Feeding your wanderlust at Costello’s Travel Caffe

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If the idea of yet-another staycation’s got you down, here is one idea for getting away that won’t break the bank: Costello’s Travel Caffe in Northeast Portland. Whereas Portland’s micro-roasters and independent cafes are creating their own Northwest, artisan coffeehouse culture, Costello’s takes its cues from old Europe, invoking the scenes, the sounds, the languages and even the sports of other timezones and places. Although the name and menu are Italian-inspired, Costello’s spans the continent — and sometimes the world, too. Inside, antique lamp and dim lighting and heavy, dark wooden furniture almost give the feeling of a turn-of-the-century Viennese coffeehouse.

Notes on Costello’s Travel Caffe…

Where: Family-run Costello’s is located at 2222 NE Broadway on a happening little block of the busy street. Nestled between neighbors Eyes on Broadway and Chez Jose East, Costello’s brightens the bustling sidewalk with silver-metal patio furniture and umbrellas.

Coffee: True to its Italian roots, Costello’s serves the Italian espresso-style Umbria brand from Seattle. I’ve always considered Umbria to be a fine-restaurant-quality coffee, with a mild and decent flavor, but nothing too out there. Paired with one of Costello’s home-made pastries, it works just fine.

Cool stuff: Daily travelogue videos from cities around the world, but mostly Europe, play in a continuous loop on two, large flat-screen displays, mesmerizing cafe-goers with quaint street scenes and stirring memories of years-ago Eurrail trips across the continent. Three or four cities are featured each day, as noted on a small chalkboard. Another chalkboard (and the cafe’s events page on its website) announces schedules of foreign language conversation groups, evening showings of foreign movies and international sporting events, like the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, where spectators gather to cheer their favorite teams with fellow fans. We’ve always enjoyed Costello’s for a snack of toasted bagel, grilled cheese panini or green salad, but anyone with an aversion to carbs may find the fare a bit on the starchy side.

Not so cool: Being shushed by fellow patrons, as I and my friend Greg were when we met to catch up and found ourselves chatting amidst a group of people who had gathered to watch an old Ingmar Bergman movie.

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Where do all the coffee cups go?

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Flash-back to Father’s Day 2010…my significant other opened his gift to find…a coffee cup. But it wasn’t just any coffee cup. This one looked like a disposable, white paper coffee cup, like the kind you find at pretty much every coffee shop, chain or independent, in Portland. Yet, upon closer look, you’ll see that it’s ceramic with a rubbery lid designed to look like a disposable plastic lid. A few cafes and boutiquey stores sell them these days, including Ristretto Roasters, and most coffee shops will take 10 or more cents off your order if you use your own cup.

Flash-forward to end of 2010, and said hubby and coffee drinker estimates he saved approximately 120 paper cups using his look-alike container. Apparently, that’s 120 saved vs the 23 billion coffee cups that were thrown away in 2010, according to this rather sobering, yet colorful, chalkboard message at the Starbucks on SE Hawthorne (which I snapped over the holidays while running in to cash in a gift card to buy a sandwich for my kid). If you want to know more about what Starbucks is or isn’t doing to solve the diposable cup dilemma, I recommend this excellent, mind-numbing feature from November’s Fast Company.

My favorite reusable cup story actually happened a couple years ago on a business trip to Seattle. On my way back to Portland, I stopped at Caffe Vita, a really nice-tasting coffee out of Seattle, at their downtown Olympia store. The dread-locked guy in front of me handed the barista his glass Mason canning jar and ordered a coffee to go, while the business-woman behind me muttered, “Only in Olympia.” Or Portlandia.

Oblique Coffee Roasters takes a divergent course

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Last year, Oblique Coffee Roasters in SE Portland caught my eye as I headed down Stark. With a fun, graphical sandwich board on the street corner and an obviously renovated historical building, Oblique beckons. Another independent coffee roaster in Portland? It had to be tried.

Notes on Oblique Coffee…

Where: Located at 3039 SE Stark, at the corner of 30th and Stark, and just a couple blocks up from the crazy dancing club of my youth, The Good Foot, Oblique Coffee Roasters is housed in an 1891 Victorian mercantile that used to sell cigarettes, beer and new and used wares. In 2007, Oblique’s owners took possession of the building and turned it into a comfy neighborhood coffeehouse. The cafe describes itself amusingly as: “A super bitchin’ Victorian Coffee Mercantile with scrumtrulescent beans micro roasted in an uber German cast iron roaster named Bart!”

Coffee: Oblique serves Oblique Coffee and they roast it right inside the coffeehouse behind the counter on Bart. By definition, “oblique” means “diverging from a given straight line or course,” and I’d say that is a good way to describe this micro-roasted coffee. Oblique’s coffee is somehow earthy-tasting, without a lot of acidity or kick. I’m not sure if it’s how they brew it (French Press or Pour Over?) or how they roast the beans, but it’s a unique flavor that I haven’t tasted before and would like to try again.

Cool stuff: Old mercantile/antique feel and memorabilia (antique tins, bottles, etc.); original fir floors, events & entertainment, including piano concerts and Oregon Duck games (Oblique is staying open for the BCS Championship game Monday, Jan. 10, 2011); bright, blue-colored chairs in green, natural garden where I can’t wait to chill out with an iced coffee when the weather gets warmer.

Not so cool: Inside, the space is a little like an over-stocked mercantile, with too-close, too-large tables.