A sudden thirty-degree drop in morning temperatures in the the DC area is a not-so-surprising surprise, if the National Weather Service is correct in predicting record snowfall and temperatures this coming winter. As a survivor of the infamous “Snowmageddon” a few years ago (one slab of memory includes trekking through knee-deep snow to get to the nearest Starbucks for WiFi), I am both looking forward to these predictions and not looking forward to them. While I am curious to see whether this winter will match Snowmageddon, I am not sure how I feel about being trapped indoors for seven days. Make pots and pots of stew, I guess.

In any event, cold mornings have me thinking about two things. Boiling hot bowl of pho and strong coffee.

There are not many establishments where one can get both good savory food and good coffee. Plenty restaurants have good coffee service (I remember the now defunct Adour in the St. Regis hotel in DC serving excellent La Colombe after an exceptional lunch offering), some exceptional, but it is not easy to name a place that I could confidently say that I would dine there for the coffee.

Of course, one hunts down coffee shops for good coffee, where good food is also often discovered, but predictably of the sweet variety.

Pho shops hit you twice. First with that meaty, oily, minty, cilantro-lime-pepper-Sriracha broth. Next with a shot of slow-dripped black magic with near 50% condensed milk content. Meat-savory closely followed by sweet caffeine, a lethal combination for any cold night.

For a good bowl of pho, I usually find myself driving around the outskirts of Vienna, VA, Fairfax, or the more immigrant-dense areas of Falls Church. My experience tells me these places (often run-down joints in hidden streets and alleys) have the best authentic foods, including pho. That partially explains why I have yet to try a decent bowl of pho in the District.

So when I walked into Caphe Banh Mi in Old Town Alexandria, in a more “hip” neighborhood near King Street, I had no expectations. Surprisingly, I was impressed by both pho and coffee.

Here’s what Tom Sietsema (a renowned food critic in his own right) of the Washington Post had to say about their pho. “Pho comes with a minimal amount of the shaved beef we request, and its demure broth requires every accompanying enhancer – lime, jalapeno, Thai basil – to inject more spirit into the bowl.” While he is partially correct, I have to disagree with his overall impression of the place.

First, in a bowl of pho, the “shaved beef,” called “tai,” is the last thing I look forward to. Rather, the more tasty bites come from the tripe, fatty brisket, meatballs, and tendons. Sietsema, of all people, you should know that. (Oh sorry, maybe I’m mistaking you for Robert Sietsema from Eater NY, a respectable offal and ethnic cuisine master) But he’s right in that the bowl could have used more from the animal.

Second, I would not use the word “demure” to describe the broth. I was rather surprised by the depth of the broth; while it was not as deep or flavor-packed as Pho 75 in Falls Church or Viet House in Fairfax, it was rich and clean. And to bash on Sietsema again, part of the pho “spirit” inherently lies in the “accompanying enhancers,” the lime, jalapeno, and Thai basil. You first enjoy the broth as is, and as the meal progresses with each slurp, you drop in the jalapeno and the basil, and of course the bean sprouts, to experience complex layers of texture and flavor. The lime squeeze and Sriracha give you that extra kick on colder days.

On this particular day – drizzling, with random gusts blowing premature leaves into street corners – strong Vietnamese coffee was a welcome closer. And Caphe Banh Mi does it right. While the restaurant owner made a small fortune selling frozen yogurt before opening up the noodle and banh mi shop, strong-sweet coffee is the proper way to wash down the “demure” broth. These things are also potent in iced form during the sweltering summer months, as documented by my friend and co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms, when he wrote, “On that first afternoon in Saigon, I drank three before the old woman with the gentle face put her hand on my shoulder and told me no more. I don’t remember if she spoke English or not, but the message was clear. My hands were trembling and my heart was beating in my throat; Vietnam was suddenly wide open.”

As I transferred the last few spoonfuls from bowl to mouth, I eyed the stainless steel brewing contraption, as the midnight dark coffee (yes, probably way over roasted by my usual standards) slowly dripped down into the waiting pool of condensed milk. A light swirl with the teaspoon across the bottom of the cup transform the black liquid into a murky brown hue, and in three long sips, I am a happier man.

