Coffee ice cream suddenly abounds in Northeast Portland

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When Mio Gelato closed its shop in the Irvington neighborhood of NE Portland earlier this year, my family panicked. After several years of walking or riding bikes for a cool ice cream or iced Italian coffee on hot summer nights, what would we do? Fortunately, two new ice cream shops have emerged to fill the void that Mio Gelato’s departure left — and both offer the requisite coffee-flavored ice cream.

Both Salt & Straw and Ruby Jewel Scoops have put down roots in two hot neighborhoods in Northeast – Salt & Straw on NE Alberta and Ruby Jewel on NE Mississippi. But each offers a different approach to their coffee ice cream. Of the two, Salt & Straw has become our family fave, at least in the coffee category. Here’s why.

Notes on Salt & Straw…

Location: Salt & Straw started out in a mobile ice cream cart with a red-striped awning slightly reminiscent of Farrell’s while waiting to move into their new building at 2035 NE Alberta. Since occupying their new digs late this summer, the line is often seen winding out the door of the faux-warehouse shop.

Coffee (ice cream): Salt & Straw makes some very funky flavors indeed, from brown ale with bacon to pear and blue cheese. Call me old-fashioned or new-fangled, but I like the coffee ice cream best — which they make using Stumptown cold-brewed coffee with chunks of chocolate they call “cocoa nibs.” Coffee-colored and made with organic, local dairy milk, the ice cream is smooth, save for the nibs, and has a light yet distinct coffee taste.

Cool stuff: Salt & Straw, just like its name, has an artisan, small-town dairy feel to it. Simple, white ice cream cartons are stamped by hand with the shop’s logo. Despite the rustic décor, this is not your grandfather’s ice cream parlor. Salt & Straw has embraced the 21st century, taking credit card payments through a tiny-mounted iPad cash register application.

Not so cool: Standing outside the shop in line on one of those 90-degree September days, waiting…and waiting…for a cool coffee ice cream treat.

Notes on Ruby Jewel Scoops…

Location: Ruby Jewel, originally sold at the Portland Farmer’s Market and wholesale accounts around the country, popped up a few months back with a new scoop shop at 3713 N. Mississippi Ave. and has been equally swamped as the open garage door entrance can attest.

Coffee (ice cream): Ruby Jewel’s main claim to fame is its hand-crafted ice cream sandwiches and unique, small-batch flavors. This summer, they offered a coffee-flavored ice cream that looked deliciously mocha-ish but ended up being chunky (I’m talking about the consistency of the ice cream here) and chock full of ground up coffee beans. Dry and crunchy are two words that come to mind.

Cool stuff: Ruby Jewel claims that they recycle nearly everything they make and sell, and the shop has a number of recycling bins and signage to encourage patrons to do the same. Their ingredients are also local and sustainably grown, from the hormone-free milk to local sources of lavender, honey and mint.

Not so cool: I’m willing to give Ruby Jewel some slack if their coffee ice cream is just a seasonal fad, but it was disappointing that the ice cream-ista didn’t know his source of coffee used in the ice cream and couldn’t even brew up a cup of Joe when asked, though the shop had a small coffee maker on the counter.

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Caffe Vita roasted-coffee a welcome addition on NE Alberta Street

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I was about 11 years old the first time I ventured from my native Portland north to Seattle. The 1978 King Tut exhibit at the Seattle Center was the occasion, but what remains one of my most vivid memories of the trip was the white-haired lady Sonics fan who got in my face about the Blazer pin I was wearing and her claim that Portland was the inferior city. Happily, I wasn’t scarred by the experience with the rabid fan, as much as puzzled as to why a woman in her 70s would pick on a child, and grew up to enjoy my yearly escapes to the Emerald City.

As might be expected in a coffee-swilling household, our family’s meanderings around Seattle’s neighborhoods include an inordinate amount of time in coffee shops, and a few years back, we discovered one of Seattle’s own independent coffee roasters — Caffe Vita — which we treat ourselves to now on every visit north. Of course, there are plenty of Portland roasters to fill our fair city’s cafes, and many good ones at that, but Caffe Vita’s expansion into Portland has been a welcome addition. Take that, white-haired lady.

Notes on Caffe Vita…

Location: Vita has five locations in Seattle, half of which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, one in Olympia and a new shop here in Portland on 2909 NE Alberta, which opened in the Fall of 2010 in the old Concordia Coffeehouse. If you aren’t near their branded shop further up the street, Caffe Vita is now the coffee of choice served at Random Order (1800 NE Alberta), and it goes superbly with their award-winning pies.

Coffee: Caffe Vita coffee roasts are exactly how I like them: rich, smooth, hints of varying influencing flavors and not too bitter. They offer several organic, farm direct beans and source their coffee from all over the world. I really have never had a cup of Vita coffee, in Portland, Olympia or Seattle, that I didn’t enjoy.

