Lorenzo L., Columbia University
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It has been a while since last documenting my caffeinated wanderings, but I return from a far distant urban jungle bearing the good news of carefully crafted warm beverages. One of my favorite Manhattan neighborhoods (if I’m allowed to have favorite neighborhoods as a mere college student?) is the Bowery, and I try to get down around East 4th whenever I can. The narrow region is eclectic, diverse, and very alive, a place where trendy and workaday can sit side by side, with awesomeness squeezed in between. But recently I have been venturing further east into the similarly charming Lower East Side, and have been rewarded by spots with espresso enthusiasts ranging from the friendly to the fanatical (or both!).
My adventures began about a month ago, when, taking a walk along little old Rivington Street I did a double take passing an inconspicuous glass door with a menu pasted on it. Closer inspection revealed I had missed a small sign indicating the establishment to be called The National. I resolved to learn more about the place, and when I returned I found a trendy (but not excrutiatingly so) one-room restaurant organized with an ex-patriot pre-war décor in mind. I was enamored as soon as I saw a massive bag of Stumptown’s Hairbender Espresso dominating one of the shelves, but this infatuation grew into a healthy, balanced relationship after 3 tiny fresh-baked lemon muffins and a strong latte. The establishment’s rustic-looking espresso machine fit in with the kitschy design, but more importantly, produced a distinctive slant on Stumptown’s espresso beans that complemented my tart muffins, especially when tempered in latte form. The National is an establishment that is part of a recent trend that I’m hoping grows, or at least sticks around: New American, moderately priced, and organic-minded restaurants that take their beverages as seriously as their food. These types of restaurants also often have a chameleon-like quality, transforming from café to restaurant to bar depending on the hour of the day or night. The similar establishment Peels (which is directly on the Bowery Ave., and which I also recommend) performs the same changeovers, but while Peels is a destination, The National is a refuge in the best possible way.
But restaurants are the new kid on the block when it comes to great coffee in the LES. Think Coffee establishments are reliable places for a good cappuccino, although they have perhaps unfairly taken on the subtitle in my head of “the inferior Joe”; it doesn’t help that they have a location in the NYU bookstore. If you are around Lafayette and 8th Street (Astor Place) you might see the bright orange Mud Truck, which prepares coffee so good that the Sweetery truck has nightmares about it. Sure it’s expensive for a drink made in a glorified van, but somehow their baristas brew their espresso with better hardware and infinitely more care and precision than anything Nussbaum does.
But what am I talking about? Sure these places are on the East side, and sure, they’re south of 14th, but I’m not really talking about the Lower East Side yet, am I? Oh, hardy adventurer, if you are ready to brave the subway transfers that are involved in getting down south of the numbers, then Alphabet City, and finally south of Delancey Street, there is a wonderful pot of (coffee) gold at the end of the rainbow. Dora Coffee, conveniently located on East Broadway after Seward Park, is situated in an odd neighborhood of wide avenues, old buildings, seedy Chinese food restaurants, views of the Chrysler Building, and two bridges. The interior is spare and unassuming, and the little coffee shop caters primarily to teachers at the surrounding schools and the regulars/employees of two nearby art galleries. “Then what’s so great about this neighborhood spot?” you may rhetorically ask. What’s great about every great coffee place: the people and the coffee. I did not flippantly pair the words “friendly” and “fanatical” at the beginning of this piece; those are the baristas at Dora. Engage one of the coffeemeisters in conversation, you won’t regret it. Don’t worry about engaging the various clientele though; they’ll just start talking to you (not always a good thing, but it’s part of the experience). Needless to say, Dora is unfortunately not a study location.
Regarding the coffee – and WARNING I’m going to sound really obsessive here – I had a really phenomenal latte. I do not use the word “phenomenal” lightly. There was the standard millimeter of textured foam over the top, with latte art, of course, but the latte art was not disruptive to the texture of the drink, as the designs sometimes are. More importantly, the foam was uniformly whole and intact, but also easily permeable when you drank. You know when baristas (at NoCo Joe, even) tap the milk jug on the counter several times? They’re breaking bubbles because the milk has become too frothy—and if the milk’s too frothy, it’s difficult to create the right drink that forms “latte art” with the espresso’s crema and still mixes well underneath. But my barista needed to resort to no cheap tricks to craft the drink, and the espresso itself was rich and creamy in a way that was completely unrelated to the milk. The coffee was perfect for warding off the spring showers outside, and well worth the expedition. I plan to return soon, the next time the LES draws me again into its rough but inspiring terrain.