To be fair to Sietsema, the pho at Caphe Banh Mi is not the best I’ve had (not by any means), and I haven’t tried the banh mi. But it’s the closest thing to greatness I’ve come across in Old Town, and there is nothing remotely close in DC. (And I cannot believe the Post would rank Cafe Asia in front of Caphe Banh Mi. Inexcusable.)

So as I dig through my closet in search of running tights on this frigid morning, my thoughts are swimming across seas of beef broth and sweet coffee. Long live the season.

photo

My interview with Tony Krupicka is quickly becoming one of the most-viewed pieces on this site. While most of the reviews and comments have been positive, there were several that raised a legitimate question: why is Tony an “influential coffee person?” Fair enough. This is a good opportunity to elaborate on what I consider to be key factors in determining who the “coffee people” are.

Coffee is like gourmet cupcake stores or Korean BBQ food trucks – it’s everywhere. It exists in various forms, is sold and consumed in various environments, and by various people. Whether one realizes it or not, coffee is a steeped staple in modern life; one does not necessarily have to even be a coffee drinker to be a part of the “coffee value chain.”

Given this vast omnipresence of coffee and the faces behind it, not one stereotype defines a “coffee person.” The range of individuals included in the Coffee People Q&A series (and those that will be featured in upcoming installments) are as diverse as the types of coffee flavorings some choose to wreck their mugs with. Some are professional roasters and baristas, others are coffee bloggers, some are musicians, others are artists. This range is what inspires one to write about coffee.

As Tony pointed out in his first sentence of the interview, he is not “a very educated/informed/nuanced coffee consumer.” Indeed, coffee seems to be only tangentially related to mountain running. The correlation between the two would be a stretch for some, an ambiguity for others.

But consider this. One sunny afternoon in Boulder, CO, Tony posts a photo on his social media page, a photo of a Bialetti sitting on a portable burner on the tailgate of his pickup. A pair of running shoes in the background. That single photo sparked a string of responses, almost all of which revolved around brewing coffee with a Bialetti, or portable coffee brewing in the mountains.

That is coffee influence.

The essence of the Coffee People series is to capture the role of coffee in people’s lives, how coffee has shaped them, and how they have shaped the realm of the coffee world. Another objective is to paint how coffee influences different cultural sectors, be it design, fashion, music, food, or mountain running.

Being a professional coffee person is no prerequisite for coffee talk. To go even further, being a so-called “knowledgeable” coffee drinker is no prerequisite for coffee talk. Whether one drinks only the finest hand-poured brews, or any old steaming black cup of joe, coffee talk is coffee talk. The breadth of folks involved in this daily ritual is what makes the series.

So who brews daily morning shots at 11,000 feet above sea level, in a truck? A coffee person.

The Coffee People series (interviews with influential coffee people) is back, with a force. In previous installments (here and here), we discussed coffee + design and coffee + culture. Today, we push the limits a bit further on what it means to be an “influential” coffee person, and explore the intersection of coffee and running, coffee and the mountains.

Anton “Tony” Krupicka is a Boulder, Colorado-based mountain runner who has taken the trail running circuit by storm since winning the legendary Leadville 100 in 2006, and again in 2007. He is a two-time USATF 50 mile Trail National Champion and course record holder (2009, 2010), and in 2010, Tony was the runner-up in the prestigious Western States 100, a race captured in the film Unbreakable: The Western States 100. He has been a New Balance Outdoor Ambassador since 2008 and is also sponsored by Buff Headwear, Ultimate Direction, Petzl, and Zeal Optics.

But perhaps, more than the wins and endorsement deals, Tony is better known as an embodiment of “minimal running,” summitting the peaks of “14ers” (mountains in the Sawatch Range of Colorado that have an elevation of over 14,000 feet) in just running shorts and a water bottle tucked into those shorts. For half the year, Tony is on the road, running and racing abroad or living in the back of his Chevy S-10 pickup truck “The Roost,” haunting the mountain ranges of the American West, exploring every square foot of terrain in the most sustainable fashion.

Along with minimalism, Tony exemplifies a new style of running, in which he “started pursuing remote summits, long traverses, and ambitious link-ups in a single-push style that requires a unique combination of mountain running fitness and technical climbing competence.”

Tony is also a prolific writer and photographer, regularly contributing columns to Running Times and the Ultimate Direction Blog, and jotting down his musings and grandiose photos on his beautiful website, http://www.antonkrupicka.com/.

