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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.

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Thursday nights are not particularly special, besides being the day before Friday. During the glorious years of law school, Thursday nights played host to “bar reviews”, kicking off a weekend of procrastination and rehabilitation.

The smell of chicken fat burning in charcoal was present two blocks away from El Pollo Rico. 8 pm, and there’s no parking. After driving two loops around the place, I finally get in. When did this side of Arlington become such a hot spot? The place is packed, with mostly customers waiting for to-go orders, some greedily hunched over their plate of chicken.

Three guys around a table, cans of Diet Coke and Inca Cola, steak fries, and a whole charcoal-roasted chicken beaming in eternal glory. One friend, Scholar, says he ate here just the other night, but what the hell, he digs in anyway. The other friend, the Chairman, is a Peruvian chicken virgin, and he seems impressed.

Two lawyers and a historian. As usual, we start off with the political round up, meaning Scholar and I trash the GOP just to spite the Chairman (we always get a kick out of that). Oh the proud Texan and dedicated Old Party-er, but a swell guy. We catch up on life, studying, the job search, women, married life (a recent addition to the repertoire, thanks to yours truly). Overheard by any inquisitive listener, our exchanges, up to this point, are almost as meaningless as talking to an empty chair (who’s idea was that again?).

Almost two whole chickens have been gnawed to the bone, soda emptied, steak fries gone, we change venues. Scholar introduces a coffee and wine joint down the street, and at 10 pm, the place is still hot. Northside Social is my type of coffee house. Casual, vintage-inspired, minimal deco, and most of all, great coffee (they brew Counter Culture).

You know, coffee tastes different depending on what time of day you drink it, and also where you drink it under what circumstances. Counter Culture drip at 10:30 pm on a weeknight, belly stuffed with Peruvian chicken, T-shirt drenched with charcoal smoke – coffee, at that point in time, is at its magnificent peak.

Who would have thought that we would have a dead serious discussion about poetry? I supplied the initial trigger, when I stated, proudly: law students are assholes, and lawyers are bigger assholes. Then from left field, Scholar diagnoses our assholeness to a lack of poetry. Our stale case books and stale minds, he lectures, must be entrenched with buttercream-moist-oozing poems to make up for the lack of humanity in our cursed souls.

With no previously discovered affinity towards poetry, I bluff him off. We may be assholes, I tell him, but let it be known that poetry has nothing to do with it. But jacking my i-Phone, he thrusts under my nose a poem that would, admittedly, lead to my acknowledgement that yes, we lawyers would be smaller assholes if we studied poetry. Here it is –

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

stone and tree and sky,

man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made

the things that bring him near,

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

“Every Riven Thing” by Christian Wiman

 

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