Category Archives: Shops

Describes and reviews the best coffee shops of selected cities.

Cafe Hounding: Azi’s Cafe – Washington, D.C.

1336 Ninth St. NW
Washington, D.C.
20001-4208
http://aziscafe.com/index.html

http://maps.google.com/maps/place?client=safari&rls=en&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=washington+dc+nw+1336+9+st&fb=1&gl=us&hnear=Washington+D.C.,+DC&cid=12196182154941226661

Azi’s Café is a wonderful place to grab a coffee and a meal in one of DC’s most diverse and dynamic neighborhoods – albeit not very commercial.  The charming owner, Azeb Desta (nicknamed Azi), hails from coffee’s disputed birthplace in the Horn of Africa.  Before opening Azi’s in 2005 she worked for eleven years in food and beverage with Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Her location at the corner of 9th and O streets is smack in the middle of a rapidly changing area of the Shaw area of DC, where an improving standard of living and an aversion to the normal “Starbucks” options appear to partially drive traffic to Azi’s Cafe. Perhaps more important, Azeb and her staff are some of the warmest and most dedicated employees in the business and their service clearly helps with customer loyalty. Furthermore, for the time being, there is very little direct competition in the immediate area.

The menu of light food fare boasts decent pastry, soup, salad and panini (the roasted turkey breast, tomato, cheddar, and garlic spread goes for $6.50) options.  Personally, I often find myself succumbing to the flavorful biscotti displayed in large glass containers in front of the cashier – it perfectly compliments a warm frothy cappuccino on a cold day.

Generally, the coffee is above average for Washington and I’ve grown fond of their cappuccinos.  They use Illy coffee and have a stand of retail Illy for sale proudly exhibited in their front window.

Having sampled an Illy espresso across town at the Illy shop at the Renaissance M Street Hotel, I was excited to see how Azi’s compared.  The coffee itself was definitely up to par, bold and complex from start to finish.  The cup they used in my case was a designer Illy cup – of my choosing – that was plenty warm from sitting atop the French-made UNIC machine. The quantity of crema was less than sufficient, though, and I would have to wager the guess that the machine could be the problem. I’ll undoubtedly try another espresso here before making a final judgment on the quality of their coffee and ability to make drinks.  It also appears that they keep a pretty steady line of customers asking for both specialty drinks and regular cups of coffee during this time of year.

I’ve never visited this locale without a pleasant and eclectic mix of music weaving through the small locale.  The southern wall is littered with a few electric sockets for those who tote laptops and have a use for their free wi-fi. Others may choose between a few tables in the middle of the shop and a couple two-seater tables squeezed in between columns with plenty of natural light on the northside of the shop (sorry, no electric plugs on this side of the shop).

Whether for a hot bowl of soup, a freshly made salad, a steamy latte or a shot of espresso – Azi’s is quickly becoming an institution in the Shaw neighborhood and – with over five years of business in this locale – Azeb Desta seems satisfied that things are going in the right direction.  Although, she thinks that the last five years have gone by quickly, and that both the neighborhood and the clientele have changed equally quickly.  Azi’s Café is one of very few businesses thriving in this section of NW and it will be interesting to see how much/little she changes in the next five years in order to maintain a successful enterprise.

Café Hound will undoubtedly continue to frequent her shop and wishes her the best in growing her business.

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Cafe Hounding: Northside Social – Arlington, VA

3211 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22201
(703) 465-0145
http://www.northsidesocialarlington.com

It is official, I have found the best place for a completely comfortable, unpretentious, superb culinary experience and it is right down the street from my current residence in Arlington, Virginia.

To start, the shop is a spacious old building with high ceilings, plenty of natural light on all four sides, and three separate spaces with three totally different vibes under one roof (and that isn’t even mentioning the all too rare plentiful quantity of open air seating spaces located outside all with access to their free wifi). The inside also serves as an art gallery for local artists and has tons of bar stools and counter space by the windows in addition to about a half dozen couches located throughout. Also, the kitchen is WIDE open- another uber positive sign that food is done right here.

