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.

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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.

Singer Hill Cafe on Urbanspoon
I’m fascinated by the way many (but not all, mind you) Portlanders describe surrounding areas that don’t fit their mold. Vancouver is “Vantucky,” a backward, uncivilized place populated with mostly hicks. Oregon City apparently is the same, only with more “religious freaks.” Lake Oswego is a yuppie paradise. Heck, even Southeast Portland is a “ghetto.” Seriously, anyone who’d call SE Portland a “ghetto” has certainly never seen one.

Anyways…

Lime Tart and Cappuccino.

Lime tart, cappuccino, and some sweet decor.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to my sojourn down to Oregon City. In fact, I really didn’t know where Oregon City was and had gotten well into the day before I decided to find out exactly where I was headed this particular evening. I initially feigned excitement about dropping down to Oregon City for a show at the 505 Tavern, to which my co-workers responded with resounding “meh.” Geez, the reaction was so lukewarm I thought I’d accidentally said “Vancouver.”

Perhaps I’ll enjoy it after all.

Plants on the wall over the stage.

Just in case you thought I was kidding, yes, there really are plants growing out of the wall.

After scoping out a few options, I decided on Singer Hill Cafe as a good place to crash before my show. The  shop seemed to have plenty of loyal patrons. The layout reminded me of a more expansive version of the dearly departed Marcell’s in Vancouver, which was essentially a large house. Singer Hill is a coffee shop with a full menu of sandwiches and salads, pastries, and a mighty fine Lime Tart. When he saw me taking pictures, the owner took me on an impromptu tour, showing off the backyard garden where he hoped to host a few outdoor concerts in the future.

Singer Hill hosts music on Fridays from 6-8pm, and I arrived in time to catch the second half of a fundraiser show by Tiffany Carlson who delighted the a rather cordial crowd of friends and families. I also have to acknowledge the pretty sweet stage that had plants growing out of the wall. That I’ve never seen before. It’s easy to feel at home in Singer Hill Cafe, and that’s a feeling I really have to search for in Portland, which is often hip, but rarely cozy. You know, I gotta admit: Oregon City is an okay place.

Well…if you like Vancouver.

Grendel's Coffee House on Urbanspoon
Pure circumstance brought me to Grendel’s Coffee House, though I admit I was somewhat fascinated by the name. I’ll be honest, I’m no scholar of ancient Anglo-Saxon mythology. In fact, everything I know about Beowulf I learned from an episode of Star Trek Voyager, so don’t expect any witty mythological wordplay.

Actually, scratch that, I’d like to give it a shot. *ahem*

Exterior of Grendel's

How could you not want to go in?

Where the fearsome Grendel may be a mythical beast of unparalleled horror, the intimate Grendel’s Coffee House serves up excellent coffee and unparalleled service in a cozy space on East Burnside (count it!). When I say cozy, I do mean cozy. Seriously, it’s about…counting…12 seats. 15 if you count the couch. If anything, it sort of reminds me of a really tiny Southeast Grind, just not open 24 hours. They’ve got wifi, but you can also fire up the retro PCs (CRT monitors, yo) if you’re jonesing for throwback. Of course, that kind of intimacy almost always implies a good place to chill and chat. This is, for the record, a great place to chill and chat.

They also sell  Snarky Cards, which practically shouts “we’re cool.”

I opted for the Grendel’s Ghost mocha, which uses white espresso and produced what tasted like a full-flavored mocha with a dollop of restraint. It’s awesome. Try it. Actually, another blogger shared a description of the flavor that also follows the ghastly motif:

What was at first an interesting experience for the senses, soon turned into a flavour that wouldn’t shift from the palate, haunting every taste bud with its weirdness.”

Coffee at Grendel's

Grendel's Ghost Mocha. Oh, and yes, this photo was take well after closing.

The owner, Eric, was more than happy to explain the white espresso roasting  process to me (something about flash-roasting and more caffeine) while he brewed it up. He was also kind enough to reset the wireless router when it went screwy, let me stay after closing, and even offered some light conversation, all while patiently showing a new employee the ropes. Actually, this guy is such a pro, I think we’ll have to go to the play by play:

It’s Friday evening, and Grendel’s closes at 6pm. It’s now 6:16. Will Eric serve this walk-in?

Yes! Though coffee is off the table. He busts out the tea and hot water. She looks thrilled! That’s the look of a returning customer.

It sure is Bob. Now how about this: It’s now 6:20–twenty minutes after closing–and we’ve got a pair of folks looking for coffee and a little food.

They do offer sandwiches and pastries, Jim.

But this long after closing? We may have seen the limits of what he can do.

Well, it looks like he’s giving them the bad news…but wait! He’s taken them outside and directing them to nearby restuarants. He’s pointing, he’s gesturing, and look at that smile!  Jim, this guy’s a first-ballot all star if I’ve ever seen one.

Well there you have it. Customer service at it’s finest. Heck, he even encouraged me to take photos, though I’m sure that’s far from the strangest thing people do in coffee shops around here. Eric, if you can hear me from the legendary world you inhabit, you are the Beowulf of customer service. I shall write epic tales of your exploits…or at least one blog post.

Que Bella!

April 20, 2011

Bella's Garage Coffeehouse on Urbanspoon
Like a typical middle-class American, I measure my life in pop songs, presidential administrations, and places…to get coffee. You say junior high, I say Barnes & Noble. You say high school, I say Bertolino’s. College? Jazz & Java. Grad school, Cosmos Coffee (R.I.P), and then Grounds for Thought. My first teaching job…I can’t remember but it was a nice place to play a gig.

A picture of Bella, a bird.

This would be Bella, the owner of this coffee establishment.

Downtown(-ish) Vancouver’s got plenty of options, and I never really picked a regular. Actually, it probably would have been Marcell’s had it not caught fire. So, now that I’m regularly commuting to Lewis & Clark College, what’s it going to be?

Bella’s Garage, sitting pretty on Terwilliger Blvd., is what any college neighborhood coffee shop should and could be. At the moment I’m hard pressed to figure out what they don’t offer. They’re serving up a full coffee menu, wi-fi, local pastries (yay for the apple empanada), local tea, and even a greeting card section. They’ve also got generous and varied seating options (even a kids section!) without being stingy with power outlets.

If you drop in between 6am and 9am you get any size drip coffee for a buck. Sure, my knee-jerk reaction is to be suspicious of deep discounts, but $1 coffee is much different than a dollar cheeseburger. Anyways, I can go here five times a week for morning coffee and spend less than I did stopping in most other places twice a week.

cup of coffee in Bella's Garage. Chairs too.

If you look closely at the cup, you can tell I am only slightly capable of feeding myself.

The icing on the cake? The wireless service is dodgy, and by “is dodgy” I mean “has yet to actually work in my three visits.” While this may be a red flag to most folks, to me, it means I might actually get something productive done.

Bella’s Garage: a place where the prices are low, comfort level is high, and the wifi is fubar. I think I’ve found a new home.

***4/23 Update***

I think it’s only fair of me to point out that the wireless has worked for the last two days I’ve been there. I’m not changing my marketing slogan, though. That’s poetic gold.