Chicago Local Wins Barista Champ!

Posted in Coffee News with tags , , , on March 10, 2009 by Robb Olson

Chicago local Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea (3123 N Broadway) won the title of the 2009 US Barista Champion.

Phillips. Image borrowed from USBC website.

Phillips. Image borrowed from USBC website.

2nd through 6th place honors went to baristas from: Intelligentsia – LA (2nd), Alterra – Milwaukee WI (3rd), Intelligentsia – LA (4th), Intelligentsia – LA (5th), and finally Kaldi’s Coffee – St Louis MO (6th).

Trend? Looks like Intelligentsia has their shit together. I can attest that Alterra also has insanely good coffee and great fun stores.

More info on the championship here.


Alterra Coffee

Posted in Cafe with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2008 by Robb Olson

Alterra Coffee:

Alterra at the Lake
1701 N Lincoln Memorial Dr
Milwaukee, WI 53202

The Breakdown:
Hours: Mon Thru Fri 6:30 – 10, Sat & Sun 7 – 10
Wi-Fi: Free.
Fair Trade: Fair Trade/Organic

Vegan/Vegetarian Friendly: The food menu offers both meat and meatless options on their breakfast and sandwiches menu

Menu: Alterra has a fairly standard breakfast menu with granola and breakfast sandwiches, and also has a breakfast burrito section. Their sandwich menu has basics like ham & cheese and tuna melts, but also has more quirky selections like their avocado BLT.

Outdoor seating: Weather permitting (great location, right by the lake)

My eats: Large iced honey latte, chocolate chunk cookie.

Avoiding the Mermaid: There are nine Alterra locations in Milwaukee (and most recently, an Alterra cart surfaced in the entrance of some Home Depot somewhere in Chicago,) versus the 16 Starbucks locations. I don’t know the lay of the land up there too well, but I like those odds. In my various trips around town, I scoped at least four of the Alterras, and not a one of the Starbucks locations.

A mainstay in Milwaukee, Alterra Coffee is host to nine locations throughout metropolitan Milwaukee (and a freak stand somewhere in Chicago in the entryway of a Home Depot). Alterra at the Lake sits right on Lake Michigan in the Milwaukee River Flushing House, which was built in the late 1800’s (Yes, i’m not above ripping off their website and plagarising if necessary.) Surrounded by fields, Tennis Courts, and a giant beachy lake.

You get a good mix of people at this location. Families on a weekend beach visit, athletic types stopping in after running/biking/tennis/surf gliding, and just random dudes and chicks. I’ve never seen the place not busy, but it’s enormous

– sporting two floors of seating, and ample table space outdoors too.

The menu is what I would consider your typical coffee shop cum cafe food menu. A good selection of sandwiches, some breakfast options, and a ton of baked goodness. There are some vegan options, including some sort of tofu breakfast scramble that sounded good even to me. On this visit, I had a chocolate chunk cookie, and it hit the spot.

The coffee menu is just how I like it. There’s your standard choice of lattes, breves, mochas, americanos and such. Then they have a section of specialty espresso drinks which includes delights such as my Honey Latte, and a minty mocha they call the Bull Frog. Aside coffee, they have over a dozen tea selections, smoothies, juices, and of course, hot chocolate.

While the lines can get a little long (I think there were about 12 to 14 people in front of us that Saturday afternoon), the wait is worth it. The staff is youthful and friendly, and the food and drinks are always well made. While waiting, we checked out their huge selection of branded merchandise, which includes organic cotton shirts, messenger bags, travel and home style mugs, and bunches of other stuff. They also offer tea service items and infusers. Oh, devilish marketing.. make us wait for that delicious nectar of life, and parade us past all your cool shit you’re selling. I’m on to you!

And get this, If serving fair trade and organic coffee, and selling organic cotton t-shirts weren’t enough, Alterra has been using the following environmentally friendly practices for years:
Wind Power, PLA plastics (plastic made from corn), using used coffee grounds in vermiculture (worms in composting bins eat coffee grounds and other compostables, and poop out good fertalizer), and a list of green building practices so long, I won’t even go into it here. Check out their website, and be astounded at the coolness.

I like the place. It’s always on the list of places to hit when we’re visiting family in Chicago’s northest suburb. Check it out next time you’re hitting Summerfest or going to the (horribly over priced) Body Worlds at the museum.


Posted in Cafe with tags , , , , on May 18, 2008 by Robb Olson

1621 Chicago Ave.
Evanston, IL 60201

The Breakdown:
Hours: Sunday to Thursday: 11AM – 2AM, Friday to Saturday: 11AM – 3AM
Wi-Fi: Free.
Fair Trade: No.
Vegan/Vegetarian Friendly: A good variety of meat-free selections, Nothing specifically vegan.
Menu: Sandwiches, Salads, Soups. Baked goods. Your typical cafe fare.
Outdoor seating: Weather Permitting
Public Trans: A couple blocks from the Davis Purple Line, also Davis Metra stop.
My eats: Double meat club sandwich, Tuxedo Zombie, Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Avoiding the mermaid: Evanston has a Starbucks growing on practically every corner. Thankfully there’s always going to be a thriving indie coffee scene for those of us not interested in sharing coffee time with Yuppies and Soccer Moms.

