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! 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.


Being the coffee shop junkie/loiterer/aficionado that I am, I’m way overdue for one of these silly lists. The nice part was that it was actually pretty easy. Before delving in, it’s important to consider that I’m not a coffee connoisseur. My list speaks more to aesthetics and overall experience than the actual quality of your cup o’ joe. Secondly, I’m biased toward places that break the mold. There are dozens of great coffee crashes all over Portland, but I give precedence to the places that have something more to offer than the standard. There are too many coffee shops in this area that seem to be all cut from the same mold, as if Stumptown were making mandatory design stipulations for the retailers that brew their coffee. My list honors those that serve up an experience going beyond caffeine and pastries. What else you got?

Anyways, *ahem*. Should you find yourself in Portland, my top five recommendations for places to hang out and drink coffee are as follows:

5. Southeast Grind (1223 SE Powell blvd)

I’ve talked about them before, and I really don’t have to say much beyond “they’re Portland’s only 24 hour coffee shop” to justify their inclusion. They’re double-espresso only, so they certainly take themselves seriously. They’ve also got plenty of seating (couch, table, or stool) and some pretty hip old-school PCs with behemoth monitors. You’d think that Portland would have more 24-hour coffee shops, but if they’re drinking coffee at midnight, then they’re not drinking microbrew, and we certainly can’t have that. If only they sold books, then they’d be higher on this list than…

4. The Fresh Pot (3729 SE Hawthorne blvd)
Fresh Pot on Urbanspoon

Now, before you say it: Yes, you could always go to the ginormous Powell’s in downtown PDX with the ginormous cafe inside of it. Well, you know what? If I want a copy of the UK special box set of The Gum Thief, I’ll drive downtown to that book metropolis and get it (which I did). In the meantime, I’ll relish the cuisine (like, donuts, or something), comfort (wooden furniture), and caffeine found at the Fresh Pot. Being conjoined to mini-Powell’s Books, it can be hard to find a seat in the cafe, and I’m sure it hasn’t gotten any easier with the opening of the New Seasons market nearby, but it’s one of the more complete cafe experiences you can ask for. It’s also open late (10pm Mon-Thurs, 11pm Fri & Sat, 9pm Sun), and, as I’ve already mentioned, that’s rare around here. Whenever I go there, however, I really wish I was at…

3. Guapo Comics and Coffee (6350 SE Foster Road)
Guapo Comics and Coffee on Urbanspoon

Take the best elements of Fresh Pot on Hawthorne (graphic novel section of the bookstore and a coffee shop), multiply the comics by 10, subtract the sweet location, add some rockin’ interior decorating, and you get Guapo. Yes, I’m biased because it is essentially a comic shop and a coffee shop that have been in a transporter accident. The nice thing is, it does both well, with a good selection of comics and respectable menu options for coffee and food–which actually includes dinner-ish options. The bad thing is, you’ve got to sojourn all the way to Southeast Portland to get there. I ain’t complainin’, but I regret that I don’t get there as often as I get to…

2. Elevated Coffee (5261 NE MLK Jr.  Blvd.)

The waffles are great, the service is great, the coffee is great, and the interior is gorgeous. Computers for the laptop challenged and a white baby grand piano for the musically inclined. Lot’s of options, but the Honey Latte is especially tasty. It’s location also makes it easy for me to drop into. MLK blvd. is a slower alternative to I-5, but at rush hour it’s actually preferred. On top of it all, you might even catch some live music on the weekend. In fact, the place is so great I’m surprised I didn’t find it in…

1. Vancouver, WA

Located due north of Portland, on the other side of the Columbia River “fence” lies Portland’s wacky neighbor, ‘da Couve. Compass Coffee, Java House, Mon Ami, Paper Tiger, Rosemary Cafe, and even that Starbucks that stays open until 9:30 basically make it worth never heading south across the I-5 bridge again. Vancouver’s also got less traffic, a half dozen art galleries, an underground arts community, and even it’s own local satire column. Yes, I’m a curmudgeon for Washington and I live in the ‘Couve. Represent, yo.

Take that, SkyNet.

September 28, 2010

Sweet Cream Cafe sign

Sweet Cream Cafe: No Robots Allowed

If you recall, a few weeks back I gave Starbucks a vicious tongue-lashing for having the gall to offer-free internet when they’ve been ballsy enough to make folks pay for it for years. Only days ago I came across an establishment that can claim to be even ballsier than Starbucks once was.

Now, let it be known that I’ve never actually purchased any food or drink from Sweet Cream Café. I saw the cute little no computers decal on the door and realized that not only would I be unable to check my email, but I couldn’t even remove my computer from its bag. I stepped in and double checked with the owner who kindly but sternly echoed the sentiment on the door. “No computers.” I sheepishly placed a hand over my computer bag, backed out of the door and muttered something about a phone call. One thought and one thought only immediately came to mind:

Awesome. Just plain awesome.

