Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Houston, we have ignition!

For space fans, make sure to go to the Johnson Space Center outside of Houston, TX. Ignore any reviews that you may have read that you need only a couple hours or that it is primarily a place for kids. Plan on getting there early in the morning so you don't miss out on anything like I did. I eventually got there around 1PM and stayed there until I got kicked out at 5PM. It is a chance to see the original Mission Control from the 1960's, check out a space shuttle, see command modules up close, look at astronaut artifacts, touch moon rocks...in short, it was awesome.

On the subject of coffeehouses, I found the tasty pickings slim.

Agora (1712 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 713-526-7212) is a coffeehouse that really blew my mind. First of all, it is a Greek coffeehouse, so the vibe is completely different. The decor is different in a euro kind of way, the layout is different where there is an upstairs area that was primarily a perimeter balcony (perfect for people watching), and then an upstairs outdoor patio. There are wine and beer bottles lined up along the entire perimeter of the 20 foot L shaped bar. You just pick out the one you want and pay for it. The menu was slightly different. Espresso was served with a lemon rind. Their frappe was a couple scoops of dry nescafe mix, with added milk and blended. Gourmet coffee twas not.  I didn't sit downstairs because most of the chairs they had were the $20 director's chair variety.  I was in Houston for 3 days poking around, but this was the only coffeehouse that I went to twice. The place was hopping both times. The coffee didn't do it for me. Maybe I loved it for the euroness or how different and hip it was but the place had some mystical attraction about it. If I lived in Houston, I would be there all the time.

Catalina Coffee (2201 Washington Ave, Houston, TX 713-861-8448) wants to be serious about coffee and they are probably the most serious out of the Houston area coffeehouses. They had seemingly higher quality beans, and they had a beautiful old school looking Faema espresso machine. After talking with the owner a little, he told me that the machine had a heat exchanger. Oopsie! With a heat exchanger, there is only 1 boiler sharing the water heating duties for both espresso and milk steaming instead of two. The problem with that is with a multi-cup milk frothing session or after making alot of back to back espressos, the water temp dips significantly and it takes time to recover. With ideal espresso water temp being between 198 to 200 degrees, having such temp variability does not a consistent espresso make. Their location seemed to be a little suspect, being in what looked like a rundown industrial neighborhood. The interior is bright and clean, and has a modern, comfortable feeling. I liked the owner's attitude and goals for the coffeehouse and he was likable. The espresso tasted ok, but I wanted to like the espresso more. 

Taft Street Coffee (2115 Taft St, Houston, TX 77006  713-522-3533) is one of a variety of things that the location houses. It is a church, recording studio, community center, art gallery and bookstore. The tables and stools were all the bar height kind, so it kind of took a little getting used to. The barista was very personable, and the place had free wifi. The espresso was ok. And another thing. I passed by this place a bunch of times until I realized that it was ALSO a coffeehouse.

Jaunt to Tulsa

I found myself in Tulsa, OK over the 4th of July holiday. Besides attempting to immerse myself in the local flavor, I invariably found my way to three coffeehouses. The first coffeehouse was Nordaggio's Coffee (8156 S. Lewis Ave #C, Tulsa, OK (918)296-5288). It is in a shopping center across from Oral Roberts University. Nordaggio's has a nice look to it, complete with a fireplace and couch, amongst normal seats and tables. They also had cool art on the walls that used shades of espresso colored inks (not sure if it was actually espresso). My friend got bored of this place quickly, so I got bored of my friend. I loved the fact that they roast all of their own beans, and had a roaster on premises. Their barista did not know what a ristretto espresso was (an espresso with less water), but after I explained it to him, he was happy to oblige. The barista's preparation technique seemed pretty good, and the espresso tasted pretty good as well. They perform latte art too (patterns made on the top of steamed milk by skillful swishing of the milk pitcher typically made into flowers or rosette shapes). They used a la marzocco espresso machine and grinder, which shows that they are serious about their coffee. (La Marzocco is the ferrari of the espresso machine world.) Nordaggio's should be on your short list of coffeehouses to visit in Tulsa. Very Tasty.

The next coffeehouse review goes to The Coffeehouse on Cherry Street (1502 E. 15th St (918) 779-6137.) Again, I ordered a ristretto and the barista looked puzzled so I told him it was a short espresso. He was adamant that a ristretto was a long pull. I reemphasized that I would like a short pull. This particular barista's coffee prep technique was very poor, with a very light tamp (typically one is supposed to tamp with 30 lbs of pressure) and the coffee immediately blonded out of the spout (blonde pertaining to the color. I look for a reddish brown amber color), and the coffee was done in 10 seconds (the target is 25 seconds). Forgetting about the coffee and the 'tude that I got from the barista, the decor is pretty cool. All of the furniture appeared to be from second hand furniture shops and none of it matched (nor was it supposed to.) This coffeehouse also serves food which should be a plus, but I did not try it. They also had a La Marzocco espresso machine, but in the case of this place, it meant nothing. Some other features of this shop include an outdoor patio, and there appears to be a video projector for a movie night or something. My friend looked bored so it was time to go. All in all, a cool place to chill at, but they are not serious about their coffee.

Having shed my bored friend like a dog scratches a flea, I went to another coffeehouse 1.5 blocks away from the Coffeehouse on Cherry Street called Cafe Cuba and Cigars. (1328 E. 15th St, Tulsa, OK 74120 (918) 584-2233.) This shop's barista was refreshingly refreshing, compared to the barista at the Coffeehouse on Cherry Street. The ristretto request here was met with "no problem" and it tasted pretty good. Again, they had LMs, and this place put it to good use. One of my coffee pet peeves is that I internally snicker (isnicker) at places that serve pre-flavored coffee. Cafe Cubana did serve pre-flavored coffee. I cannot remember what it was, but it was along the lines of french vanilla. (what happened to American vanilla?) The way that I look at pre-flavored coffee, the added flavor is so weak and choices are limited. Why not add a shot of your favorite Torani syrup if you want flavor? (such as my favorite sugar free almond). The decor of the place was like a french cafe, and they had some outdoor seating. This place also was in the back of a shopping center, so it was a little hard to see from the street. All in all, I liked this place.