And to think, all this before discussing the menu, the fantastic staff, the Counter Culture coffee, the splendid teas, and their homemade ICE CREAMS! According to one of the owners, who co-owns Liberty Tavern and another locale in the immediate area with his brother, the place has been open for about four months and is doing REALLY well. Well, I think it can do even better AND serve as my new favorite hangout in the area for many months to come. Below are some pictures and additional comments about the place.

My only gripe is that it was a bit difficult to bite into my grilled chicken sandwich; which was spectacularly tasty. Susana didn’t think the bread slices accompanying her salad were crunchy enough. The pastries looked wonderful and were unique – their pastry chef is top notch. The soft ice cream was outstanding – passion fruit was one of the flavors of the day. The latte art on the cappuccino was decent and the drink was made well. The espresso was made well but the single-origin Michicha from Ethiopia was not ideal as it is a sun-dried coffee that is too gnarly for my preferences as a pure espresso drink – much better as a shot in a latte. In earnest, though, I probably would have preferred a shot of a wet washed Kenya AA or a full bodied blend like the Ano Novo 2010.

So, although I can say this place is probably the best complete dining experience that I have ever had at a wine and coffee bar, it is still improving and that should scare the competition (of which there really isn’t any at this time).

Lift a glass to Northside Social in Arlington, Virginia, for they may have just hit the sweet spot for this area’s upper middle class late 20s to early 40s demographic.

Cafe Hounding: Juan Valdez & Cafe Bonsai – Santa Marta, Colombia

Juan Valdez in Santa Marta city center near the main port
Cafe Bonsai in Taganga (little bay fishing town slightly east of Santa Marta)

Collage ala Santa Marta

JUAN VALDEZ – Santa Marta

In my relatively limited experience, providing high quality coffee in terribly hot and humid conditions is usually an EPIC FAIL based on my experience with several of the coffee barons in Managua, Nicaragua.

That said, Juan Valdez has managed to keep its product consistently above average (though not excellent) everywhere that I have tried it.  This includes the city center in Santa Marta, Colombia.  They also provide paying customers with 30 minutes of free wifi (if requested) and have a variety of tasty baked treats to go along with their splendid coffees.  They probably do better business with their cold drinks here in Santa Marta, but also do a decent job of selling and preparing their hot ‘pod’ drinks and single and double shot espresso drinks. My girlfriend thoroughly enjoyed their Cheese/Bread Stick (Palito de Queso) and also the Almojabana (which reminded her of the delicious Brazilian treat Pao de Queijo).

The seating at a Juan Valdez is always comfortable and intelligently situated to provide for the right combination of privacy and social interaction – a key element of Colombian culture.

The Juan Valdez in Santa Marta attracts the local color – musicians and other interesting characters – who come to entertain the heavily foreign  (read: German) tourists who setup camp here to practice their Spanish and regroup after excursions in and around the Department of Magdalena. Overall Juan Valdez rarely fails to deliver on the customer expectation for a special and above average experience with above average coffee.  Oma cannot compete with Juan Valdez on a national level and this fact is only cemented by positive experiences like the ones I had at the Juan Valdez in Santa Marta. I hope they keep up the good work – and continue to send good merchandise to the DC shops so I can continue to buy their shirts and travel mugs when visiting the Organization of American States!

CAFE BONSAI – Taganga

One such tourist destination in Magdalena is the small fishing town east of Santa Marta by the name of Taganga.  Taganga is most known for offering affordable and decent quality scuba diving lessons/certification classes to tourists traveling through this tropical outpost in Colombia.

In Taganga, my friend and I happened upon the self-proclaimed “Nicest Little Coffee Shop in the Southern Hemisphere” – which I had to put to the test.  We meandered in, after being followed all the way to the door by a local stray dog looking for some air condition and table scraps. The atmosphere was definitely cool, bohemian, and welcoming to the backpacking tourist hailing from Europe (judging by our company inside).  The Left-leaning Aterciopelados blared on the radio and our bohemian waitress/barista took our order after we evaluated their very lengthy menu on the wall for several minutes.