I did not for a second (Okay, okay. That’s a lie. I did for about two seconds) think ill of the establishment for banning my most beloved non-wife companion from their place of business. After all, this is a place for food, drink, chattin, and chillaxin’. None of that millennial twitterin’ or myspacin’ , or facebookin’ or whatever other porn-related nonsense goes on in that decadent digital world. If you want to be welcome in the Sweet Cream Café, you must be a peripheral-free human. No add-ons.

Our world doesn’t need more spineless corporate giants disgracing themselves by handing out free internet as if to say, “We’re not so bad. Here’s some internet!” With one sticker on the door, Sweet Cream Café says, “Internet? You don’t even bring your computer in here, let alone the internet.”

Go to Sweet Cream Café, order some food (but not coffee, because the web reviews haven’t been good on that front), and…um…read a book or something.

Not only has Reo’s Coffee and Hot Dog Emporium opened up next to Pop Culture (which specializes in sodas and hot dogs) but they’re close enough to Mon Ami—the popular community coffee stop—that I could fetch creamer from there before my coffee from Reo’s gets cold. Yes, there’s also Dulin’s Coffee and Espresso, Starbucks, Paradise Café, and Rosemary Café also within comfortable walking distance on Main Street, but to my knowledge none of them sell hot dogs .

A coffee and a hot dog.

Yeah, I forgot to take the picture before eating half the hot dog. I nearly lost a finger getting it away from me.

Coffee and hot dogs. In the immortal words of The Little Prince, “what a queer idea.” Well, not really. According to a quick google search, apparently New York and Boston are all about the hot dog and coffee thing. In my experience, if you take the word “coffee” in the Northwest yellow pages and replace it with “hot dog” you pretty much get New York City. There’s nothing really clashing about coffee and hot dogs, and it’s not like you can get both at either Mon Ami or Pop Culture. Reo’s has got a good spot for foot traffic, and the hot dog was actually pretty good. Perhaps they are onto something.

Like any shop just finding its legs, they aren’t quite a well-oiled machine yet, which is okay, given that they’ve only been open for five days. The staff is friendly, and like any good new business, they seem to already have plenty of friends in the area. It’s a good place to meet new people, because Reo’s is small—six tables—and everyone is in pretty close quarters. That could be good or bad, depending on whether or not you want to meet your neighbor.

Santa Cliff

Santa Cliff, in and out of costume. I asked him for a Roomba.

Well, I did happen to meet my neighbor, who happened to be Santa Claus (Santa Cliff, actually). Mrs. Claus showed me pictures of their children, one of which was a musician and actress, and that got SC and I to talking. We chatted for an hour or so and he shared stories about everything from Mexico and Willie Nelson to education and photography. For a guy with such a hectic job, he’s a pleasant man—talkative, quick with a joke, and rather jolly.

So yeah. Check out Reo’s. You may run into Santa Claus.

“You gotta’ have fun.”
-Santa Claus

Clutching my copy of A Whole New Mind, and a notepad for taking notes.

Clutching my soon-to-be-signed "A Whole New Mind," and paper for taking notes. Uber-geekage.

For centuries, reading something in printed text meant it was coming from a greater, more influential world than you inhabited. Anytime you were required to type something, it carried a certain weight. Well, in spite of the word processor, the digital revolution, and the advent of Twitter, I still have a certain degree of respect for the printed page, which is what brought me to Powell’s Books in Portland, to attend author Daniel Pink’s Portland stop on his book tour.

Entering a room of 100 or more Dan Pink fans clutching his latest book Drive and reciting Johnny Bunko’s career guide rules like mantra has a way of shattering any illusion of the personal, one-on-one connection you might think you have with the author. If I was a tick less tactful and two ticks more insane, I might have stood up and shouted “No one understands you like I do Dan! No one!” I restrained myself, since if I were to be forcibly removed from the event, how would I get my book signed?

Anyways, in spite of being visibly fatigued from being on the road, Pink brought fresh, thought-provoking insights into the deceptively tricky subject of human motivation. Like any good writer (or speaker), Pink speaks and writes with the same accessible wit, keeping his audience guessing, at times, at what angle his next point was coming from, even when devoted readers already knew the punch line. He kept the attendees involved, sometimes through participatory demonstration and other times by Socratic method, which humorously failed more often than not.

Me and Dan Pink

"Proof of human interaction," as Dan put it.

Having never attended a book tour session before, I discovered it has a way of adding an additional living, breathing dimension to the already fulfilling experience of reading a book cover-to-cover. There’s also a unique energy present when you put get together a group of people who share the same passion—or just interest—in the same subject. It’s a rewarding experience, particularly when you have the opportunity to ask the author of a book on human motivation “what motivates you?”

So yes, top 10 Dan Pink out-of-context quotes from the event:

10. “Ok, I’m deciding to abandon the Socratic method…”
9. “Let me say one word about open source: it’s weird.”
8. “Cut. Fade out.”
7. “Businesses treat people like horses that are slower, better smelling, and a little smaller.”
6. “Vermont: the Oregon of the East.”
5. “Buying Cheetos should not be a moral position.”
4. “Grits!”
3. “I’m pretty sure that’s how we are out-of-the-box. When the product ships, that’s the default setting.”
2. “With 100% turnover, people are like light bulbs. Ooh, one burned out. Lets take a new one and screw it!”
1. “Julio, are you a professional musician?…Yes?…Okay, someone else.”

