Nothing watered-down about Water Avenue Coffee

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As a regular coffee drinker and blogger of Portland’s independent coffee scene, I tend to be open to many different roasters around town and usually have a different bag of beans in my cupboard every week or so. But I recently began to develop some favoritism for Water Avenue’s “El Toro” espresso blend — silky, with hints of dark chocolate but no bitterness, just rich coffee-ness. It’s just how I like my espresso but is a flavor that sometimes is a little hard to consistently find.

It took me awhile to actually try Water Avenue Coffee. Sure, I saw the beans for sale at my local Whole Foods store, but I like to actually try a new coffee at the roaster itself or preferred café.

Notes on Water Avenue

The first time I ventured into the coffee shop/roastery, I was chaperoning a third-grade field trip to research Portland’s bridges along the Eastside Esplanade. While the class stopped under the I-5 bridge to eat sandwiches amidst the pigeons and nearby homeless encampment, another mom and I ran a couple blocks to the bright yellow industrial building with the large “Water Avenue Coffee” sign for a cup of coffee to warm our bones.

Location: Located on, of course, Water Avenue (1028 SE Water Avenue to be exact) in a renovated warehouse that now rents to creatives and yogis, Water Avenue Coffee is an inviting destination in the up-and-coming Eastside industrial neighborhood.

Coffee: That first Americano warmed, woke up and did all the right things for a field trip chaperone walking under the bridges with 33 third-graders. I’ve been back three times since and Water Avenue Coffee continues to never disappoint. As I said, I’m a fan of the El Toro, which a very nice barista recommended, and this year I began to buy the beans at the more conveniently located grocery store. My coffee-drinking other half agrees that Water Avenue’s got a good blend going and is currently our favorite at-home coffee.

Cool stuff:Water Avenue is the real deal. From the outside, they may appear to be a hot, indie coffee roaster with bearded and eye-glassed baristas who look like extras from Portlandia, but Water Avenue Coffee actually has an authentic, down-to-earth vibe, eclectic clientele (from grandparents to truck drivers) and clutter behind the counter. And the coffee’s just damn good, whether espresso, pour-over or cold-pressed.

Not so cool: As I’ve said about others before, location, location. While the digs are cool, if you don’t work in that area or happen to make a detour from MLK or get off I-5 at the Water Avenue exit, Water Avenue Coffee is not the most convenient place to get to. But it is worth a trip, if you’re in the neighborhood, for the coffee.

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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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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.

“Portlandia” pokes fun at all things Portland

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“Portlandia,” the six-part mockumentary of our quirky city is yet a mere month away from debuting on cable (Jan. 21, 2011), and the PR is heating up. Portlanders are talking, anxiously awaiting — and already laughing — about the show by Carrie Brownstein, former Sleater-Kinney guitarist (and one-time trainer to my dog at Happy Go Lucky — I’ve got her autograph on my dog’s certificate to prove it), and SNL’s Fred Armisen.

Of course, if you’re making fun of Portland, you can’t let a joke about coffee go by. In the Portlandia trailer/music video on IFC, the cast sing and talk about Portland, where “young people go to retire” and “work at a coffee shop a couple hours a week,” “tattoo ink never runs dry” and “hot girls wear glasses.” OregonLive.com reported in early December that to promote the show, potential reviewers were sent bags of Stumptown Hair Bender as pre-show swag and symbol of this town.

A summary of the six episodes online doesn’t appear to involve any local cafes. But if Brownstein and Armisen continue their Portlandia creative endeavor, here’s hoping a future episode might take place in one of our many great Portlandia-esque cafes, such as Stumptown on Belmont, Fresh Pot on Mississippi or Random Order on Alberta.