The Portland-NY coffee connection (and love affair, apparently)

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This past week, Portlandia filmed outside my office, Willamette Week featured an article on how Brooklyn wants to be like Portland, and a reader from Philly left a comment on my blog looking for a Portland coffeehouse he and his wife visited more than a decade ago.

All this, at the same time I was drafting a review of NY coffeehouse RBCNYC from a recent trip back East and my flight back with two forty-something Portlandia tourists. Serendipity or just coincidence, I love when that happens.

First, a quick story on my fellow travelers. During this year’s tragic tornado season, what should have been a routine flight from La Guardia to PDX turned into a 17-hour journey to get home. Like many other travelers heading West, it took hours to get out of NY, only to be foiled again in Chicago. At the gate, I sat next to a down-to-earth couple about my age, whom I decided by their clothes and look were from Portland. Thus, I was surprised when the wife turned to me and asked: Are you from Portland?…and told me she and her husband were from New Jersey.

They were on the first trip away from the kids for a long weekend in Portland. Huge Decemberist fans (and more recently, Portlandia), they had dreamed of visiting Portland for years and proudly shared their planned itinerary, which included a show at the Doug Fir, nights at both the Kennedy School and Ace Hotel, a walk through the Alberta Street Fair and dinner at Paleys, where they hoped to find out the origins (and possibly name) of their free-range chicken.

I offered some suggestions for coffee (Ristretto) and pie (Random Order), and mentioned my visit the day before to RBCNYC in the heart of Wall Street, where one of the roasts they were serving was none other thanPortland’s Heart Coffee.

Where’s that, they asked? Granted, if you don’t work in downtown Manhattan, RBC’s a little out of the way. But since the husband of the Portlandia couple did work a couple blocks away from the RBC shop at71 Worth Street, I gave him the scoop, possibly inspiring a new customer of the independent coffeehouse for a Portland coffee fix.

Notes on RBCNYC…

Location: I was referred to RBC on the recommendation of Project Latte, a social media project mapping the independent cafes of NY. The folks at Project Latte actually first suggested I head to Brooklyn (how ironic!), but I was short on time and wasn’t able to venture out of Manhattan, so they kindly referred me to RBC on Worth Street in downtown. In the evening, when I stopped by, the area was totally dead and void of the hustle and bustle of Wall Street. But RBC stays open, perhaps for the law students from the school just around the corner or the other lone customer I saw, a young guy in a suit with a book and calculator.

Coffee: Like PDX’s own Barista, RBCNYC serves up a variety of other independently roasted coffees from around the U.S. What a fun surprise to walk in and see Portland’s Heart Coffee as the day’s “guest espresso,” complete with a chalkboard-written recommendation to try Heart’s “Wallego” without milk. Since I actually do prefer milk with my espresso, I ordered San Francisco-based Ritual’s “Spring Break” blend. It was tangy and slightly acidic, but a nice pick-me-up to combat my jetlag. Other coffees on offer that day included Barismo from Massachusetts and Klatch from California.

Cool stuff: RBC is tucked into a small space in what appears to be an old bank building. Exposed, dusty brick walls and metal imprinted ceilings combine with modern wood furniture and accents. Hip-hop music and young hipster baristas counter the stuffiness of Wall Street.

Not so cool: It’s possible to almost miss RBCNYC as it inhabits a desolate block marked by imposing columns.

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A quest for coffee in the City of Angels

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As an occasional business traveler, I’m used to visiting places like Chicago, Boston and DC, where Dunkin’ Donuts or the airport Starbucks are the only coffee options around. But I expected more – much more, really – from a recent spring break jaunt to Los Angeles. After all, they’re part of the same coast where some of the best independent roasters are located, and the home to LA-based coffee-maker Intelligentsia, which you can try out at our own Barista PDX.

Alas, the search for coffee was as long and tedious as driving through traffic on Santa Monica or Sepulveda Boulevards. In fact, on our way from a gorgeous Sunday afternoon hike in Griffith Park to the Burbank Airport on the other side of the mountain, plans for a pre-flight coffee went completely awry. There was simply none to be had of the independent coffee variety, even in the up-and-coming NoHo district or the 1960s-era Burbank main street. We couldn’t even find the Coffee Bean chain that seems to have a claim on LA boulevards.

What we did find during our stay near the beach enclave of Venice was both curious and vaguely Portland-esque. My impressions follow:

  • Groundwork Coffee Company – Billed as “LA’s largest organic coffee roaster,” Groundwork was the first independent-looking coffee roaster we saw during our stay, so we were excited to give it a try at the Rose Avenue and 7th location. Housed inside what was possibly an old feed store by the look of the white-washed beams up high and concrete flooring, the organically grown coffee was good, but the service was slow and some, though not all, of the clientele hanging about appeared to be surfers who have seen better days (or decades).
  • Abbot’s Habit – On a busy corner along the hip Abbot-Kinney street, Abbot’s Habit served one of the best Macchiatos (espresso shot with foamed milk) I’ve ever had. Not one bit bitter or strong, it was smooth and velvety with a hint of chocolate. What was mind-boggling was the barista didn’t immediately know who the roaster was when I asked. At first he told me it was an Ethiopian roast, but when I inquired further about who cooked up this delightful bean, he had to think and then said, Volcano. If anyone knows of a Volcano coffee roaster from California, let me know. The only one I’ve found online is from New Zealand and Africa.
  • Intelligentsia – we had just discovered Abbot’s Habit when we stumbled upon Intelligentsia down the street, whose brand I actually recognized from Barista in Portland, but the long line was enough to say: these people know good coffee when they taste it, and they’ll stand in line for a half hour to get it. After four days of searching for good, independent coffee, we understood why Intelligentsia on Abbot-Kinney was so crowded.
  • Venice Grind – on our last morning in the City of Angels, I could have sworn we were in Portland. It was dumping rain and black outside, and we hurried into the first coffeehouse whose beacon caught our eye through the rain-swept windshield. How apropos that the Venice Grind is a Stumptown shop. Without the skate boards hanging on the wall and the skate/surf art style, we could have sworn we were back home. Friendly folks and well-brewed Stumptown Hairbender prepared us for our return to the City of Roses.

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Rain, Stumptown Coffee…in Los Angeles?