Monday, July 31, 2006

CC: Bongo Java / Fido

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Bongo Java / Fido
Location visited: Nashville, TN
Free WiFi ? :
Rating: 4+ [see key]

My weekend was spent in the lovely city of Nashville, known for its country roots, Christian music, and apparently its pancakes (Pancake Pantry is practically idol-worshipped here, but after trying a couple different dishes, I can't say I'd wait an hour for it).

But the coffeehouses here seemed numerous. My goal was to hit as many as possible, including the Frothy Monkey, Global Cafe, and a couple others. Sadly, due to the fact that everyone is closed on Sundays, I only got to two places. More oddly, the two I did visit were sister coffeehouses.

My first visit occurred after my sugar-laden breakfast at Pancake Pantry, when I was guided down the street to Fido, a fairly new cafe that sits in an old pet store (that's how it got its name). An offshoot of Bongo Java, this place serves more then just coffee. They have beer, wine, and apparently amazing food. They also have interesting policies with Wifi...

The next day, I dragged the girlfriend and my two cousins (from the mountains of PA) to find other coffeehouses. We found Bongo Java and Frothy Monkey, but due to time only went to Bongo Java. Bongo is situated across the street from Belmont University and has one of the nicest coffee house layouts I've ever seen. It's in an old house, so it has a lot of room as well as a huge front porch. The decor adds a nice artsy feel to it. I especially liked the serve-yourself, random water tap behind the counter.

Both Fido and Bongo Java's coffee were good. They roast their own coffee, the ethiopian harrar I had at Bongo being tasty and smooth. The espresso wasn't half bad either, though I can't say I was amazed. The tea was Numi and the chai I didn't spot.

Reflecting back, I wouldn't mind having a place like Bongo Java or Fido around me, as long as I didn't have to incur the heavy Tennessee heat.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Six Flags Nonsense

This topic has absolutely nothing to do with coffee, but I would just like to comment quickly on the (lack of) brains behind Six Flags Great Adventure. Having arrived at the park on Tuesday 10 AMish, we (me + girlfriend + gf's sister and fiancé) checked to see if Kingda Ka was open (which they spouted that it was) and had high hopes for good rides and lines abbreviated (it was a Tuesday).

But we encountered just the opposite. By 2 pm, we found Kingda Ka closed the whole day, waited in Superman only for it to break down before we boarded, and had basically ridden one ride (El Toro before it broke down) and had waited 2 hours to get on it. And to top it off, all but 4 coasters were offline.

Is it realistic to expect a theme park to advertise clearly which rides don't work before you waste your money on a day at a half-working theme park? Or that said rides shall be working 51 % of the time? Six Flags needs to shape up.

Good thing they gave us exit passes to appease our rage.

CC: Java Moon Cafe

What's a Coffee Commentary?
Subject: Java Moon Cafe (no website)
Location visited: Jackson, NJ
Free WiFi ? : maybe?
Rating: 2+ [see key]

UPDATE 12/17/17: Java Moon has closed down. 

This place I can say I've driven past on my way to Six Flags Great Adventure since I was a little kid (it's right between Six Flags and the outlets). When I was little, it had no appeal because it didn't look like it served anything fried or sugar-laden. When I began to drink coffee, I thought it just a place that served coffee but not a real coffeehouse (their sign advertizes meals so the mistake is easily made).

Anyways, this past winter while housesitting down the road, I decided to give it a try. Turns out they had a full coffee bar. I had dinner, which wasn't bad (a little expensive though) and had some coffee to go. The coffee/tea menu wasn't very extensive but they had the basics.

The coffee was Corim, a corporate subsidiary of a big food conglomerate. The espresso was the same. Both were good when I tried them, but after looking at the website, it doesn't sit as well (when you have 10x more flavored coffees then regular single-origins or blends, there's something askew). The tea was free-leaf, though I can't vouch for quality. The chai was powdered.

Another area with little decent coffee, Java Moon is a nice place to have around. But overall, it ranked as a child amidst giants; still room for growth.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

CC: La Colombe

What's a Coffee Commentary?