While there are many interviews with Tony, this is no race report or thought piece on better running per se. Instead, I caught up with him shortly after the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix to talk coffee, pain au chocolat, and of course, the mountains.

Many thanks to Tony for taking the time to do this. Enjoy.

*          *          *

“The mountains give me hints and tips on how to live with intensity and attention.”

A typical summer post-run scene for Tony, on the "porch" of the Roost. Photo: Anna Frost

A typical summer post-run scene for Tony, on the “porch” of the Roost.
Photo: Anna Frost

INL: Your typical pre-run morning routine consists of: get up, brew two shots of espresso, drink said two shots, and run. Brewing coffee in the high country can be tricky. How do you manage your morning espresso when you camp out in “The Roost,” your affectionately named white pickup?

AK: First, let me clarify that I’m really not a very educated/informed/nuanced coffee consumer. And that your readership probably cares/knows a whole lot more about all of this than I do. So, I’m a Bialetti man. Sometimes I’ll do the mini, 2oz version and just add roughly equal amounts of hot water to make an Americano. If I’m looking for a little extra kick, or I’m having a particularly difficult time waking up, or I’m really into procrastinating and reading my book before running, then I’ll brew up the more standard 6oz version, and usually don’t add quite as much water then, either. This is all via a JetBoil camp stove, on the tailgate of my truck.

Morning brew via Bialetti, on "the Roost." Photo: Anton Krupicka

Morning brew via Bialetti, on “the Roost”
Photo: Anton Krupicka

INL: Regarding coffee beans, do you have a preferred roaster? How do you usually brew your coffee? (espresso all the way, French press at times, drip sometimes?)

AK: As outlined above, I’ve only brewed via the Bialetti. I’ve yet to venture into French presses or pour-overs or drip or whatever else. I have a couple of roasters here in Colorado that I’ve found myself returning to. First, my buddy Geoff Roes was home-roasting a bunch last winter and I would always get a 12oz bag from him every week or two. Since he’s moved back to Alaska I’ve gone back to the larger, local roasters (well, larger than Geoff’s garage, at least). In Boulder, my default seems to be Boxcar and occasionally Ozo. One of my favorite café’s in town, though—Spruce Confections—uses Kaladi. And I love their coffee. Never bought the beans myself, however.

I actually worked as a barista at a great coffee shop in Leadville, CO, for two summers. It was called Provin’ Grounds when I worked there but has since changed ownership and its name (City On A Hill), and they now roast their own coffee, so whenever I’m up there (which is a lot), I buy their stuff. Usually their Mount Massive Medium Roast. Finally, simply because I’m a big fan of the town and this particular coffee shop, I gotta give a shout out to the Buena Vista Roastery in Buena Vista, CO. I’ve bought a few bags of beans there, too, and they were great. Not sure I have the most discerning palate, though.

Tony, just another day in the Sawatch Range, this time on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft). Photo: Anton Krupicka

Tony, just another day in the Sawatch Range, this time on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft).
Photo: Anton Krupicka

INL: Since becoming a “full time” runner, you have had the luxury of going on (more or less) two long runs per day. In between those runs, you’re known to hang out in local coffee shops to read, rest, and catch up on the Internet of things. Do you have any favorite cafes in Boulder? If so, what makes it (them) attractive? How is the café scene?

AK: I definitely have my favorite spots in Boulder. I’ve had an apartment on the west side of downtown now for a little over a year, so my routine has generally settled into Trident Bookstore and Café and Spruce Confections. Both are a five-minute walk from my front door and on Boulder’s iconic Pearl Street. If I’m looking for a change of scene, I’ll go to Ozo, basically just across the street from Trident, but it’s rarely my first choice.
Spruce is attractive because it’s the classic sidewalk café. There is barely any indoor seating and the outdoor seating is excellent, with a little shaded, garden area. Even Boulder’s winter weather is typically pretty excellent (sunny), so it somehow works year-round. There is also no wifi. So, this is my default first-thing-in-the-morning-cuppa-jav spot with a friend or a book if I’m not brewing it myself on my kitchen range. They’re primarily a bakery, and their fresh scones are probably my favorite in town. They supply a lot of other cafes around town with their scones, too, but, of course, they’re never as fresh at those places. The clientele runs the gamut, but I would say is generally pretty upscale/wealthy (as is much of Boulder, generally speaking). This is not your gritty hipster joint. (Not much of anything about Boulder is very gritty, though.) And the lack of wifi mercifully keeps Boulder’s plentiful tech crowd away, too. They have live music on Sunday mornings (usually very strings- and winds-heavy and Parisian feeling). It’s a great spot.

