Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tour d' Brew - UPDATED

I have a little project I've been working, aside from the SBR-ing and trailer-food eating.  The project wasn't consciously hatched so much as one day I looked back and decided to keep up the trend going forward.

Austin is home to a surprising number of independent coffee houses and for its size, surprisingly few Starbucks.  In DC, if I wanted to escape my couch and TV in the later part of the day I would be limited - by selection and transportation - to a few well-worn places...or Starbucks.  In Austin, not so.  Have car and laptop, will travel for decaf coffee and soymilk.

It started with perhaps the most well-worn coffee shop in Austin because I pass it every day and now it has blossomed into an independent-coffee-shop-per-day habit.  My dentist is not pleased.

I will update this post frequently.  Please post suggestions in the comments.

Nov 4 (Th) - Austin Java on Barton Springs - An intense debate simmers as to whether Austin Java has lost its atmosphere as this standby has transitioned from the order-only-in-the-line-at-the-counter to the server-order model (to-goes still have a line).  The in-line-only model irked those decisive ordering cash payers, but the server-order model irks those who hate to tip for a simple cup of coffee.  I cut through lots of red tape by ordering in the to-go line and drinking it at a table.  And yet the Earth still spins.

NOTE from Nov 11 - I finally ate food here.  Points added for serving breakfast all day, but points deducted for serving rehydrated hash browns.

NOTE from Nov 12 - Really not sold on their food.  Gingerbread pancake was a big enough FAIL they took it off my bill.

Nov 5 (Fri) - Mozarts on Lake Austin Blvd - GREAT and big deck on the lake for nice days and a skiing chalet feeling inside the "shop" for bad days.  Interestingly I think every single Indian in Austin was there when I was, plus lots of UT-Austin students as some student apartments are only a few blocks away.  Mozarts roasts all their own coffee and the roaster, Jack, gave me suggestions for my next couple days.

Nov 6 (Sat) - Central Market on South Lamar - Coffee bar/restaurant inside Austin's less expensive answer to Whole Foods.  Seating options are numerous, but options are a tiny table or MASSIVE booth.  Order some food (looked good) and stay for live music on most weekends.

Nov 7 (Sun) - Jo's on South Congress - Very popular because of foot traffic on SoCo.  The shop is in a building and the seating/counter is outside, so the line to order is literally down the block.  Sunny days allow for lots of people watching, but can require occasional reorganizing of computers/companions to avoid sun in the eyes.

Nov 8 (Mon) - Skipped coffee in favor of grocery shopping and picking up My Gracious Host at the airport.

Nov 9 (Tu) - Little City at 9th and Congress - Quiet place, but steady business.  One block from the state capitol building so the crowd is pretty straight laced and buttoned - but the shop thinks of itself as way hip.  I think the shop's vibe would resonate better in a neighborhood south of the lake.

Nov 10 (Wed) - Opa's on South Lamar - Now I know where all the Greeks in Austin are hiding.  Great outdoor seating and does brisk hummus/pita/wine business at night.  Better than most places for the deadbeat Wifi-users like me because it has (a few) uber-comfy chairs and one free refill with drip coffee.  The shop soundtrack the entire time I sat there: Boyz II Men.  It was like sipping coffee in one of my middle school mixers, with everyone around me speaking Greek.

Nov 11 (Th) - Bennu on East MLKJr. Blvd - Late afternoon on a week-day and it's packed, with UT-Austin students of course, but thanks to the law students debating torts and the po-mo-lit chick a few tables over with the teetering piles of Joan Didion and poetry, it has the well-lived-in feel of a library that serves coffee.  Where oh where was such a beast when I was in college?  The power cord remodel  - where a power cord dangles from the ceiling above each table, which are each straight out of Dogs Playing Poker - necessitated by the 21st explosion of laptops leaves the room with a slight sci-fi human-harvesting feel: every table is completely ringed by people, each staring at laptops, hooked directly to those laptops via headphones, and each laptop is plugged into a single cord that rises to the ceiling. A close-enough idea. Open 24/7.  Easily my favorite so far, but I would hate to see this place during finals...  Oh, and they serve Mexican Coke, if you know what that means.

Nov 12 (Fri) - Ruta Maya on way South Congress - A live music venue/hippie cultural center/fitness and yoga studio daylighting as a coffee shop.  The non-traditionalist vibe is immediately apparent, as is the fact that getting here is either a destination-specific schlep or your local coffee shop because you have no other options among the nondescript strips.  Frankly, this place feels like a bus station, complete with the random conversations about drugs and travelers who flitter about and never seem to leave, between buses.  Even weirder, it is a strip next to Clear Channel Communications, behind a strip club named Exposé.

Nov 13 (Sat) - Irie Bean on South Lamar, past Opa's - Decor was an afterthought for sure.  The vibe says "we are here to serve coffee to the employees and patrons of nearby businesses, not to create a destination for the neighborhood."  And the "nearby businesses" brings up an excellent observation about Austin: there are an inordinate number of tattoo parlors here (case in point: three within two blocks of Irie Bean).  Enough that a tour d' tattoo would be possible.  I won't be doing that tour.

Nov 14 (Sun) - Took the day off because frankly, I am a bit coffee'd out.  Uncle! 

