in the center of the room. This was either nauseating or beautiful, depending on how you focused your eyes. The peeling walls were speckled with holes due to what I assume was repeated damage from hanging pictures from stone walls. There’s plenty of floor space, but the hanging speakers which played no ambient music really only made the expansive space seem bleak. Seriously, guys. I’ve been to a coffee shop in Burma, and even a state under a military junta (at the time) with an underdeveloped economy and a laundry list of human rights violations had a clean, cozy coffee shop.

They’re a coffee shop to the core, with a standard menu (chalkboard…*yawn*) of your typical espresso and french press with a decent tea selection. If you want a pastry, however, you’re SOL. Having had their coffee before at Goldrush on MLK (it was aiight) and not in need of a caffeine kick, I opted to give the tea a try. I asked for Chamomile “sham-mo-meel” tea, which was corrected flatly by the barista as “kam-meh-meel.” Really, dude? Just broil the damned water. You know, stuff like that only makes me want to keep bringing up the half-dozen flies hovering in the middle of this faux-apocalyptic coffee purgatory.

In all honesty, Caffé Vita is a unique space with a hip, albeit nihilistic, vibe. It’s just too bad I wasn’t remotely in the mood for their pretentious hipster nonsense.