“Two double-shots of espresso, two pain au chocolat and I’m ready to go run in the Alps all day.”

Trident is my workhorse hang-out. It’s a Boulder institution. Ample seating, wooden floors, brick walls with art hanging, connected bookstore next door, it’s probably the closest thing to an intellectual, hipster hang-out in Boulder, but definitely across all ages. Some of that at The Laughing Goat, too, down on East Pearl. Cell phones are frowned upon (you’ll be asked to step outside), conversations are generally kept fairly muted. People are totally welcome to chat and converse, and do, but the general vibe is very mellow, not boisterous and high-energy at all. Lots of books, lots of Macbooks, lots of horn rims. They serve up Boxcar coffee, and tie with Spruce for my favorite Americano in town. I do a lot of reading here, some interneting. Generally an afternoon spot for me. They don’t do any baking in-house, and their pastries are pretty limited, but they carry a couple of bars/cookies that I really like and that I don’t find any place else in that part of town.

Ozo is kind of the big successful joint in Boulder. They have another location out on the east part of town. Their West Pearl location is only a couple of years old, and it has apparently stressed Trident’s business some, which is too bad. Ozo is kind of the opposite of Trident. Trident baristas serve up tough love—the default seems to be scorn and you have to earn their warmth, which is fine with me—whereas Ozo is all about customer service. Baristas are young, hip, bouncy, high-energy, and never stodgy or put-out to serve up your jav. The music is loud (and far too often tends to reggae, which grates on my nerves something fierce), encouraging loud conversations and hustle and bustle. I will read a book here now and then, but it seems to be primarily a computer hang-out, along with business meetings. Lots going on in here. They don’t do any in-house baking, so they bring in others’ pastries (including Spruce’s scones), but I think they’re pretty obviously crushing it as a roaster.
There’s a lot more going on in the Boulder coffee scene. The Cup, The Laughing Goat, Jet’s Espressoria, Innis Free, Café Sole on the south side, Amante Coffee, The Brewing Markets, etc., etc., but I just don’t make it to these places nearly as often. There seems to be a fair bit of turn-over in the scene, too. I’ve lived in Boulder for five years, and in that time three different coffee shops on Pearl St (Saxy’s, Boulder Bookstore Café, Atlas Purveyors) all went out of business, and I really enjoyed all three.

I think, in general, especially given its relatively small population (100,000), Boulder is considered to have a pretty hoppin’ café scene. Obviously, it’s no San Fran or Portland or even Denver, but I enjoy it.

Becoming overwhelmed by the majestic sense of place of the mountains is reason enough to climb a mountain a day. Indian Peaks. Photo: Joe Grant

Becoming overwhelmed by the majestic sense of place of the mountains is reason enough to climb a mountain a day. Indian Peaks.
Photo: Joe Grant

View of lightly-powdered Longs Peak from Chasm Lake (Rocky Mountain National Park) Photo: Joe Grant

Trekking across a frozen Chasm Lake, at the doorstep of lightly-powdered Longs Peak (Rocky Mountain National Park)
Photo: Joe Grant

INL: In terms of food, I know that you do not follow a rigid diet of any sort, besides your fair share of fruits and vegetables. I do know, however, that you are no nay-sayer when it comes to simple carbohydrates. Which café best satisfies your renowned sweet tooth? Do you have a favorite dessert?

AK: Improbably, in Bouder, Jet’s Espressoria down on East Pearl does some killer baked goods. Cookies, sweet breads, etc. City On A Hill in Leadville probably has the highest number of sweet-things-I-want-to-eat. Best scones I’ve ever had. Lemon bars, cookies. Their sweet breads—particularly the vegan Pumpkin Bread—are great. Pannikin in Encinitas, CA, is probably my favorite all-around café anywhere, though. Their baked goods are out of this world. All of them. And they’re located in an old train depot. It’s an exceptional spot.

