Finding My Latte Out West

…While Spring Skiing in Sun Valley; Ketchum, Idaho

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Everything was about 5 minutes away by foot in Ketchum, Idaho.  Which made exploring it approachable (that, and how friendly people were from the hotel desk clerk to the ski lift operators).  Before heading out to the base of Bald Mountain at River Run in Sun Valley, there was breakfast at our funky-sheep-accented boutique hotel, the Hotel Ketchum, and a couple of quick morning walks to check out two of the coffee shops in town.

Just past the Ketchum Town Square is Maude’s Coffee and Clothes, a cottage at the corner of Walnut Avenue and 4th Street.  It’s March and still seasonably cool in the mountains of Idaho, but I recollect a bench out front for sipping coffee in the summer.  Maude is the name of the dog (there was a Polaroid of Maude propped up on the counter).  The “Clothes” part is in fact a vintage clothing store within Maude’s.  Bold belt buckles, bowling shirts, and fair isle sweaters were displayed on racks and counters to the left and behind the “Coffee” part.  Coffee and clothes – literally for purchase at the same time.  Opening the door, I felt like I was walking into someone’s light-filled quiet kitchen.  Maude’s was relaxed and welcoming, and let me gradually wake up to the day.  The coffee counter was heaped with pastries and there was an eclectic mix of a few low tables and chairs at which to sit and appreciate the serenity.  I took my smooth latte to go in a paper cup unassumingly stamped with Maude’s logo.

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On Sunday morning, across from The Board Bin snowboard shop and rental, the low-slung house that is Ketchum’s Java on 4th – part of an all-Idaho group of five coffee shops from Twin Falls to Boise – was bustling with weekend skiers in insulated pants and zippered turtlenecks waking up with coffees and breakfast burritos before the short drive down the road to Sun Valley’s slopes.  People were in and out and back and forth, breakfasting at the bar and at the few scattered tables, their movements like that of a large family able to seamlessly go about their morning breakfast routine.  Service at the ordering counter was quick.  And my latte was presented in a cup calling me to, “Wake Up and Live.”  Perfect words for making my way with J to the next adventure of snowshoeing on the well-marked and beautiful trails at Galena Lodge.

…While Dodging 2017’s Rains in San Diego, California

The motel was located on a main road, a blah strip with other motels and low-slung shops on either side.  It happened to be the rainiest weekend that January 2017 – in 10 years  – in San Diego.  So maybe the strip would have looked more laid-back California than sadly grey, if the sun had been shining and the streets had been dry?  Finding a walkable latte-making coffee shop seemed like it was going to be a difficult task here.  But it wasn’t.  Like a beacon through the driving rain Better Buzz Coffee’s turquoise sign, bright lights, and carefully weathered exterior guided me inside to meet a California that wasn’t itself on the outside.

Better Buzz was only a few blocks from our motel, and J and I gratefully hopped on stools at the distressed wood table and dug into some avocado toast, me with latte in hand, cup cheerfully printed with “Life’s Better Buzzed.”  A collective obsession with avocado toast may have come and gone, but I’m still a fan, and the 3 Seed Avocado Toast at Better Buzz is the best I’ve had.  On thick slices of multigrain bread and piled high with mashed avocado, a little lemon and red pepper flakes, topped with microgreens, and made pleasantly nutty with a combination of chia, sesame, and hemp seeds – I still remember it a year later.   Better Buzz and, yes, that toast, powered J and I to joyously plot our mostly rainy few days in San Diego.

Latte Away

IMG_2131La Morra, Italy (Piedmont)

I try to seek out coffee shops in the neighborhoods where I’m staying in each place I travel.  In La Morra, that experience was at the charming Bar Nuova Italia on the lower level below our rented apartment on via San Martino.  Every corner and surface of the cafe held cellophane bags of pasta or chocolates or candies or bottles of wine or water or was covered in Italian newspaper or magazine articles highlighted and underlined so that your senses were filled and eyes flitted and jumped over one and to the next, not being able to rest on one object or one clipping.  It’s the place on the street you go to for that little something.  My cappuccino was presented by signora Silvana with a dusting of chocolate and a light biscuit.  She enthusiastically greeted each local who came in for a shot of espresso at the small front bar, or a coffee and newspaper at one of the round tables scattered around.  Young mothers with babies in strollers and older rugged workers in hard hats.

Back in our AirBnb apartment, making my own coffee on the stove in in a Bialetti wasn’t quite the same as Silvana’s espresso.  But stepping out our front door, still pajama-clad, onto the narrow landing and into one of the wooden folding chairs, legs out and feet pressed against the railing, bowl of coffee in hand, I could gaze out at a soft pink morning sky rising over the undulating green vine-lined hills of the Piedmont.  A coffee experience worthy of not having a proper latte.