La Colombe Torrefaction
Location visited: Philadelphia, PA (19th St and about Walnut)
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key] 

  *Updated 1/10/09* 

Quite a few people in Philadelphia love and rave about La Colombe, that it saved Philly from bad coffee. Granted I've only been a conscious coffee imbider these past 6 years, so I can't vouch for the improvement. What I can vouch for is that La Colombe always tastes the same, whether it's a good coffeehouse, a bad coffeehouse, or the very frequented La Colombe shop on South 19 St in Rittenhouse Square. Consistency is a good thing, but the thing is that I have never had a cup of La Colombe (coffee and espresso) that I stepped back and said "Wow, that's really good!", kinda more like "yep, that's La Colombe."  

They espouse their claim to "excellence" is blending coffees, the art of mixing together different coffees to result in a better coffee. But these days, I think blending is overdone; it's a misleading sign of sophistication. Some amazing coffees should not be blended and hence offered as single-origin (unblended). La Colombe offers only 5 blends (1 is decaf) and while they might know how to blend, the results never knocked my socks off. 

But my experience at the main store really impacted my feelings on the company. The baristas were hardly friendly, actually more bordering on rude. The espresso machine looked a little run down (though still trucking). And the decor was kinda bare; nice and spacious, but definitely crowded and noisy. The tea was very basic (can't remember the name) and I didn't try the chai. 

But in the end, I really have to side with those that think that La Colombe is way over-hyped. For the pride they espouse on their website, I would expect better. 

Updated 1/10/09 
Was walking around late one evening and decided to stop in to see if the espresso scene had improved (from my samplings at other spots, the coffee itself had not). My shots were pulled long, had only a bit of crema, and while it demonstrated a pleasant sweetness and tinge of cocoa, it also smacked of char on the back end. In the end, decent but still no where even close to an excellent espresso.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Land of Desolation

I have often pondered as to why this region of NJ has almost ZERO coffee establishments of repute. My parents live in Cinnaminson, and growing up I was not once exposed to a truly legitimate coffee establishment; just WaWa and Dunkin Donuts (though DD ain't bad). As a result, I've come to the conclusion that this area of NJ that is roughly the land divided between Rt 42 and I-195 is the "land of desolation." More specifically, it gets really bad between Rt 70 and a little above I-195 (you get the idea). And as far as South Jersey goes, this is the crowded part; how did the uncrowded, less busy part of South Jersey totally trump the northern half? It boggles the mind!

Maybe good coffee establishments can't survive here. Maybe there's a conspiracy. Whatever it is, it makes me really sad for people who live in this empty land. And I'm sure there are other such places of desolation, but I only truly know of this one.

CC: Coffee Works

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Coffee Works
Location visited: Voorhees, NJ
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

A sad fact about southern NJ is that between Collingswood and Trenton, few decent coffee & tea establishments exist. In fact, in my hometown area of Cinnaminson, I can't think of a single place around me that I would flock to get a good cup of coffee. I call this area the "land of desolation."

Now Voorhees isn't tremendously close to my house nor is it north of Collingswood (it's more east) but it's home to one of the few decent coffee establishments remotely near the "land of desolation". Coffee Works is situated in the Ritz 16 plaza, a very strategic spot I'm sure they sing about when they close up shop.

They roast their own coffee (always a plus) and usually do a good job, though sometimes the coffee goes south. A friend of mine commented that a couple times he went in, the big glass bins of coffee were looking a little stale and oily, and I can remember a couple times trying the coffee and it tasting a little decrepit. Also, roasting your own beans comes with the burden of roasting them to the right darkness, and it was here that I first had under-roasted coffee. But I think it's safe to say theses were probably isolated incidents (but always keep an eye out...)

The espresso is pretty good (a blend of their own as well) and they seem to employ well-trained baristas, which I think is what keeps people coming back (along with the fact that it encroaches on the "land of desolation"). The tea was an odd name that I can't remember, but it looked good (?) and the chai I did not see.

So if you're in the area or in the "land of desolation" towards the south, you should stop by.

*Update 5/30/2007
I would like to alter my earlier comment from "well-trained baristas" to "decently-trained baristas." I either have had the unfortunate luck of stopping in when new baristas are working or they just have bad days when I'm there, for decently-pulled espresso seems more a rarity then a usual occurence...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

CC: Emjay's Cafe

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Emjay's Cafe
Location visited: Mullica Hill, NJ
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

*Update 9/27/07
It appears Emjay's is closed.