If we’re talking about the single best sweet treat anywhere in the world, though, the muffins at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs are truly enigmatic. Each one is reliably incredible—especially the Cherry/White Chocolate—and despite extensive research around the world, I’ve never found anything else that compares. Most muffins are crap—spongy, cake-y blah. Wooglins’ are a transcendent experience.

Finally, I spend a lot of time running and racing in Europe, and the espresso and chocolate croissants at Aux Petit Gourmands in Chamonix—pain au chocolat—are pretty much the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. Two double-shots of espresso, two pain au chocolat and I’m ready to go run in the Alps all day!

INL: You are oft-described as a “minimalist” runner – minimal gear, minimal clothes, just you and the mountain. I find that my approach to coffee is similar; minimalist coffee, no frills, no hippity hipster hipe, just quality beans roasted and brewed in a technically sound way. How is “minimalism” reflected in other aspects of your life?

AK: Oh boy. Hmmm. I hate talking/writing about this kind of stuff because it’s too easy to come off as preachy. I guess I just try to prioritize the things in my life that I know will make me a happy, healthy, functioning human. I don’t have it completely figured out, and there are lots of things that I would like to improve about my current approach to the world, but if I can get up a mountain and read a good book—often with some good coffee in hand—then it’s been a good day and a lot of other things tend to fall into place more easily.

Tony on his way to a first-place finish (12:42:31) at the Lavaredo 199K in Italy. Photo: The North Face Europe

Tony on his way to a first-place finish (12:42:31) this June at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 199K in the Dolomites of Italy.
Photo: The North Face Europe

INL: You teamed with filmmaker Joel Wolpert – “The Wolpertinger” – again to write, shoot, and produce “In the High Country,” a thirty-minute impressionistic mirage of mountain and man, cliff and man, land and man. Towards the end of the film, you wrote: “When integration of self and place seem seamless . . . that is when the mountains truly become home.” Regarding coffee, I once wrote, “Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place.” What does trail running have to do with the sense of “place”?

AK: For me, a huge part of running in the mountains is focusedly experiencing my surroundings with a higher degree of attention. Integrating myself into my surroundings in a way that requires me to tune in, be aware, be present—not tune out. If that doesn’t imbue one with a more rich, nuanced sense of place, I’m not sure what will. The thing about moving quickly in the mountains is that this kind of focus and attention almost becomes a requirement.

“Outside of running, writing is my most apt form of creative expression . . . I suppose running and writing intersect in that they’re both forms of challenge and creativity.”

INL: What was your thought process when you were writing the narration for “In the High Country”? What does writing mean to you? When and how does “running” intersect with “writing”?

AK: The narration for ITHC was co-wrote by Joel and myself. I tend to be long-winded. I re-read a bunch of my old stuff and then wrote a typical, wordy, too-long new essay around the topics of “home” and “place”. This was pretty horrific. Joel and I put off recording the narration until the very last day of filming in Colorado because we were both pretty frustrated with where it was. Finally, in a late-night, by-headlamp session at Halfmoon Creek near Leadville, Joel took my essay and brilliantly distilled it down to a series of much more focused, terse statements. This was essentially the narration that made it into the film. The next morning, Joel and I went over each sentence word by word, together, until we were happy with it, and recorded it.

In general, I’m not sure how to answer the second two parts to your question. I guess, most essentially, outside of running, writing is my most apt form of creative expression. I typically find it more frustrating than anything, but like anything worthwhile, I also feel a sense of satisfaction after I’ve put a bunch of time and effort into writing something. I suppose running and writing intersect in that, like I said before, they’re both forms of challenge and creativity for me. Like anyone who has run, I constantly experience the frustration of being out on a run and thinking of the perfect way to word something, but then when it comes to sitting down and actually writing it later, that inspiration and ability has seemingly evaporated.

INL: You have now run across numerous mountain ranges on different continents, your hair flowingly fluttering through atmospheres to and fro, your battered feet scrambling and sliding in the midst of rocks here and there. What has your trail runner career taught you about travel thus far? How are they related?

AK: Travel is all about being open-minded and adaptable. If you have a strict, rigid agenda, not only will you miss out on the whole point of travel—to experience new things and meet new people—but you will inevitably be frustrated because there are too many variables involved in travel to stay in complete control. Accept your lack of control in a foreign environment and be open to arising opportunities and situations.