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Camogli, Italy (Liguria)

Coffee harborside at a tiny bistro table on the sidewalk right in front of our hotel, I Tre Merli, and just a few feet from the water’s edge.  Movements only from that cheeky seagull eyeing me and my breakfast onion focaccia, and from the small dogs trotting beside their owners.  There were the harbor pilots sipping espresso in their flip flops and board shorts and reading the morning’s paper, the day-trippers consulting the water-taxi schedule to San Frutuosso and glancing at the dock, where no water-taxi is anchored (the sea’s probably too rough and the taxi won’t run today).  Coffee was brought out in a white carafe with a side pitcher of frothy milk.  I could sit for hours here, absent-mindedly pouring more coffee and milk into my cup and gazing out and across the harbor of Camogli, watching the cliff-side town slowly, ever so slowly wake up.  J and I were easing into our day, too.  Making the most of our mornings meant sitting at this very table for as long as it took, and then wandering back upstairs to our room to gather water bottles, sunblock and head out for a day of hiking over the hills and coastline stretching south of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante of Italy’s Ligurian coast.

But Where Am I Going to Get My Latte?

 

IMG_1922I like to spread the wealth, as one might say, when it comes to my daily latte.  I stick close to home and office and make my way through the homegrown places I’ve found on my routes.  Compass Coffee has the most bite of the five, with Java Shack and Baked & Wired on the other end with a smoother espresso.  I don’t know the ins and out of coffee and espresso beans, but I know what I like in a latte experience.  It’s a way of finding local color and being social, without having to be too social.  You’re immersed in warm nutty aromas in a comforting environment, even if you’re getting your latte to go during the weekday morning rush.  It’s my way of easing into the work day or welcoming a Saturday morning.

Northside Social on a weekend morning (or weekday holiday afternoon) is in constant movement.  There’s never a good place to stand – you’re always moving out of someone’s way, whether it be kitchen staff, baristas, or other customers – while waiting for your latte to be made.  Half the people are plugged into their tablets and laptops clicking away at the rows of tables and the other half in animated conversation with their table mates.  It’s all ages here.  It’s an energetic atmosphere.  The slight sweetness of my latte pairs well with one of Northside’s egg and spinach breakfast sandwiches on buttery slices of Italian loaf.  The egg is poached, but you can ask for it hard cooked, if you’re like me and like your egg yolks a nice pale yellow and dry as a bone.  Easing into a seat at one of the outside tables on the triangular shaped patio you can sip and eat in the warmth of the sun. 

Baked & Wired, on the side of a hill heading down narrow Thomas Jefferson Street in Georgetown, is my favorite girlfriends’ meet up or hang out.  Rarely have I escaped the long line for coffee drinks on a weekend morning, and stalking a seat on the curved couch or random chair is necessary if you’re not taking your latte to go.  But, oh, does that latte have the right touch of sweetness and creaminess!  And, there’s no judgment here if you sit down to a morning Peanut Butter and Chocolate cupcake with your latte.  Baked & Wired is also a joy to get to.  I’ll take the metro just a few stops to Rosslyn and enjoy the 20-minute walk across the Key Bridge and down M Street, or if the weather encourages a not-so-sweaty-run, it’s just shy of 3 miles, all down-hill, to meet C and catch up on what’s happened in our lives over the last month or so.  It’s the perfect spot to meet M and S for a latte to-go and head down to the Potomac River with our cups for an active walk along Georgetown’s waterfront and up to the Lincoln Memorial and across Memorial Bridge, and then back.

When I head to the Saturday farmer’s market at Courthouse Plaza in Arlington, I’m first visiting Java Shack , which is my ultimate laid-back latte experience.  I heard the strains of Hotel California playing behind the coffee bar this morning.  Java Shack is unpretentious in the extreme; it’s been a fixture in the neighborhood for decades.  It doesn’t intend to change, and that’s been honored by Virginia’s Commonwealth Joe, who took over in 2015.  This is why I love it.  It’s reliably shack-like and the baristas are easily warm and friendly.  Even when there’s a line in front of the coffee bar, it moves.  No one feels like they’re in a rush.  There’s no sense of pushiness here.  And while there are plugged in folks leaning over their ipads, it feels like they’re a part of the background.  The outdoor patio is a known hang out for dog owners and their dogs, older and younger and all sizes.  Get the Java Shack card if you’re a regular and with 10 stamps your 11th drink is free.

I walk in and each time there is a very different soundtrack playing in the background at Compass Coffee.  Diagonally across from the Farragut West metro, Compass is fresh-faced, young and efficient.  The Farragut Compass is in the environs of George Washington University and its baristas seem like college or graduate students, or just-out-of-college and just-out-of-graduate school students. They always make sure they spell your name correctly on your to-go cup.  The space is bright and clean in orange and blue and white.  The coffee bar is low and the coffee-making visible.  The baristas stand four-across and work an assembly line from espresso machine, down to milk frothing, to cold brew.  Leaning on the slice of natural wood bar in the middle of the space, I check my email and ready my podcast selection for the satisfying 20-minute walk to work, latte and comfort in hand.

I alternate Compass Coffee with Swing’s Coffee Roasters on 14th and G streets.  My shoulders relax when I enter this soothing place where the latte is one of the smoothest.  The baristas are confident and unhurried.  The coffee is serious but not pretentious.  The small space with high ceilings reflects its more than a century-old DC origins and downtown office location.  This is where suits and heavy wood mingle in a coolly serene place.  This is where coffees carefully spiced for the holidays are announced quietly on a card in an unobtrusive lucite block placed by the register.  I not only gain an espresso here, but a reflective start to the workday.