Taking a jog just north of the Chicago/Evanston border, I recently sat down to a little meal at Kafein in Evanston, with my friend Jason.

Nestled quite close to Northwestern University’s campus, and also an ever growing and changing downtown Evanston (notably a hybrid of well known chain stores and independent boutiques… a ‘something for everybody’ atmosphere,) Woman-owned Kafein is one of several independent or small chain cafes in the area. And while Cafe Mozart has it’s own kitschy appeal, and Peets Coffee and Tea is always a good place to settle for a bit, Kafein has always drawn me because of its unique ability to be so hip and fun, but draw such a diverse patronage. You could be sitting on a Friday night, and see punk kids, artists, a study group from Northwestern (ok, lots of study groups from Northwestern), and an elderly couple all enjoying food and coffee, completely wrapped up in their own experience.

There’s ample seating in this larger-than-usual cafe, which offers booths, tables, a collection of couches, and the recently added pay-massage recliner near the front window.

The walls are decorated with recreations of classic paintings such as Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, with a Kafein mug in the middle of the hands of God and Adam. Trivial Pursuit cards are placed at all the tables for the customers to enjoy as well. A jukebox near the front sports a wide array of selections, and the Ms. Pacman machine by the counter seems to be in working condition. If music and video games aren’t your bag, maybe pull a book off the wall (tough I noticed mostly Bibles and Clancey/Patterson/Cussler style books, nothing warranting a double take in my opinion – but points for effort) and flip through it while waiting for your order.

The menu is fairly balanced. Offering Hummus plates, Sandwiches and Salads. They have a selection of baked goods, and a fun section of charges for things such as “local directions”, “ordering while on your cell phone”, “Stupid questions”, and “Spontaneous Lapdances.” The price for lapdances? “As if.”

Aside your typical lattes and americanos, Kafein has a specialty coffee drink selection, including an entire “Zombie” section. For those of you not familiar with a Zombie, it’s typically espresso (in this case 3 shots), drip coffee, steamed milk, and whatever flavor is called for. They’re usually served in huge mugs, and bombed out with whipped cream and chocolate/caramel/anything ridiculously sweet. If a ridiculously huge and caffeine injected Zombie is not enough, you have the option to “Spike” any drink… doubling the amount of caffeine (this option comes with a caveat about health risks).

While the cafe tends to get a little loud when it’s busy, it has a lot to offer. Long hours, Free Wi-Fi, and weekly open mic nights. For the sentimental clientele they offer t-shirts and coffee mugs for sale.

The Grind Cafe

Posted in Cafe with tags , , , , on May 10, 2008 by Robb Olson

The Grind
4613 N Lincoln
Chicago, IL 60625

The Breakdown:
Hours: Mon Thru Fri 7 – 10, Sat 8 – 10, Sun 8 – 7
Wi-Fi: Free.
Fair Trade: The Grind uses Intelligentsia coffee, which is Fair Trade and a local Chicago Roaster and coffee company.
Vegan/Vegetarian Friendly: Almost exclusively vegetarian – vegan friendly (The vegan baked good are made exclusively for Grind by a local woman)
Menu: Mostly sandwiches and Salads, also Quiche selections, Spinach pies, extensive choice of baked goods and Vegan baked goods.
Outdoor seating: Weather Permitting
Public Trans: near Lincoln, Lawrence, Damen, Western buses, Brown Line Western Stop.
My eats: Large Iced Mocha, Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie, Tuna Melt with house salad, balsamic vinegrette.

Avoiding the Mermaid: You could have very easily gone to the Starbucks on Wilson and Lincoln, but you would have missed out on the local children’s art hanging on the walls, the extensive sandwich menu, and the short hop across the street to the Davis Theater to see Iron Man!

The Grind is certainly the cherry on top of the delicious treat that is Lincoln Square. Considered the German neighborhood (or one of them) of Chicago, Lincoln Square brings much charm to the table, starting with the recently placed section of the Berlin Wall at the Western Brown Line stop and going all the way to the annual Apple Festival – and all schools of folk music in-between.

So after a busy day of hitting shops like Ravenswood Used Bookstore, Merz Apothecary, Laurie’s Planet of Sound, and the dozens of other shops, boutiques and restaurants that Lincoln Square has to offer, get your second wind sipping a Latte at this great little shop.

Grind has location, and thanks to that it is usually pretty full of laptop wielding hipsters (gratifyingly Apple-heavy, in my opinion) and guitar-toting musicians headed to or from the Old Town School of Folk Music, a block or so south. But surprisingly, my most recent visit was pre-movie viewing Friday night around 8pm, and it was surprisingly quiet. A good note for those of you who like a little peace with your Doppio.

Inside, you’ll find a simplistic floor plan with a dozen or so two-seat tables pretty much laid out in a grid. Lining the walls is whatever selection of local art they have at the moment, currently (as of this writing) it is a collection of Lincoln Square Children’s art. Adorable. You’ll have to walk through the kitchen area to get to the single occupant, locking unisex bathroom. It’s tiny and has character. What do you want? It’s a bathroom.