My first inclination was to request the gold standard for a coffee shop – espresso please.

But, I hinted to my friend that the machine was not running (likely to save electricity) and that if they were to pull my shot immediately after turning on the machine, it would be of the worst quality with no crema whatsoever.  My prediction was 100% correct – despite the coffee being from a local cooperative of indigenous growers who sell their coffee through designated ‘Casa Indigena’ – indigenous cooperative trade associations (such as this one http://intermundos.org/sierra_nevada1.htm). I suspect that the coffee quality is better than my espresso reflected, so I encourage additional research.

On a side note, the iced tea that my friend ordered was also surprisingly unpleasant.  Sadly, it appears that the biggest sell here was that they have English speaking staff, English marketing materials, free wi-fi (that cuts out a lot), and a HUGE menu. Quantity, not quality. Also of note, the prices were expensive even relative to coffee shops in DC and California. Positively, the cozy bohemian feel becomes quite endearing and familiar as an ex-pat in Colombia.

Next time I visit Taganga, I will probably stick with the fresh fish and fresh juices consumed  under a straw hut overlooking the bay. Santa Marta and the surrounding areas are quaint, safe and beautiful. I highly suggest visiting!

Looking out over the bay in Taganga while waiting for my freshly caught Red Snapper to be served.

Another interesting side note – much of this little town’s wealth came from ‘seed money’ in the 70s as a result of the lucrative illicit marijuana trade to the US. Local traquetos laundered the money by investing in real estate, agro-industry, and boosting the local tourism industry. The U.S. market has long since moved to closer producers (British Columbia, Mexico, California) to meet domestic demand and Taganga appears to rely mostly on tourism as its lifeblood. Cheers.

Cafe Hounding: Cafe Don Pedro – Bogota, Colombia

Carrera 11A # 89-48
Bogota – Colombia
http://www.cafedonpedro.com/primera_del_Cafe.htm

Don Pedro's interior from the back room looking out towards the adjoined bakery run by Pedro's wife.

Cafe Don Pedro is one of those places that began Maher Hound’s entire journey into the coffee world.  An exercise in objectivity would be senseless in this post considering my first encounter with the wonderful Colombian grown stimulant known as Cafe Don Pedro began in the late nineties after my father received a pound as a gift from a friend stationed at the US Embassy in Bogota.  At the time my family did not find the coffee particularly amazing and I was too young to have taken up the habit of coffee drinking full-time yet.

Several years later, after being reintroduced to Colombian coffee through a chocolate covered experience with Oma coffee, I found my way down to Colombia and into the storied retail location of Cafe Don Pedro on Calle 90 where it intersects Carrera 11A.  Beyond having one of the most folkloric, traditional coffee themed interior designs I have ever seen in a coffee shop; Cafe Don Pedro had very well trained and highly knowledgeable staff that were able to describe everything about the entire supply chain process of a coffee plant/bean and how to prepare beverages with care and with style.

My first visit to Cafe Don Pedro in the flesh was in 2006.  This was before I had been properly introduced to cupping and understanding the careful and lengthy process of training one’s palate to distinguish subtle discrepancies in the flavor profile of different beans and brews.  Even at this early juncture of my coffee loving career, I knew I had come across a truly amazing quality of coffee.  Upon my departure from Colombia several months later I carried several pounds of the delicious substance with me (beans were packaged according to their Department (a national sub-unit similar to a State) of origin). The most well-rounded beans sold by Don Pedro were probably the Cudinamarca blend – taken from the region immediately surrounding Bogota.  The most unique and distinctly (although quite mild) beans were those from Huila, found south of Neiva heading towards the Colombia-Ecuador border on the 45 highway. The Huila beans – last time I tried them in 2008 – had a vanilla and nutty undertone in the finish that was preceded by bright orange acidity in the initial sip.

Upon my return to Colombia in 2008, I made another stop at Don Pedro and enjoyed the comfortable ambiance and coffee of the shop.  Did I mention that, because they roast coffee every day right in the front of the shop, there is an overwhelmingly pleasant aroma of fresh roasted coffee that greets each customer upon entering the shop?