Nov 15 (Mon) - Spiderhouse at 29th and Fruth, north of downtown - You know those coffee shops that take an old apartment and use the floor plan to their advantage?  This is a house with an incredibly large backyard, shared with the Hotel Reno next door.  Nightly movies; fat, sugar, and alcohol are also on the list of proven addictive stimulants sold at Spiderhouse; and a seriously quirky decorating streak.  Sadly, I couldn't stay long as their internet and my laptop didn't play well with each other; I suspect this is a common problem, based on the posted signs about alerting the waitstaff to technical issues.

Nov 16 (Tues) - Scooter's on William Cannon at Loop 1 - Chain.  Didn't know it when I came in, but through this little project I've become the coffee house whisperer.  I can read the signs.  First, this is the only place thus far that had decaf drip.  Most independent's force you to buy an Americano (same price; espresso shot with water added to desired volume) because brewed decaf almost never sells out before it goes "old."  Second, this physical building was born as a Starbucks, absolutely.  Thankfully a smaller, lesser known chain, while still a chain, saved this poor storefront from Starbucks-dom.  Third, the furniture matches.  Each and every piece.  Fourth, the music is "safe."  Fifth... But I can't complain too much since this chain is Midwest, born-and-bred.  Except that this might be only the second time I have consciously thought "this coffee just really isn't that good."

Nov 17 (Wed) - Pacha's on Burnet, north of 45th St off of Loop 1 - Yum!  Everything - Veggie Torta, Biscotti, decaf Americano - was so tasty (and organic) that once it was all gone I wanted to start over.  A very residential-based neighborhood, Rosedale, where Pacha's joins a few other businesses in converted houses on the "main" street.  I was here just prior to closing for the night, but I can see the clientele being couples reading the Sunday paper or local free-lance writers looking for a place to buy a coffee and sitting all day.  This find definitely makes up for yesterday's flop.

Nov 18 (Thurs) - Progress Coffee at 5th and San Marcos, immediately east of I35 - Old warehouse, converted into trendy high-rent lofts for bare-bones architectural firm and pretty fricking awesome coffee shops.  Oh, and running stores, as Rogue Running is immediately next door.  Middle of the day clientele are artists of the tech variety: photographers editing pictures, college professors grading papers, independent movie producers (if I'm reading the conversation correctly).  Nice outdoor seating area, oodles of parking, and coffee roasted in Austin by Owl City.  Apparently the thing to eat are the biscuits, but I'm afraid that if I have one of them I will need a life-jacket to afloat at swim practice tonight. 

Nov 19 (Fri) - Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Blvd - I'd had heard tell of their gingerbread pancakes, and unlike Austin Java's, Mags' did not disappoint.  They even handed over the recipe and one of the secret ingredients: brewed coffee.  However, Mags is not a coffee shop, it's a diner, and like most diners, you wouldn't come to Mags for the coffee - unless they started injecting the legal addictive stimulant it contains straight into your jugular.  Instead, you come to Mags because it's open 24 hours a day, 8 days a week, and offers tons of made-from-scratch specials and short-run items.  Oh, and no wifi :(

Nov 20 (Sat) - Kerbey Lane Cafe on Kerbey Lane (whoa..) - This morning at masters practice we were joking about skipping the third round of the main set and disappearing to Kerbey Lane on William Cannon.  I piped up "how about we go to the original?"  Someone responded "You haven't been here long enough to know that that place stinks."  The idea of the original Kerbey Lane was enough to induce my lane mates to stick around for the third round of timed swims and best average 100s.  Doesn't.bode.well. People, I am here to tell you, the original Kerbey Lane Cafe, located in a house on Kerbey Lane in NW Austin, does not smell.  It is however packed, with questionable wifi (I'm currently stealing from the pizza place next door) and not enough parking.   Like Mags, the food is far superior to a normal run-of-the-mill diner: lots of vegan options and fresh fruit and unique combinations.  The mocha tofu cheesecake is awh-maise-ing.  I wish I had come during the week, rather than the weekend, because weekend clientele are large family-ish reunions and collegial hungover recounts of the previous night.  The rest of the Kerbey Lane locations are spread around the city, including some that are downright suburban. 

Nov 21(Sun) - Thunderbird on Manor, east I35 - It's 9 pm and 80 degrees on a Sunday evening Austin.  At Thunderbird Mexican beers are on a $2 special and 10 out of the 12 laptops being used are Macs.  Most of the clientele sit at picnic tables in the fenced in front yard of a 1960s house with a facade straight out of Mad Men.  In what I'm told is the sketchy part of town, but frankly nothing in Austin is that sketchy and so close to campus, it's hipster students and adults too cheap - or arty and/or interested in "gentrifying" - to live west of the freeway.  If I drank beer or drank period, this would be my speed of bar: comfy wicker-back chairs or picnic tables, wifi, lights on, and nobody groping me.

And on that cheery note, the Tour d' Brew 2010 comes to a positive end: not at a Starbucks.  It's amazing what goodness you can find if you force yourself to go someplace new and different every day.  Without one or two fails, more than a few would-choose-to-go-backs, and plenty of places I drove by and didn't have a chance to try, I declare the iron-fisted hold of the 'Bucks to be broken.  At least in the twenty square miles surrounded by reality that is Austin.

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