I usually don't blog twice in a day but today's an exception. About a week ago, I was prompted to visit a local coffeehouse that I had somewhat overlooked in my travels. Since Mullica Hill is home to my favorite coffeehouse as well to one of my least favorite coffeehouses (which still ranks above corporate charcoal), I figured the town couldn't possibly hold another viable coffee operation. Annnnd I was wrong.

A "subterranean" coffeehouse (because it's in a huge basement space), Emjay's is by far one of the nicest, most bohemian set-ups I have ever seen. The coffeehouse use to be several independent shops but now is one cohesive interesting space.

I forgot the name of the coffee roaster, but I do remember that the roaster is out of Yonkers and focuses on single origin coffees (i.e. doesn't focus on blends). Both the coffee and espresso were quite tasty, the espresso not too bitter and the coffee (a medium Costa Rican) was very full-bodied.

The tea is out of Oregon, a company called Stash. I only had an Earl Grey Iced (tasted pretty good) and the other tea also looks promising. The chai I didn't catch, but it's probably powdered (no one seems to do it old school anymore).

Overall, I find it amazing that a town like Mullica Hill would have two good coffee joints. While I still prefer Crescent Moon, Emjay comes in a very close second.

*Update 9/27/07
As could be predicted, Mullica Hill cannot support three coffee establishments. Emjay's had a brief change to Cafe Aroun before it was closed down. RIP.

CC: Mugshots CoffeeHouse and JuiceBar

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Mugshots CoffeeHouse and JuiceBar
Location visited: Philadelphia, PA
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 4+ [see key]

*Updated 8/6/09

Probably the easiest part of finding this place is that it's right across the street from Eastern State Penitentiary (hence the name "Mugshots"). But the play off the prison's name is the only thing the two have in common.

I had first spotted Mugshots this past Fall when coming out of a tour of ESP. The look is well-done, with outside seating bordering the ramp that goes inside. Inside the place is superbly decorated, with a good deal of seating options.

The signature (or so it seems) of this place is that everything is organic/fair trade/environmentally friendly, which can be a great aspect of the business if it's not at the expense of quality (cause if it stinks, why bother?). The menu, as the title suggests, has a juice bar as well as other food and drinks.

The coffee is Equal Exchange out of Massachusetts, a socially-conscious roaster that makes not a bad cup of coffee (I didn't think it amazing though). The espresso was from the same place, but the drink that I got was a little bleh, whether it was the espresso machine or the coffee itself I couldn't tell.

The tea was Choice organic teas, a socially-conscious tea distributor based out of Seattle. I didn't get to try it, though I do plan to soon, but it looked promising. The chai was Oregon Chai, which is good if you like your chai sweet and thick (of course prep of the milk has a lot to do with it as well).

Overall, of Philly coffeehouses, Mugshots is a good place to grab some java, especially if you're going to visit the neighboring penitentiary.

*Update 8/6/09
Wanting to revisit a lot of my older haunts, I made it back to this Philly spot the other day to give this review a bit of an update.

I didn't bother with the drip again as it's still Equal Exchange (and my opinion of their coffee has greatly degenerated over the years) but they DO offer a coffee featured from the Independent Coffee Cooperative (this month was Crescent Moon's Las Milagras) which looks promising.

I did get an espresso, also Equal Exchange, which came out surprisingly fair. While it had the expected punch of charred bean, it also had notes of dark chocolate, nutmeg and tobacco. Not the best shots ever but pretty good for what I expected.

On other notes, the seating seems to have expanded and the place seems to still be going strong.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

CC: Avalon Coffee Company

What's a Coffee Commentary?

Subject: Avalon Coffee Company
Location visited: Avalon and Cape May Courthouse
Free WiFi ? : not at the one in Avalon

Rating: 3+ [see key]

*Updated 1/23/11*

sually I run across coffee and tea places, but this one came from a trusted recommendation. I was actually visiting my family down in Ocean City that day, and I figured this would be the closest to Avalon I would get the rest of this summer, so I went a half hour south to check out one of Avalon's locations (this one, in Avalon).