In 2008 I sat down and discussed the business – both the beauty of owning one’s own specialty coffee retail location in a country dominated by the Juan Valdez and FEDERCAFE image AND the problems associated with trying to leverage the international recognition of the Juan Valdez label while trying to directly export one’s own brand to international markets.  It appears that Pedro de Narveaz is still wrapped up in a legal dispute with the National Coffee Growers Federation in Colombia and this will likely – due to the political clout and financial resources of the Federation – end badly for our beloved Don Pedro.

Despite these facts, his business does incredibly well just by selling to the  Bogota equivalent of Washington, D.C.’s ‘Embassy Row’ with high praise coming from the US Embassy in Bogota and his own product positioning in Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport for those hoping to grab a bag of Don Pedro before hopping on the plane. I returned yet again to Don Pedro in July 2010 to grab five pounds and sample a delicious espresso with my girlfriend.  As she enjoyed her cappuccino with ‘fluffy foam’ and delicious coffee cookie treats, I reminisced about the more than four years of coffee patronage at this wonderful location in downtown Bogota.  Now, with the store moving down the street into a smaller shop on Calle 89 with 11A, I am both saddened and excited about the future of the Cafe Don Pedro experience.  The new commerce brought to this neighborhood by the incoming Mall will definitely boost foot traffic in and around Cafe Don Pedro, but it will also dramatically alter the quiet and charming experience that this neighborhood offered the older Bogotano crowd looking for an elegant cafe to discuss Colombian culture, society, politics and – most importantly – coffee.

 

Gently kissing this cup of C-marca espresso blend goodnight on my last evening in Bogota in July 2010.

Cafe Hounding: Ozzie’s Coffee Bar – Old Forge, NY

3019 Main St.
Old Forge, New York

As many of those who relish in a fresh cup of specialty coffee stumble across this page in ‘google’ searches for the next best thing in their locale, I stumbled across Ozzie’s Coffee Bar in Old Forge, New York while on vacation with family.  Often when traveling, one must take what they can get when it comes to getting the daily brew of coffee.

During my recent visit to Old Forge, I expected that I would not find anything worthy of Cafe Hound mention given the remote location and *assumed* lack of access to high quality roasters.  My assumption proved wrong the moment I walked through the doors of Ozzie’s Coffee Bar.

Ozzie’s customer service was yet another perk of this pleasant coffee cabin nestled into the quaint Adirondack town of Old Forge, New York.

I entered in search of free Wifi so that my friend and I could get some work done in between kayaking on the beautiful lakes of the Adirondack Mountains – only to find that there was no wifi available in this quaint shop. Although I nearly darted out the door upon learning of the lack of wifi, I took the plunge and ordered a standard double espresso to test their bean and barista quality.

My first impression was less than optimum given the fact that they served me a watery espresso in a large to-go coffee cup… but… I cleared my mind and took in the aroma.  To my surprise the aroma was fresh, earthy with hints of chocolate.  Next, I sipped in some of the semi-frothy crema that found its way on top of this drink.  It was pretty decent – made with well roasted and well preserved (i.e. relatively fresh) beans.  My only gripe is that the drink was too watered down because the barista intentionally over-pulled the shot (correctly assuming that the average consumer wants more liquid rather than more taste).

My friend ordered a chai latte (hot) and was also very pleasantly surprised.  I tasted her drink and found that it was made with high quality ingredients and was well prepared.  What a pleasant surprise.

The following day I returned to order another espresso (this time made with less than half the previous amount of water) and my friend ordered a skim cappuccino.  Both drinks were superb and thus I had to ask the baristas where the beans were from. I also asked for the owners information since I didn’t see her in the shop.

Albeit not that surprisingly, the beans used at Ozzie’s are not locally roasted.  Instead, the owner, Kristy Sutherland, prefers to create her own custom blend through a wholesale purchasing partnership with Aroma Coffee Roast in Larchmont, New York. Aroma is a known entity in the world of specialty roasters and continues to use a 12 KG roaster in order to achieve the careful control of each batch roasted on a daily basis.