Cool stuff: I’m not sure if Caffe Vita’s icon is a court jester or not, but whatever it is, it lends a fun, whimsical look to the brand. To kick off the year, Caffe Vita on Alberta ran a fun little promotion called Free Coffee Fridays for a month or two. Hey, it was enough to get me over to check out the new digs and brew, and it attracted the attention of many foodie bloggers and writers in town during the campaign. Founded in 1995, Caffe Vita does a ton of really cool community partnerships, but one of the coolest projects here in Portland is Caffe Vita’s collaboration with p:ear, the homeless youth mentoring organization, to provide an 8-week course in all things “barista.” In fact, they call it the p:ear barista school.

Not so cool: The Portland cafe, while spacious and airy, could use a new couch or two. The last I looked, this orange thing from the previous Concordia shop was still taking up a corner of the shop. Maybe Caffe Vita’s 1005 E. Pike Street location in Capitol Hill can give the new Portland cafe a primer on interior design.

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Suzette Creperie and Courier Coffee, a match made in mobility

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A few months back, we stopped by Suzette Creperie in the Alberta Arts District of Northeast Portland for a Sunday afternoon crepe. And while there, we had our first taste of Portland’s own Courier Coffee. What a pairing, both in taste and mobile sensibility. Where Suzette makes its savory and sweet crepes in a silver Airstream parked behind the main cafe, Courier delivers its custom-roasted coffee to Suzette (and others) by bicycle. We’ve been back since for more crepes, more coffee and more surprises, including a fun series of movies that the creperie plays weekly along one wall of the cafe.

Notes on Suzette…

Location: It’s easy to saunter along NE Alberta and 29th Streets and nearly miss Suzette Creperie, which sits slightly back from the sidewalk at 2921 NE Alberta. Look for the French-inspired, pebble-footed garden out front and a sign pointing in the direction of the “crepes.” Suzette is open Wed-Sun and offers happy hour and weekly events, including movies like this month’s Hitchcock film fest and game nights every Wednesday.

Coffee: I had been wanting to try Courier Coffee for some time, but hadn’t been able to make it downtown to the roaster’s one and only cafe at 923 SW Oak, which is only open Mon-Fri during daytime hours. So what a pleasant surprise to order a coffee with my goatcheese-filled buckwheat crepe and discover the really nicely flavorful Courier-roasted and bike-delivered coffee. At Suzette, they painstakingly brew the coffee using the pour-over method, and in 3-4 visits it’s been a real treat. Robust and strong yet mild and delicious to the tastebuds.

Cool stuff: Suzette, named for the crepe recipe that combines carmelized sugar, butter and liquor in a burst of flame, has got an eclectic ambience that is both cozy and congenial. Order your crepe out back at the window of the Airstream, warm up inside at a table, on a stool or sit in a row of movie theater seats. The servers, including presumably owner Jehnee Rains, are friendly and attentive, obviously enjoying the joy they bring to their clientele. Eating chocolatey or cheesy crepes and watching old movies on the wall is a kick, too. Check out Suzette’s regular calendar of events here.

Not so cool: It can be a little chilly in the winter months ordering your meal outside and waiting for it to be delivered to the sometimes-drafty inside. Bring a coat and have some Courier coffee or a tea, and you’ll be just fine.

Random Order’s got attitude (and pie)

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I heart Random Order coffeehouse. I do. And here’s why. This is a coffeehouse with attitude, and it makes me laugh.

From anatomically correct sock monkeys that used to be perched on the shelf to corned bread muffins with jalapenos and bacon to the fact that you can bring a dog into the coffeehouse – as long as its little paws are not touching the floor, which would be some kind of violation. When the NY Times did a feature on how design saved this NE Portland street, it was the photo of Random Order’s brick, cornerside facade that was the poster child of funky Alberta. And, of course, there’s the pie. There are so many things to like about Random Order that coffee is lower down the list than most places we frequent.

Notes on Random Order…

Location: Random Order is at 1800 NE Alberta in the heart of the electic Alberta Arts district. Rain or shine, morning or night, this is the corner where the neighborhood gathers.

Coffee: Stumptown is the coffee served at Random Order, and they serve it strong and on the bitter side. I personally prefer a milder, Italian Roast style, but that doesn’t stop me from swilling the coffee at Random Order. It just goes down better with pie.

Cool stuff: Pie, pie and pie. I didn’t even know I liked pie so much until I had a piece at Random Order. Buttery crust, local organic flour and fruit. It’s become our staple at birthday parties, Thanksgiving and the occasional skipped dinner in favor of pie and coffee. It’s also cool that Random Order is a supporter of the Portland Fruit Tree Project, a great non-profit that harvests and shares urban fruit among the community. Other cool stuff: Random Order is obviously a beloved coffeehouse in the neighborhood. It is always buzzing with people, babies and dogs. In addition to pie, the coffeehouse offers an array of other delicious baked goods, from panini with arugula leaves and dry salami to muffins filled with local berries. And they serve cocktails, too.

Not so cool: The fact that when we discovered Random Order about four years ago, I mistook their signature red ostrich logo as a rooster and called it (mainly to myself) the Red Rooster café. The mistaken identity came out when my husband and I were making plans to meet, and I kept saying let’s meet at the Red Rooster and he was like, where? Embarrassingly random.