A shot from near Flegere, the top of the last climb on the UTMB course Photo: Jordi Saragossa

A shot from near Flegere, the top of the last climb on the UTMB course
Photo: Jordi Saragossa

INL: To me, bustling open air markets – stench and all – have stories to tell. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants in some basement serving one thing for three decades have stories to tell. To you, I’m sure each mountain pass has its own story. Which trail or peak tells the best tales for you? What do the mountains tell you?

AK: I think my home mountains—the in-town peaks and crags of Boulder and Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park—probably tell me the best tales. Or the most meaningful ones, at least. Because these are the hills I visit the most, I know them best, and my lifetime experience-base in the mountains is most obviously shaped by them. Basically, the mountains give me hints and tips on how to live with intensity and attention.

INL: Last but not least, please summarize your life in the mountains – and your trail running – in ten words or less.

AK: Curiosity, challenge, discomfort, serenity, and personal growth.

*          *          *

Things have a source, the originating mother ship that seems to always be there. Whatever the source, one’s proximity to it is often valuable, if not enviable, and no doubt preferable.

Food is no different.

Sushi connoisseurs often tell tall tales of their ability to taste the difference of nigiri sushi by “distance” alone. In other words, nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed at the bar (the source) tastes better than nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed elsewhere, say a table thirty feet away. From the first seconds when the sushi chef molds the rice, smears the wasabi, and places the fish, each bite becomes less perfect as the nigiri ventures further away. After all, Edo-style sushi originated as a commuter’s meal, made in roadside stands, meant to be eaten on the go. Nigiri is only nigiri when the transfer time between sushi chef and patron comprises of a few heartbeats. Proximity is not an option.

Ramen – or any type of hot noodle soup for that matter – is a ticking time bomb. Timing is everything for an immaculate noodle dish. The second the steaming, semi-boiling broth hits the noodles, it begins “decomposing,” rapidly giving in to the spiking temperature and sodium. Noodles, broth, scallions, bean sprouts, nori, and off you go. Sitting right there at the bar is a complete immersion into the ramen experience. Not only does it taste better, but the action – the clanking, shouting, steaming, stirring, flipping – is part of the taste, feeding the eyes before vapors hit the nose or broth envelopes the tongue. Feeds the eyes, feeds the nose, the source does. Proximity is not an option.

According to this recent article in Time, mozzarella cheese has been scientifically proven to be the “best” cheese for pizza. But no matter the quality or type of cheese, it’s no secret that the further the fresh margherita pizza travels from the oven, the less relevant it becomes, falling to an obsolete afterthought that no one remembers. There’s something unique about seeing your pizza go into a Neapolitan oven, to sit at a table with a clear view to said oven, and to gulf down a still-squirming slice while a steady flow of pies go in and out of that oven. The mozzarella and tomato sauce cool to Goldilocks-right as the server takes just the right number of steps from the oven to the table. Proximity is not an option.

Living in this concrete jungle we call city, one often feels distant from a source, known or unknown. Perhaps that explains why one feels liberated – or at home – stepping on grass or running on soil. Concrete layers and cement blocks under the feet may elevate off the ground, both literally and figuratively, but they also strip you from your source, to the point where concrete whispers in your ear that it is your new source, your new home.

The recent “farm-to-table” phenomenon is a meager attempt to restore this sense of proximity to one’s food source. But even at its best, what you’re getting is fresh meat and produce cooked in a restaurant kitchen in the heart of some downtown, miles and miles away from the rancher or farmer that last had contact with what’s on the plate. In essence, farm-to-table is our dear outcry to take a step back to the source, to the soil. It’s our leap towards proximity.

Not all of us can live on a farm and cook our meals right next door. But in the meantime, we can all appreciate the sense of proximity one gets from “fire-to-mouth” dining, whether it’s ramen or pizza. Closer to the fire, closer to the heat, closer to the source. Closer to what makes food, food.

Photos: Daikaya (http://daikaya.com/), Pupatella (http://www.pupatella.com/)

What we put in our mouths represents nothing short of who we are, or who we think we are, or who we think we should be.

In the myriad of first world problems we swim in, food often is beyond caloric intake, sustenance, or even pleasure. Rather, that imported can of caviar, that foam-lathed bit of butter poached lobster tail, that century old bottle of red depicts what your suit, your car, your business card dictates. Presumptions of stature.

