Boston Phoenix, you need more best-coffeeshop nominees

Dear Phoenix:

Here’s your list of available local coffeeshops:

  1. Ula Caf
  2. 1369 Coffee House
  3. Diesel Cafe
  4. 2nd Cup Caf
  5. Espresso Royale Caffe
  6. True Grounds

You are missing so many cafés. 1369 isn’t even the best café in Central Square; that honor has to go to Toscanini’s. Up in Harvard Square is Café Pamplona, which possibly had the first espresso maker in Cambridge. A bit further into Harvard Square is Crema. A 10-minute walk up the street toward Porter is Simon’s.

Head the other way, into Boston. In Post Office Square you have Sip Café. Right next to North Station you have the world-class Equal Exchange Café. It’s a particularly egregious sin to leave out EECafé.

J’accuse! and other such condemnations. Waggy finger of disapproval and all that.

I had a realization about espresso

….namely this:

  • Lightly roasted espresso is good if you’re drinking it straight. In this case, go for something from George Howell. While you’re at it, stare with a smirk at the New York Times article noting Starbucks’ acquisition of Howell’s Coffee Connection back in 1994, in which the Times felt it necessary to explain that Starbucks was “a 300-store, specialty coffee chain based in Seattle.” (Cached)

    Here was my realization, though: lightly roasted espresso is too mild to work in a cappuccino. The milk absolutely drowns out the coffee. This is why, despite my love for Simon’s, near Porter Square in Cambridge, I don’t love their cappuccinos. I did, on the other hand, love the Classic Cappuccino at Murky Coffee (whose disappearance from Capitol Hill after I left saddened me deeply), and Murky espresso is fairly light. I wonder what their trick is.

  • Darkly roasted espresso is not my cup of … um … tea. It may be yours, and that’s cool. I take my cue here from Murky’s founder, Nick Cho: the oil you see on the outside of a darkly roasted bean “should be inside.”

  • Full-city roast: that’s the stuff. It’s juuuuust right.

This is why I think I’ve discovered my new favorite Boston-area café: the Equal Exchange Café, a one-minute walk away from North Station. (You pass over the Zakim Bridge on the way there. Given that you’re walking over a massive Interstate highway, the view could be worse. The Google Street View people have apparently not passed in front of 226 Causeway Street in a while.) Their cappuccinos are spectacular: the espresso is malty — just rich enough to poke out through the foam, which is thick and accompanies the espresso perfectly.

My Short Version For Boston-Area Coffee Drinkers, then, is like so:

  • Drink straight espresso at Simon’s and Toscanini’s.
  • Drink cappuccinos at the EECafé.

The Cambridge coffee scene

On returning to Cambridge from D.C., where Murky Coffee makes the best espresso you’ll probably ever have, I was sad to find that the 1369 just wasn’t as good as I remembered. The coffee now tasted burned. And the staff didn’t seem nearly as interested in putting out a quality product as the Murky people were — or, for that matter, as interested as the Simon’s people were. Simon’s and Murky are part of a fledgling little world of artisanal espresso shops. 1369 is part of an earlier generation of coffeeshops — of which there are still many — that exist to provide atmosphere rather than coffee. There’s a place for both types. Sometimes you just want to read a book in the presence of other people, even if you’ve got your iPod turned on and you couldn’t care less who the other people are. For that kind of scene, there’s the 1369. For people who are looking for the best conceivable coffee, there’s Simon’s.

Yet Simon’s is also not in a very good location. It’s a 15-minute walk north of Harvard Square on Mass. Ave., or a 5-minute walk south of the Porter T station. From my place to Simon’s is maybe half an hour; I’ve tried going there before work on a few occasions; that doesn’t really work.

If you find yourself in the vicinity of Central Square, I’d like to recommend my recent espresso discovery: Toscanini’s. Tosci is better known for its ice cream (which is certainly the best ice cream I’ve ever had). Turns out their espresso is great, too. They share one very important trait with Simon’s: they use George Howell’s Terroir beans. I’m coming to think that coffee made with Terroir just can’t get very bad. Terroir is insurance against bad baristas. Though the Tosci baristas may be very good; I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve swung by Toscanini’s on the way to and from work many times now, and have not yet had a bad espresso. Fair warning, though: they made me an exceptionally poor cappuccino once. I think that was because they made it with blue water skim milk.

I’m told I should check out Cafe Pamplona (which has its own Wikipedia entry; I’m amazed, though I shouldn’t be). I’ve now shocked a few people by professing ignorance of this place. Maybe I’ll stop by for an after-work espresso tomorrow.

While I’m at it, I should mention a few Boston espresso destinations:

  1. Trident Booksellers and Café, just over the River and a few doors down Newbury Street. Their espresso is nothing special, but their cappuccino is solid and the food in the café is the best in the genre. Plus the bookstore is great. This may be the only bookstore/café I’ve been to where both halves get equal stature.

  2. FlatBlack Coffee Company, near the financial district downtown. I’ve only been once. Their drip coffee is solid and rich.

  3. Velouria, in Jamaica Plain. Again the beans are George Howell, and the proprietor shares Howell’s love for Kenyan beans. I’ll be honest: my palate is not yet refined enough to tell the difference between one nation’s coffee beans and another’s. Someday … someday.

  4. Flour Bakery and Café. Last, but definitely not least. This is Adam‘s and my traditional morning-coffee haunt. I love their cappuccino; their espresso is rich without being bitter, and the foam is perfect. Flour is right around the corner from the Children’s Museum. You’re forgiven for not noticing it if you happen to be standing right in front of it; they’ve apparently had a competition with themselves for the last year or so to see just how hidden they can be. There’s always a steady stream of people in there between 7:45 and 8:30 a.m., though, so presumably their reputation is keeping them afloat. I probably give them more business than even my love of their product would justify: I want to see them succeed, and I just can’t imagine that such a hidden outpost would be raking in the cash.

    (Thanks go to Jeremy Angoff, by the way, for introducing me to the South End’s Flour well before there was one on the Waterfront.)

This is science, people: liveblogging from a cup of coffee

I’m in New York City right now, having taken the bus here and having awoken at some ludicrously early hour after a terrible night of sleep. What I wanted above all else was a good cup of coffee. I did a bit of googling, specifically on CoffeeGeek (which has carved out a nice niche among those who are looking for artisanal espresso in cities they’re visiting), and found that they recommended the Cupcake Café on 9th Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets. It’s a negligible walk from the Port Authority terminal. The coffee is delicious: smooth, complex, and rich. Highly recommended.