"Wild" Snuggie

The iPhone, the Large Hadron Collider, the Snuggie. We've truly arrived as a species.

In my book, Douglas Coupland’s latest novel Generation A will go with the similarly dystopian Girlfriend in a Coma and the infamous jPod in my “Why Doug, why?” category. Generation A drank deeply from the Vonnegut well, to the point of quoting Vonnegut in the epigraph and even pulling the title from the quote. Now I love Vonnegut as much as the next guy, but the next guy happens to be the leader of the “Why Kurt, why?” fan club. No, no, I won’t whine and cry and demand that Doug write novels to cater to my whimsical demands, but I will say that Doug is 0/2 for re-hashing his old novels–Generation X is better than Generation A, and Microserfs is better than jPod. The Gum Thief, by the way, was balls-to-the-wall awesome.

I love you Doug. I will buy your next novel without thinking. Be my friend?

The graphic novel section of Barnes & Noble.

Loitering in the graphic novel section on Christmas Eve. Geez, it's like I'm twenty-five again.

I also gifted myself with two of the three books of the Marvel Ultimatum series on Christmas Eve. Shockingly violent, but entertaining enough for me to read one in Barnes & Noble, buy the second, read the second while eating a gyro, return to Barnes & Noble, and buy the third. It seemed deliciously Coupland-esque to see plot being moved forward by gore, tragedy, and homicide. Who doesn’t want to see Dr. Strange constricted until his head turns a gruesome beet purple and explodes? Well…most most don’t, since the series was almost universally s**t on by critics. Well, Generation A was nominated for The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Girlfriend in a Coma is considered by critics to be one Coupland’s strongest novels to date, so what do I know?

I had hoped to be reporting on The Blend Juice and Java, but it appears that they’ve gone the way of the dodo. *Sigh* So it goes.

Anyways, Merry Christmas all.

Craig: Isn’t it weird that Hotmail accounts still exist?
Bev: It really is.

Ugly Mug at the Counter

Have I seen this place before?

I chilled in the cleverly named Ugly Mug before a lax Wednesday night gig at Burdigala Wines. In spite of their following the PDX coffee shop paradigm to a tee (chalkboard menu, Stumptown coffee, secondhand furniture, local artwork, microbrew, kooky color scheme, free Wi-Fi, vegan menu, *yaaaaaaawwwwn*), I had a pleasant stay. I was there for nearly two hours and didn’t see one Mac (well, except mine). They are nice enough to provide power strips for laptop users, which, in my experience, is a sign of cafempathy. They did get into the spirit of the season with a community diorama auction, with proceeds going to a local charity. In this season, and particularly in this day and age, it’s nice to little snatches of humanity as we gradually lose touch with physical community. Of course, it’s also difficult to build a diorama as a Facebook group.

Diaramas on the wall.

Dioramas: because anything that ends in "o rama" must be awesome.

As I sit back and proofread my latest stroll through blogsville, I realize two things. First, I need to stop making up words and use a thesaurus. Secondly, it doesn’t take a college level of critical analysis to realize that my “reviews” are short on criticism and long on complain-ism. This would trouble me more if it weren’t for the fact that this is a blog, which is essentially a web surfer’s license to rant. I recently read William Deresiewicz’ article “Faux Friendship,” which examines the new phenomenon of the social network “friend.” While I do not necessarily fall in line with Deresiewicz’ nostalgia for old world friendship, his article confronts one of the most common misconceptions about the world of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 does not foster collaboration, it fosters self-obsession with collaboration and correspondence as mere byproducts.

Douglas Coupland's new book: Generation A

Hm, I think I think this post got derailed a bit. Look, a new Coupland book!

As a Facebook “user” with my privacy settings set to ultra-paranoid, it’s been some time since I’ve actually logged in and participated in any real facility. The heyday of my Facebook activity was when I was actually having face-to-face contact with most of the people I was “friended” with (to differentiate from “friends with”). I’ve found that my Facebook interactions merely reflect my actual interactions, in the sense that the only people I send messages to are people I would otherwise be communicating with personally. What is sad is that if it weren’t for the convenience of Facebook, email, or text messages, I might actually be calling them.

Coffee & cake at the Ugly Mug

Coffee & cake at the Ugly Mug

Unfortunately, the issue of self-obsession goes far beyond our social networking habits. Now Google and Yahoo are returning Twitter and MySpace feeds as search results, under the guise of “real-time” search. I’m reminded of an in-class exercise in which students dissected the Google privacy policy, uncovering the not-so-subtle way that the information age  erodes privacy standards under the guise of “improving service.” I don’t believe search engines are out to get us, we’re out to get ourselves, literally. Real-time search gives our information age data-diet what it’s been craving the most—a healthy dose of “us.”

Of course, I could make the same excuse for self-obsession that I made for friendship. As the world changes, it’s no stretch that the words that describe it would change along with it. Perhaps “selfishness” needs redefinition. How about selffriendness?

“…instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.”