Their menu boasts an impressive selection of almost exclusively meat-free sandwiches (some tuna for you pescetarians,) salads, soups, and a nice breakfast selection. Anyone who’s into Hummus and Mediterranean styled light sandwiches (lots of greens, hummus, cucumbers, cheese) will delight in the selection here. Another treat that, in my opinion spices up any menu, is the spinach & cheese baked pies they have to offer. In my travels, these little triangles of simplistic taste bud tantalization are a sign of a fun, friendly place to get your java on.

While on the topic, they stock Intelligentsia coffee, which is, like, the Fair Trade kings of Chicago. I don’t even want to go into detail, just go to their website and bask in their fairness. The drinks are good. My mocha didn’t taste like chocolate milk it tasted like a coffee drink, which goes a long way for me. The sweet-toothed coffee lovers might want to ask for a little extra mocha love when ordering.
The staff is your typical twenty-somethings. Friendly kids, Sharing tattoo stories and offering advice on maximizing our sandwich loving experience.

I’ve been to The Grind a few times now, and am still trying to find the downside. I sometimes balk at how busy it is, but that should never be a deterrent for someone looking for great coffee on the go, or willing to share a table with a stranger. Go to The Grind. A lot, you’ll most likely fall in love.

Kopi – A Traveler’s Cafe

Posted in Cafe with tags , , , , on May 4, 2008 by Robb Olson

Kopi Cup
Kopi – A Traveler’s Cafe
5317 N Clark St, Chicago IL 60640
773-989-KOPI (5674)

The Breakdown:
Hours: Mon thru Thurs: 8am – 11pm Fri: 8am – 12am Sat: 9am – 12am Sun: 10am – 11pm
Wi-Fi: No.
Fair Trade: In Spades.
Vegan/Vegetarian Friendly: Almost exclusively vegetarian – vegan friendly (including Chicago Diner vegan baked goods)
Menu: Full Menu
Outdoor seating: Weather Permitting
Public Trans: Near Clark, Damon, Broadway buses, Red Line, Metra.

My eats: Large Mexican Latte, Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie, Sunshine on a Shingle.
Avoiding the Mermaid: Thankfully, Starbucks is rare in Andersonville, but Kopi makes it easy to dodge the nearest one, a half block south.

It may seem a little lame to make the first review be of a cafe in my own back yard, but at the same time it makes sense.

Kopi is located in Andersonville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. Andersonville does double duty as a Swedish neighborhood, and also one of two gay neighborhoods in Chicago. With the main shopping vein of the ‘hood situated on Clark St, Andersonville is a pretty popular spot to hit on the weekends, and what’s great about it is it’s still cheap to live in, and not yet overrun by Potbelly sandwich shops and Baby Gap stores. Kopi, situated in the heart of all the action, takes advantage of Andersonville’s still indie feel, but ever growing, thriving culture and night life.

There’s a reason they call it the traveler’s cafe. Kopi’s decor sports a dozen or so clocks on the wall, all timed to different cities around the world. The counter area has currency tacked up from all Africa, Europe, Asia, practically everything but the US, and there are shelves lining one wall, sporting mostly Lonely Planet guide books to almost any country you could imagine. And if that weren’t enough, there’s an entire space in the back dedicated to selling hippie clothes and accessories which, of course, have a distinct international theme.

Beyond all of that, there is an ever rotating collection of local art hanging on the walls, available for purchase, and usually at reasonable prices.

There’s a dozen or so tables inside, and a handful of floor level tables with cushions on the floor for seats in the front window. In good weather, they have a handful of tables out on the sidewalk as well. When it’s busy, you can bet on a small wait, but never anything unreasonable. I’ve never balked at the wait.

They sport a full (And mostly Vegetarian – only certain menu items contain fish, that’s the only meat you’ll find here) menu including breakfast and entrees that are ethnically diverse, running the gamut from a huge Veggie Burrito to selections of imported cheeses, and my current favorite – a vegetarian biscuits and gravy called “Sunshine on a Shingle”.

The Coffee menu is similarly diverse, offering the basic drip coffees and espresso drinks, but expanding out to items like Mexican Lattes (hot chocolate with espresso). They also offer an impressive tea selection, and sell coffee bagged, most of it – if not all – is fair trade/organic/shade grown. The trifecta of coffee Karma.

When you’re done drinking in the decor and the stomach-rumble inducing aromas, you’ll get typically good service from a generally personable staff. Mostly twenty-somethings deliver you a quirky and fun experience. If it’s not talking tattoos while taking your order, it’s encouraging you to vote for them in the month-long Moustache contest.

Overall, Kopi is a must for the traveling caffeine lover. Service is usually spot on, though on occasion i’ve had my drink delivered as a 16oz rather than the expected 20oz size. Be specific when placing your to go orders, seems a recent addition of the 20oz size is causing some confusion amongst the old guard. But it’s nothing that can be held against what I consider one of the best coffee shops I’ve been to.