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.

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.

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.

The interior of Thatcher's Coffee

The soundstage where Thatcher's Coffee is filmed. I'm in the studio audience.

Thatcher's Coffee on UrbanspoonKudos to Thatcher’s Coffee who followed up the unspectacular chai from my first visit with a vanilla honey soy latte (hint: light syrup)  that rocked my socks so hard I was able to look past the fact that the place made me feel like I was being served from a Bed, Bath, and Beyond gift registry. Even their chalkboard menu was pristine. For all the jars, mugs, cookbooks, cookie-alchemy machines, and such, I would have expected to see a larger display of baked goods. Also in spite of the cubic half-acre of space Thatcher’s gives its customers, it still seemed as if the employees had sufficient space for a raquetball court behind the counter.

Can a coffee shop be too nice looking? All I can say is if Thatcher’s were a person, it would be better looking than its employees (who are all reasonably handsome people) and patrons (or, at least me). That doesn’t seem like it should matter, but the polish of their interior design leaves me walking away wanting more. Martha Stewart should be making me lemon bars and pacifying me with her soothing voice. Rachel Ray should be ringing up my order with that insane grin of hers. Giada de Laurentis should be measuring espresso shots as I’m hypnotized by her gratuitously excessive face size.

I’m not sure what I’m talking about anymore. So here’s Martha Stewart and Conan O’Brien in Thatcher’s Coffee.

Compass Coffee Exterior

Is anyone else surprised that white plastic lawn chairs have survived consumer product natural selection as long as they have?

In the last couple weeks I’ve visited two coffee crashes that were among the first I landed in when I first moved to this area. Compass Coffee on Main St. in Vancouver and Common Grounds on Hawthorne in Portland both casually and humbly occupy their spaces only blocks away from their higher-traffic neighbors (Mon Ami and The Fresh Pot, respectively). Both are reliable and comfy, with no fuss and all the essentials. They are well-dressed coffee-drinking spaces with tables, chairs, board games, wi-fi (duh), and a great selection.

What’s funny is while I visited these spaces several weeks ago, I didn’t really think of them until I found myself sipping chai drink on a late evening in Starbucks. I wanted so badly to be anyplace than this generic coffee pit. That then got me thinking: how could I love Compass Coffee and Common Grounds for really looking like coffee shops while bemoaning every Starbucks, Tully’s and Peet’s for looking the same?

Easy. (Hint: skip to the last sentence of this post. You really don’t want to read this.)

cup of coffee at Common Grounds

I have a picture of the Common Grounds interior, but my shoulder is in it.

In my experience, art consistently follows one rule:

Art establishes an expectation, and creates conflict by either going with or against that expectation.

Good art follows an additional rule:

A work of art presents a series of elements which must, in the end, find a balance to create satisfaction.

Whether it’s charcoal paintings, an independent film, a break dance routine, a haiku, a lego sculpture, or a classical symphony, all are essentially (and subjectively) judged by these standards. It’s what keeps art interesting, it’s what keeps life interesting, and it’s what keeps me searching for new coffee shops and bookstores.

Drip coffee at Compass Coffee

More Compass. I know I'm being unfair to Common Grounds, but seriously, my shoulder is in the other picture.

I can count on walking into a Starbucks in Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Toledo, New York, and North Carolina and ending up in the exact same place getting served the exact same drink with the exact same options with the exact same ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s that same notion that allows us to continually enjoy pop music, and sitcoms, and breakfast cereal. Unfortunately, while there may be balance in consistency, there’s none in predictability.

It’s like hearing a new artist cover a song you’ve heard a hundred times before. It gives you something you’ve experienced countless times before, for the first time. Of course, isn’t visiting the same indie shop ten dozen times the same as visiting the same Starbucks ten dozen times? No. I go to Compass Coffee, and I know that I’m at 304 Main Street, Vancouver, WA. I drop in Common Grounds Coffeehouse and I know I’m on Hawthorne boulevard. I go to Starbucks, or McDonald’s, or Target, or Best Buy, and I’m in all of them from Seattle to St. Petersburg. I’m everywhere, but more accurately nowhere.

In short: Vancouver needs another coffee shop that stays open until 9:30pm.

"Keep Smiling"

In any other coffee shop, I'd probably roll my eyes and scowl. Here, I kind of shake my head and smirk.

Java House on Urbanspoon“Service with a smile.” Sadly, it’s one of those business adages that’s so overstated we’ve learned to ignore it from seeing it so many times. You know, kind of like “employees must wash hands.” Ideally, both should be common practice, but the difference is that while the latter is practical, the former is meaningful…if you mean it.

I won’t beat around the bush here. You want service with a smile? Go to Java House. I’ve dropped in no more than a half-dozen times over the last couple years, and I’ve gotten quite possibly the cheeriest service I’ve seen anywhere in the greater Columbia area. There’s no gimmick or secret here, they’re just nice people that know good service. Actually, there’s no reason for them not to know good service. They’ve been camped out on the corner of Evergreen and Columbia since 1990. Indeed, they’ve been serving up espresso longer than many Americans have been drinking it. Rumor also has it that this is the place to chill if you’d like to run into some of our local legislators, since Java House is in the heart of downtown.

Outdoorsy indoors.

All the fun of the outdoors...indoors!

Now, if you aren’t necessarily looking keep your finger on the pulse of the Vancouver business-suit scene, there are plenty of other reasons to go there. They’re a corner shop, which means a lot of window seats, which I’m a fan of. The decor rocks this kind of outdoorsy-indoor look, which makes me want to waste much of my life there (if they put down more electric outlets and upgraded their wireless bandwidth). The outdoorsy motif bleeds over into the adjacent to the Art On the Boulevard Arts Gallery, a cool little indoor villa complete with fountain, cobblestone floor, sculpture, and even tables and chairs. It’s probably one of the more relaxing places in Vancouver to do work actually.

So if I love the place so much, why am I not there all the time? I’m not there more often merely because it’s not close enough for me to walk to (Mon Ami win), they don’t serve the best-tasting coffee in Vancouver (Paper Tiger win), they close too early for me to loiter after work (Starbucks on Hazel Dell win), their wireless is pretty dodgy (Tully’s on 78th win), and they don’t serve food (Rosemary Cafe win). Of course, if they’ve got the mayor going there on a regular basis, so I can’t imagine they’re losing sleep over missing my regular patronage.

“…Orange Mocha Frappuccino!!!”

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