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.

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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.

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.

Coopers Coffee

Cooper's Coffee: Stylin' up Stark St.

If you haven’t noticed, I don’t review coffee here. That’s not my forte, and that explains why I use terms like “rocked my socks” and “crappy” to describe the coffee itself. It also explains why I don’t have caffeine headaches. If I really cared about caffeine, then I would just make instant coffee and never spend money. If I really cared about coffee, then I’d probably just go to Compass Coffee and the Paper Tiger. Yeah, it ain’t the coffee of or the caffeine. I’m after the third “C:” chillaxin‘.

Cooper's Coffee on Urbanspoon
Finding a great place to loiter isn’t easy, as certain characteristics  set some establishments apart from the non loiter-friendly crashes. Most notably, the open past 9pm standard. This brings us to Cooper’s Coffee. While they aren’t open 24 hours (Southeast Grind is still the only one I’ve come across in PDX or the Couve), I dig that I was able to drop in at 8:15 to snag a honey soy latte before a 9:30 performance at Biddy McGraw’s around the corner. Cooper’s is nothing special, but they’re plenty accommodating. They’ve got all the standards–wifi, pastries, sandwiches–with a couple extras tossed in, such as beer on tap and a washer & dryer in the restroom. Sure, it’s not for customer use (to my knowledge), but it’s a nice aesthetic touch.

Spunky Monkey's on Urbanspoon

I recently put out my top five Portland coffee shop list which listed Vancouver, WA as number one. Well, I believe Despair Inc. puts it best:

“It hurts to admit when you make mistakes – but when they’re big enough, the pain only lasts a second.”

I’ve bemoaned more than a few Portland coffee shops for being achingly predictable in their attempt to, well, really look like Portland coffee shops. This plague of uniformity means that dozens of independent cafe all seem to have been cut from the same “edgy” (my God I hate that word) bohemian mold. Really, what’s the point of being “indie” if you’re just going to look like everyone else?

The exterior of Spunky Monkey.

It's funny. My mom always told me not to trust purple things.

It reminds me of a situation I found myself in a few years back, when I was faced with the not-so-uncommon challenge of coming up with a last-minute Halloween costume. While I did not have a lot of options available to me, I grabbed some black clothes, black nail polish, and black eyeliner and decided I could go as a poser. It actually went over pretty well, but I recall asking a classmate who was heavily into punk culture if I could borrow perhaps a studded bracelet, spiked collar, or other prototypical punk poser items. Unsurprisingly, she was unable to help because, not being a poser, she didn’t own any of those items.

The decidedly un-poser Spunky Monkey was recommended to me by one of its employees, whom I’ve never actually seen working there in my half-dozen visits. In short: the place is effortlessly eclectic and undeniably awesome. I’ve actually been wanting write about Spunky Monkey for about a month now (not coincidentally, I haven’t posted in about a month), but it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one. Giving good reviews is not only difficult, it’s boring, so don’t expect me to make a habit of this.

Table in the shape of a door.

Who wouldn't want to sit there? Your table is a door!

Their design motif goes beyond “quirky” and quite literally into “found object.” Tables appear to be cast from halves of doors suspended from the ceiling, and the benches aren’t bolted down, so don’t let that take you by surprise. The menu transcends the chalkboard and is pretty much written everywhere. Functionally, intimate space gives easy-access to power outlets and secure (novel idea these days) wireless. The place isn’t big, but manages to be comfortable without being comfy, if that even makes sense. With seats within striking normal speaking distance of the counter, if you’re a Spunky Monkey barista, you’d best be ready for small talk.

Following my recent temperance rant, it was nice to know that such a thing still exists. Their menu drops down into 5oz drinks, the mochas don’t feel obliged beat you over the head with flavor, and their food selection offers organic meat, veggie, and vegan selections, without making a big deal of it. It’s silly, but I’m getting sick of giant signs that say “ZOMG! VEGAN!”  That said, the Basic Barbarian” bagel sandwich–bagel or no bagel, breakfast or lunch–is just one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever had, period.

Lastly, Spunky Monkey encourages local music by keeping a steady stream of local music through the sound system. That single gesture in itself should be sufficient, but they take it one step further by granting any musician who brings in their original music ten free coffees ($1.25 value per free item). I was pleasantly surprised when the staff complimented my contributions on a later visit, which shows that our stuff isn’t being just hurled into the void.

Heck, being here for a half hour made me temporarily forget about my laundry list of issues which included a morning traffic court appearance, a chronic headache, mentally taxing (no pun intended) accounting snafus, and laundry. Now that is a coffee experience.

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.

Sahagun on Urbanspoon
The undertone of all advertising and marketing is that we’ve got waaaaay too much stuff, and as a society we’ve long since abandoned practical need as the primary motivator for acquiring stuff. It’s largely that reason that advertising has become as so exceedingly absurd. For example, the only possible reason a company like CocaCola needs to continue their aggressive advertising campaign is so  no one stops and asks what the heck cola actually is. They have one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, yet they spend millions on advertising. Chances are, their product is killing you.

Chocololate display at Sahagun

Can you feel the choco-love?

The opposite is true with Sahagun in downtown Portland. An establishment can’t have that big of a reputation and be that small, in that location and not have something special to offer. Now I haven’t liked chocolate since a minor bout with cavities ruined it for me when I was 12, but I’ve never stopped appreciating it being done well. While the Sahagun specialty is chocolate, I was curious if my pro-coffee-anti-supersweet M.O. would dampen my experience. Much to my surprise and delight, both my desire for a non-sweet drink (cocoa latte) and my fiancee’s need for some endorphin-engaging hot chocolate were both satisfied. Having tried their cocoa latte and a sip of their hot chocolate, the mocha can’t possibly be anything less than phenomenal.

Cocoa latte

The cocoa-latte: it ain't sweet, but I love it anyway.

If you like chocolate then you will want to live in Sahagun Chocolates. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough room. There’s just enough room for owner  and primary chocolateer Elizabeth Montes to perform her chocolate alchemy, but not much more.  Accommodations be damned, good chocolate is good chocolate. In the couple minutes we spent fumbling together our orders, a line of about six slowly built itself and extended out the door. Considering the size of the place, that’s not saying much, but it’s just another indication that Montes serves up something special (check out her story here).

You would think that a coffee shop loiterer like myself would be turned off by an establishment with only four seats. Of course, I am a fan of window seats, so, in theory, I’ve found an establishment with only window seats. You can’t beat that.