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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Stumptown, Coava and Midnight Fuel

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Things have been a little quiet on the Coffeepad front, but not for lack of coffee. If anything, Portland coffee has been making news this month and I have been downing the stuff to get through a summer graduate course while holding down a full-time day job.

First, the news. Stumptown Coffee has sold a majority of its company (90%, according to Willamette Week) to a San Franciso-based investment firm. A barista at my favorite Stumptown shop on SE Belmont assured me the company is still a Portland company, and the move will allow Stumptown to expand to other cities, like Chicago. What it means for Portland? Probably nothing for coffee drinkers who don’t care if their coffee roaster is independent and locally owned. Luckily, for those who do, there are plenty of other options – for which we have Stumptown to thank for blazing the trail starting 12 years ago.

In other news, Coava Coffee, the hot trend-setter in the pour-over coffee movement, has launched a new and improved metal filter – the Kone 2nd Generation – for glass Chemex drip coffee pots, and the reviews have been great. Check out the review on Gizmodo, which calls the new version “a more magical metal Kone for brewing coffee.” Good thing I held off on buying my own Kone filter recently — new model, here we come.

In the meantime, as coffee has fueled some late night studies recently, I’ve conducted a bit of a home-brewed taste test with: Courier, Ristretto, Heart and Caffe Vita. Right now, Courier is in the lead for a nice-tasting, smooth-with-just-a-touch-of tang after-dinner espresso.

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?

From behind the counter of Coffee Plant

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One of my favorite cafes, Coffee Plant, recently closed its doors in downtown and John’s Landing. Here’s an interview with Coffee Plant’s founder, Mike Miller, and a glimpse behind the counter of an independent coffee shop.

Q: Not a lot of small, independent coffee shops have slogans or marketing campaigns. Tell us how “Fighting Corporate Coffee” came about and what it meant for Coffee Plant?

A:  At the time we opened in downtown, we were surrounded by large chain coffeeshops, which ultimately were purchased by one another in the last eight years.  The Plant was one of the few local places downtown that was focused on coffee, on creating a welcome environment that wasn’t sterile, and on carrying on the idea of fresh-baked pastries that our predecessor in the space, Bad Kitty Koffee had started in spring of 2003.

Q: What kind of reactions did it get from your customers and your employees?

A:  There were apparently some real estate brokers who found it too edgy initially but I’m hoping their sentiments softened if they tried our coffee or came into the shop.  Generally, I think customers appreciated that we were trying to set ourselves apart by offering things the big chains could not such as beautiful, delicious drinks and fresh-baked pastries.  Staff were good sports about participating in photo shoots and illustrations thankfully and had fun with the theme.  

Q: With Portland’s coffee scene really taking off and lots of smaller shops and roasters taking root, was “Fighting Corporate Coffee” as relevant anymore?

A:  When we put together the last “Fighting Corporate Coffee” campaign, we fulfilled an old desire of mine to have the staff illustrated as an aircrew in front of a vintage bomber.  I was psyched with what Corey Lunn had put together – it took great inspiration from postcards of that era that he was into – but I was wondering if the concept had lost its relevance.  Then, a shiny new cafe opened a couple blocks away that was postured as an independent place but was really a construct of a huge commodity-driven corporation.  To me, the campaign remains as relevant in downtown Portland now as in 2003.

Q: One of my fondest memories of Coffee Plant was the time I came in to your Corbett shop, ordered a latte, and while waiting for my coffee watched two of your baristas admire the work of art one of them had made with my milk. Before the guy handed me my cup, the girl snapped a picture of my coffee on her phone and they both high-fived. Wow. Was that a common occurrence?

A:  While everyone prides themselves on their latte art, I’m pleased that you caught that moment.  I think it’s great that the creations get documented and like a number of shops in this town, we’ve got some talented people.  I wish I would have done more of that myself.  

Q: Besides Stumptown coffee, which you sold at Coffee Plant, what are your favorite coffee shops or coffee roasters in Portland?

A:  Fresh Pot has a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons.  Tiny’s has great flavor.  Those are two favorites from beyond the Plant’s vintage.  I always get nice shots at Barista and I enjoy what’s happening at Water Avenue Coffee and Sterling/Coffeehouse Northwest.  Honestly, I don’t get out of my rut (worn between the shops for many years) much and there are a lot of places I hear good things about and want to check out.  I do like the folks who are trying to create good things without being overly gimmicky though.

Q: Final question…what is the coolest thing that ever happened at Coffee Plant during your 8 years?

A:  I wish I could relate some story about how some woman gave birth to twins during a morning rush after one of the staff had immobilized a tip thief with a day-old muffin, but the coolest thing is probably beyond an incident and more of a phenomena that happens over time.  I do feel like we amassed a pretty special group of individuals on both sides of the counter, worked with some excellent local vendors over the years, and helped stimulate the explosion in the quality of coffee and “non-traditional” baked goods.  If that sounds cheesy, I’ll come up with a good incident.

R.I.P. Coffee Plant, Long Live Fighting Corporate Coffee

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Word on the street — and Facebook — is that Coffee Plant, one of my all-time favorite Portland Stumptown shops and the creator of the Kung-fu fighting corporate coffee campaign, is closing its 5915 SW Corbett cafe in John’s Landing this Friday, March 11, and moving its gluten-free bakery to a new locale not yet announced, sans the coffee (I think).

This comes on the heels of the downtown 724 SW Washington Plant closing last December; the space was thankfully picked up by another great local coffee shop, The Fresh Pot.

Before I had time to do a review of Coffee Plant or run a Q&A with my friend and Coffee Plant proprietor, Mike Miller, it’s time to bid adieu. But, not before thanking Coffee Plant’s awesome crew for some memorable times and a creativity the patrons of Coffee Plant will never forget — from baristas snapping photos on their iPhones of the beautiful coffees they just made before serving their loyal customers to fun and offbeat marketing campaigns to savoring the shots during those early sleep-deprived parenting days to arguably the best gluten-free pastries in the city.

Stay tuned for the next chaper of the gluten-free side of the business at www.glutenfreegem.com. One can’t help but wonder if the bakery’s marketing slogan will take on the Pillsbury Dough Boy or Monsanto.

Farewell photo from the closing of downtown Coffee Plant

“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.