In addition to splendid coffee, Ozzie’s also locally sources a variety of tasty treats, panini, sandwiches, salads and baked goods on a daily basis.  Cafe Hound promotes both an excursion to the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York and a stop by Ozzie’s Coffee Bar along the way. We guarantee that there you will find plenty of hidden gems and scenic views along the way.

Cafe Hounding: Caffe Calabria – San Diego

3933 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104
www.caffecalabria.com

Caffe Calabria is one of a few hidden gem roasters in San Diego, CA.  Located in a unique section of town known to locals as North Park; it has the charm of an Italian espresso bar mixed with a ‘work-in-progress’ pizzeria and the edge of North Park mixed in for good measure.  The owner, Ernie, got his start manning a coffee cart at the local hospital.  Over time he developed a passion for roasting and has grown his business via carving out a niche serving the local restaurant and coffee shop market with his fresh roasted beans.

The Roast Master, Jesse, is a very cool operator with a keen sense of knowing when beans are ready to eject from the large industrial roasting machine they have in the back of the shop.  They have plenty of outlets, a rustic and open space, and a great – although limited selection – of sandwiches/paninis.

The “work-in-progress” has evolved into quite an attractive space over the past three years but has yet to reach the goal of an authentic pizzeria.  The most impressive piece within the restaurant is a pizza oven brought piece by piece from Italy and reassembled in the store.   Also, the art work is mostly done by local artists and the clientele is quite an eclectic mix of hipsters, students and locals (there is plenty of overlap between the three).  Before some of the sales staff left, there used to be free cuppings every morning at 8am – not sure if this is still firm policy.  According to store staff, the pizzeria should be opening very soon on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Unfortunately, many a café squatting afternoon was prematurely ended at Calabria – they close their doors to business at 3pm.

Their espresso is tops in San Diego, with only Bird Rock spending more time and effort in perfecting the pull.  Both the blend that Calabria uses and the training of their baristas is well above average for the specialty coffee world.  It’s well worth stopping by this location just to get a well made drink.  Calabria delivers some of the best quality roasted beans in San Diego AND has the well trained baristas to prepare top quality drinks too!

A portion of their beans are purchased from renowned importer, Elan Organic Coffee, now of the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe.  Calabria wholesales to many local coffee shops and other retailers such as Café Mono (Mission Beach), Whole Foods and Fresh & Easy in San Diego.  Check them out and tell them the Café Hounds sent you!

Cafe Hounding: Caffe Art Java – Montreal, Canada

645 Avenue Du President-Kennedy
Montreal, QC H3A, Canada
www.caffeartjava.com

When I went to Canada in November, I was excited to check out Caffe Art Java, a cafe that many people on the internet claimed to be the place to get best coffee in Montreal. Fortunately, Caffe Art Java has one cafe by Rue University on the edge of McGill University, which was very close to where I stayed.

The cafe uses coffee beans roasted by Gimme Coffee in Ithaca, New York. For espresso, they use Leftist blend (which you can buy online from Gimme website as well). The blend is medium dark, but leaning more to the dark side. The barista was skillful and did great job for both the shots and the latte foam. The cafe also serves hot food. I ordered croissant with ham and cheese, which was heated panini style and tasted quite good.

The decoration of the cafe is modern, sleek, and hip. It has red couches, brown chairs, and dark tables. It has light background music (French music when I was there). .It has strong wifi with both 2.4 and 5 GHz options. When I arrived there around noon on Sunday, the cafe was not crowded, but there were more and more people coming throughout the early afternoon. There was plenty of seating however. Most of the customers when I was there were students with laptops working on their school work, but there were quite a lot of young professionals visiting the cafe as well. The staff and the barista were friendly, and seemed to know lots of their frequent customers well.

I may have to explore Montreal more (preferably not in winter!) before judging whether Caffe Art Java is in fact the best in town. But overall, it is indeed a great cafe to get coffee and light meal in downtown Montreal.