In resuming to write on this blog, I find myself sandwiched in two divergent worlds, like pb & j and foie gras – unless someone can prove me otherwise. At one end of the table sits the machinery known as Corporate America, a merciless, meticulous creature that thumps according to its own artificial heartbeat. At the other end sits a new-found interest to reconnect with earth, the soil, the mountains, through the primitive art form known as running. Nothing foamy about that.

So as I resurface with a new job and a new mindset, the most appropriate topic for this entry is the oyster.

Oysters deliciously ironic. In many parts of the world, oysters – paired with that can of imported caviar – represent another presumption of stature. A little bubbly, some of them black pearls, and slurp one’s way into the first world. But if one truly thinks this through, one cannot resist from laughing.

Out of the thousands of natural ingredients available to man, the oyster is one of few that takes the least pampering before consumption. Yes, lemons, horseradish, cocktail sauce are understandably on standby. However, let us not kid ourselves; we eat oysters for their oysterness. Shuck and slurp.

The most simple, primitive, minimalistic ingredient as a symbol of something more. While I cannot pinpoint exactly what that is, the aftertaste is remarkably reminiscent of tiny plates with tiny bites and green sauce spooned across.

Food and coffee culture has begun a wide turn to return to its roots: good food, good coffee, good company. White tablecloth and double skim soy mocha flat something chinos are, in some instances, losing their grip to down-to-earth real cooking and meticulous coffee brewing that focus on one thing: taste.

“Food minimalism” is not a new way of viewing food. It is a way of redefining who we are. It is the inherent process of stripping down to the core of cooking, which circles around food that tastes good and eating in communal fashion. Everything else is secondary.

And by the way, these are clams on the half shell, courtesy of the Blue Pig Tavern in Cape May, NJ. Delicious, at a fraction of the price of their cousins.

Walking out of the screening of “Chef” the movie, a prominent thought in one’s mind has to be, “I’ve got to get me a Cubano. Now.” After the pork fantasy subsides, the next prominent thought is the “pretentiousness” of the food and coffee world. When does one cross the line between “connoisseur” and “snob”? How does one define “good” food or coffee? Or is there even such a definition? Can good food be just “good,” and can good coffee be just “good,” without the superlatives, adjectives, and the beards and flannel?

While spending some time away from this site, I was asking myself some of these questions. As a read various coffee reviews and food columns – and as I tried to wrap my head around those honey-blood orange-cactus-butterfly-cumquat cupping notes – I realized that coffee and food is not some hipster fad. Rather, they are fundamentals of life that have been part of people’s lives since the dawn of civilization (yes, coffee came a bit later). Gatherers gathered, hunters hunted, farmers farmed, fishermen fished. And at the end of the day, folks built a fire and gathered around a table to break bread. Good food, good people. No nonsense, just communion.

When I first planned to write about Northside Social in Arlington (alas, already several months ago), I remember being somewhat disappointed that the cafe did not offer pour over coffee. I thought to myself, you’re serving great Counterculture Coffee, and all you have is that pre-dripped Bunn trash that I can get at the diner down the street? And yes, I was planning to write a harsh review on Northside’s lack of coffee sophistication, that while serving as a cool local hangout, the cafe did not offer anything worth noting.

Snob. Douche. Unappreciative of what coffee, and food, is all about.

Northside Social is the perfect cafe for a late night shot of whatever (and wine upstairs) with terrific pastries (biscotti and chocolate cake are worth every bite) and sandwiches. When most other cafes are closed by nightfall, Northside runs strong into the night, buzzing until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Besides having more than enough tables outside for a cold one on a summer night, live music in the cafe is not a stranger, as musicians from all roads come and go with their tales.

Good coffee is so much more than cupping notes. The countless minutes I wasted swirling my Chemexed brew around my tongue to get a glimpse of that preserved blackberry note. While quality beans roasted perfectly will undoubtedly have pronounced flavors, there is no need to make coffee more than what it is. Some of the best food I’ve had came from the fish-gut riddled streets of an outdoor market in rural Korea, and I was applying a different standard to coffee. A lack of pour over service is not a death sentence. Maybe I don’t need to know the exact soil content of the micro lot the coffee came from. Maybe I just won’t drop a Benjamin to buy that state-of-the-art coffee scale, maybe I just won’t nervously eye the stopwatch to time my brew to the exact second.