So I get there in the nick of time (cuz they're open til 10 pm!) and after a little confusion on location (they have a huge sign for the neighboring diner right outside their door...), I waltz in. The decor is a definite grab-and-go set up. The menu is extensive, with gelati, breakfast sandwiches, and so forth.

But on to the coffee. I was intrigued that they had hot-plate brewers as well as satellite brewers
, but they informed me that it was a wise two-step process; they brew on the hot-plate and then the second it's done, they put it into the satellite brewers to keep it hot and fresh. As the coffee is "fresh-roasted at each location", the two-step process married with the aspect of super fresh coffee makes for a stellar combo.

The espresso on the other hand I wasn't as impressed with. My americano was kinda weak and had a little funny of a taste to it, but I think it had more to do with shore water then the beans. The tea was Tetley, an old school, not-as-fresh choice but seemed ok. I didn't try the chai (again) but I've noticed that chai is rarely fresh tea and more often a powdered mix, so it really comes down to barista skills (which this place seems to have, but I'm not sure).

Overall, I was fairly impressed for a shore operation but I don't recommend driving half hour for it.

*Updated 1/23/11

As this was one of my early posts, it was long overdue for an update/correction. This time I visited the Cape May Courthouse location and I would venture the experience held to what I initially penned. I ordered a cup of Kenya AA which produced flavors of beef broth, carrot, caramel, a little ginger and a wee apple; a decent coffee but no fireworks. The espresso was as I (luckily) deduced before; poorly prepared (pulled long with poor crema) and held notes of bourbon, heavy cream and a little cherry all enveloped in a heavy burnt characteristic.

Not as impressed as I was in my youth.

Friday, July 07, 2006

CC: Double Shots Espresso Bar

Subject: Double Shots Espresso Bar

Location visited: Philadelphia
Free WiFi ? : yes
Rating: 5+ [see key]

*CLOSED and reoccupied*

Often have I wandered the streets of Center City, looking for a coffeehouse of promise. Sure, there are places to get coffee, but good coffee is a rarity.

I found Double Shots last summer during a time of avid trips to Old City. It's got a prime location, nestled right next to Market St, a whole hoopla of historic sites, and a hopping night scene. The decor is beautifully done, with maroon walls and bright woods all coercively decorated with the right mix of furniture.

The coffee is what won me over. Caffe Pronto is the name of their roaster (I think out of Maryland), an outfit that produces a very full-bodied cup of coffee. The espresso was also up there in quality; strong but not overpowering. Didn't try the Revolution tea or the chai. Going by the fruits of their labor, the baristas were of noticeable skill.

My only complaint with this place is the random hours. It's gotten to the point that I will drive past to make sure they're open before I park. Too often have I lead a party of expectant coffee drinkers forth with the sad realization they're closed! And with no website, the only way to find out is to go (or tatoo the hours on your arm, but that might prove futile when they change).

So my recommendation: go, but go during the middle of the day so you're not greeted with the close sign.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Simplifying Good Coffee & Tea

Many places still lack good coffee and tea, even in the big cities. To avoid confusion about what I mean, let me define the terms.

When I say good coffee, I mean:
- freshly-roasted
(brought to the establishment from the roaster within days of roasting)
- correctly-roasted
(not burnt charcoal or under-roasted)
- not deceptively blended
(some places will try and sell a "Kona coffee" or "Jamaican Blue Mountain" when in fact the coffee has but 3% of the advertised java blended with 97% of other Arabica or Robusta beans)
- correctly brewed and maintained
(not left on a hot plate, not stale, not lukewarm, brewed with good water, etc.)

And when I say good tea, I mean:
- freshly stored
(not sitting out in the open, left to the elements)
- not stale
(from not being freshly stored, poorly packaged, etc.)
- correctly brewed
(water of the right temperature, brewed with good water, correct steeping time, etc.)

Now I know that most people cannot afford the time and effort of preparing good coffee and tea all the time in their homes, but businesses who profess to specialize in this arena have no excuse. A coffeehouse should have educated and willing-to-learn leaders, trying to perfect their product.

I'm no bonified expert, just one who is learning more everyday. Yet in this matter, I merely echo the sentiments of the real expertise.