Maybe I’ll just brew coffee and drink coffee.

Excellence should be awarded. Perfection should be pursued, and perfected. Yes, please don’t stop developing those personal relationships with micro lot farmers, and please don’t stop working the soil to harvest the best coffee there is. Please keep the science moving.

But at the end of the day, it’s meat over an open pit, fresh bread from the oven, and coffee. It’s that steaming Cubano from the truck. It’s a good meal with good people, and coffee. A good Cubano is not birthed by chance; marinating the pork, roasting it, slicing it, buttering the bread, pressing it down on the grill, all requires precise science, innovation, technique. But that Einstein Cubano is not meant to be eaten with forks and knives. It’s best when eaten curbside, hot mustard and grease running down your thumb, the Autumn heat pounding on the back of your neck.

Coffee tastes of the atmosphere. It’s a communal beverage, soaking in the notes of the music and people that surround it during consumption. In that realm, Northside has great coffee. Folks chatting over a glass of wine, folks chomping on paninis with their eyes glued to their Macbook monitors, folks splitting a thick slab of triple-chocolate cake over late night coffee. Lively, boisterous, unpretentious. Coffee where coffee belongs, in the midst of conversation, work, tears, joy. Amongst the people.

Give coffee back to the people.

Admittedly, it is not normal for one to enjoy a cup of hot, drip coffee at nine p.m. But a life of sole individual norms does not add to much, and for no particular reason, I have a personal tradition of ordering black coffee before late night movies. It is as addictive, and comforting, as extra-buttered popcorn or warm kettlecorn. As others munch through their bags of corn, I sip incessantly, sometimes consciously, but mostly at a pace of utter ignorance and lack of thought. I just drink.

Coffee at the movies does not usually generate much conversation. Not only is it less popular than the standard popcorn, nachos, and soda, but the quality is (understandably) below what I would consider drinkable. Somewhere between law school coffee and the three p.m. leftover pot at work. For coffee, that is kin to the eighth ring of hell, in Dante’s terms. Soda and popcorn, that is the staple. Soda and nachos, soda and hotdogs. I find incredible, heartfelt joy when I find another being sipping coffee at the movies, as if I’d found a long lost kin.

Angelika Film Center and Cafe is like none other. When it first opened its theater in the Mosaic District in Northern Virginia, people flocked to it for the balanced showings of independent and blockbuster films, the occasional foreign features, and believe it or not, the kimchi hotdog – which I’ve tried, and to my disappointment, is nothing special. Bollywood or no Bollywood, kimchi-dog or no kimchi-dog, what drew my attention was the shiny La Marzocco espresso machine on the first floor. I could not believe my eyes. Where was the Denny’s coffee pot, and Bunn brewing thing?

Along with beer on tap and an impressive assortment of baked goods, the tiny cafe in the corner brews Intelligentsia coffee, even at the utmost late hours, for addicts like me shaking to take that fresh cup into the showing. The baristas knew what they were doing, and let’s just say that sipping quality coffee at the movies was something I did not expect to see in this decade.

After opening its flagship theater in New York’s Soho district in 1989, Angelika has expanded into Dallas and Plano, Texas, and Northern Virginia. This is not the AMC you’re accustomed to. The interior design, the layout, and the lighting is more like an exhibition, patrons lounging and chatting with a glass of wine, pint of beer, and yes, coffee. Gourmet snacks, gourmet-level independent films, and a gourmet atmosphere is very fitting for gourmet coffee.

Angelika’s iconic logo, resembling the likes of a mixed breed between a Greek god, Roman soldier, and rugby stud, hangs prominently on one wall, as if to watch over the patrons as they ascend or descend the glass stairs to and from the theaters. I wish, however, that Angelika would make more use of the logo. Simple prints or stamps of it on the coffee cups or sleeves would be a nice touch, and would enhance its branding.

Tapping the Fandango app on my phone, finding a new movie I’ve barely heard of, realizing that it starts in thirteen minutes, rushing to the theater, barely making it to my seat to catch the final seconds of previews – with a cup of Intelligentsia coffee in hand. Fewer things in life could be more satisfying.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,324 other followers

%d bloggers like this: