Saturday, August 1, 2009

Murky Coffee No Iced Espresso Rule Bites me in the Palate. Or the tale of the ghetto latte that never was.

The other day while walking around DC with a friend who we all know as Mr. T, which is made somewhat hilarious by his mostly gentle demeanor and stringy physique, we decided to go check out a local cafe for an afternoon pick-me-up. We walked into Chinatown Coffee in (you guessed it) Chinatown whereupon I made the hideous and unforgiveable request for a coffee the way I like it.

My coffee of choice is cold, and it is strong. I like a doubleshot of espresso with some water and lots of ice. I used to order this as an iced americano, but too much of the time this comes only lukewarm, not cold, and too heavily diluted with water. So I took to ordering it as a double espresso over ice, figuring I could always ask them to top it up with a little water or more ice if the drink looked too concentrated.

Imagine my surprise when I was schooled on the finer points of coffee by the barista, who insisted that an iced espresso has been proven to taste bad, and then on proper coffeehouse etiquette, by telling me that 90-95% of the people who order an iced espresso then make themselves (and I'm quoting here, as this is exactly what was said,) "a ghetto latte" by filling up the cup with milk.

Ghetto latte? Ghetto? Are we still using this word? I prefer to invoke the shtetl in the old country, where my forebears would walk their tin cups of coffee poured over, I suppose snow (since refrigeration was antiquated at best there in the town of Necviz, which my grandfather once told me means "bad odor"). They'd then hold it under old Bessie and milk her right into the cup.

Sorry, is that the wrong ghetto? Perhaps you're referring to one of the poblaciones in Santiago, like La Victoria, or maybe a favela like Rocinha in Rio de Janiero. Or maybe Soweto in Johannesburg. Ghetto latte. Look it up. Or don't. I already have. 17,000 hits on Google can't be wrong.

Getting back to what's wrong with accusing me of being on the brink of the heinous sin of creating a "ghetto latte," I also don't ever put much milk in my coffee, which will be important in just a paragraph or two, show me patience (sorry, lotta two year old over here). So the preemptive accusation that I was planning on "stealing" an unfair quantity of milk, more than I deserved, in a world where coffee costs $12 a pound, and they use not a tenth of that and charge me $3 for my espresso, and then leave out all that free milk for the ghetto latte makers to dare to dump into their coffee is not only misguided, but also preposterous.

Plus I was surprised to find out that that the coffee I like, is simply not tasty. This reminds me of a time I went to a cafe in Santiago and ordered a tuna sandwich for breakfast. Eeew, the look on the waitress' face said. You eat that for breakfast? Yeah, I do, I said, Now smile and go get it, porfis (cute Chilean slang for please). Also, as Mr T pointed out, if someone wants their coffee with a raw egg and some toilet water in it, your job, as the barista is to prepare it that way with a smile. The economy's failing, people.

Back in the cafe, of the many things I would learn between the time I walked into the coffee bar and when I ultimately ordered something more mutually agreeable to both me and the barista at hand is that there was a giant to-do at the predecessor coffeeshop to this one, one called Murky Coffee, where an altercation between a customer who (guess what?) dared to order an iced espresso, and offered a work-around, when told he couldn't have one, which included a glass of ice and a triple shot of espresso, later led to the nasty scribbling of invectives on a dollar bill left as a tip, an offer to commit arson, and the owner threatening to punch the customer in a part of the anatomy that a) women don't have and b) I didn't even know people would want to punch. The owner's name rhymes with Rick. So does the part of the anatomy. So you'll imagine that these stories might not be exactly work-safe. Here, here, here and here.

In the end, we stayed, because we wanted to support a local business (though at the moment I question why we decided to support this one), we were thirsty, and wanted to try the coffee. I decided to order a cappucicino, which would rob me of the opportunity to partake in the putatively free milk, and then asked for it dry, because I don't like that much milk in my coffee (see above). But once again, the barista knew better than I did, and prepared a perfectly-frothed cappuccino, just like the man told him to, with a pretty little leaf design on the top. It was sublime, one of the best cups of cappuccino I've ever tasted. But it was not dry. It had lots of milk, despite my request.

So the cappuccino was tasty, and Mr. T's iced tea (that's allowed) seemed to perk him up a bit as well, but our grand entree into the cafe strewed seeds throughout my subconscious which grew into blog fodder, and I had to tell you about it, so that the next time you go anywhere to be served anything, you make sure not to step in the giant steaming pile of spent coffee grounds like I did. Don't ask for what you want, like a white wine with a well-done steak. Ask the waiter, the bargirl, the barista not for what you want, but for what they want to serve you.

Then wonder (like I did) they don't just invest in smaller cups in which to serve the iced espresso, or hold the precious milk behind the counter where the baristas can keep a better eye on it.

Then drink it, malign them, and don't leave a tip, or at least don't write anything nasty on the dollar that you do deign to leave.

Man I love the United States. And iced espresso. Even if the experts say it tastes bad. For I am a philistine. Please call me Phyllis.

(and I have a picture of the picture perfect extramilky cappuccino, but I am on the road and my cardreader is hidden (from me). Apenas lo encuentre, la subo. (As soon as I find it (the card reader), I'll upload it (the photo)).


Mr T in DC said...

Excellent! Here's a photo of the cappuccino:

To nitpick just a little, I wouldn't describe myself as "stringy", but rather as "fit." You didn't see me with my anything but a baggy tee shirt on so couldn't really tell. I have to protect the "Mr. T in DC" brand after all! :)

Bystander said...

Missing Chile yet? :)
If you want to pour expresso over ice or even over your breakfast tuna sandwich, it is your call. At $3 a pop they can afford to give you as much milk as you want. Expresso police. That's all we needed.

lydia said...

i dunno. i remember when i worked at an independent coffee shop, we had a way for people to officially ask for us to put the milk in and pay for it, and nobody would do it. they would just pour the WHOLE thing of milk from the condiments bar in, so then every other costumer would complain that it was empty. some peopel woudl go to the extent of demanding the price of "add an extra expresso shot" rather than the price of an americano, which is merely cents, then fill it up with milk, sugar, and other condiments. it drove my boss nuts. its not technically stealing of course, but taking something free from someone whose intention was to sell it to you.
i think its not necessarily wrong in that nobody has violated some specific rule, but working the system in a rather sly way.

we never called it that though, either.

Katie said...

Sheesh, whatever happened to the customer is always right?

Richard said...

Mmmm. That Cappuccino looks like the deliciousness right there (feeling a sudden urge for good coffee).

That barista reminds me of the Monty Python cheese shop skit ( if you haven't seen it. Coffee fascists.. grumble :)

Still Life in South America said...

Barista knows best?!?

I like Richard's reference to the Monty Python Cheese Shop. Sorry, we are a coffee shop but we don't have the coffee you are looking for.

aliceinparis said...

"ghetto latte"?

Misspudding said...

Came here from Mr. T in DC's flickr post of your cappucino.

I live in Seattle and we have our fair share of stuck up baristas, but come on! If you want an espresso with fish sauce in it, they should be able to produce it if they have the ingredients.

Sometimes, I wonder if we go to coffee shops because we're all a bunch of masochists...

Anonymous said...

We must drink coffee together sometime. Because that's my summer drink too--a double espresso over ice and I will add my own milk, thankyouverymuch, because I only want a nuage, as the French say. Ghetto latte indeed! And I'm not stealing the milk--I am using less than most people who add milk to regular coffee. People are too uptight. I wouldn't have tipped.

Anonymous said...

Funny, at our awesome espresso bar, iced espresso is the top selling drink in summer, and NOBODY has ever said OUR house roasted espresso tastes "nasty" or "metallic" or anything but DELICIOUS over ice. We could care less if somebody wants to add milk or cream, we will even do it for you at NO charge in whatever cup you like. Coffee is a personal ritual and everybody just needs to respect that. We are with the Bystander: do what cha like, it's YOUR espresso!!! Our theory is: only PROPERLY PREPARED & HIGH QUALITY espresso tastes good iced, and this is why all the milk bar wannabees masquerading as coffee experts out there are so against it.

Eileen said...

love you all, and all the comments. Also got a comment from an industry insider who agrees with me and says all kinds of nift. Also, Anonymous, out your coffee bar! we all want to patronize.

lydia, you seem to be the lone dissenter, and I totally understand not wanting to be hassled by having to refill the milk container, but then there should just be a smaller cup, or controlled milk, methinks. Also, there's nothing to stop anyone in the world from walking into the coffee shop and filling up a baby bottle or any other vessel with the apparently free milk. How often does that really happen, I wonder?

Eileen said...

Welcome prince of petworth readers. My you are a clickety bunch. Many welcomes!

referring from:

a DC fixture, in a good way. Go check him out. And thanks to Mr. T (who is not stringy, but finely muscled) for the shout out, and the cappucino pic.

restaurant refugee said...

My reading of your experience at Chinatown Coffee Co., suggests to me that they handled the situation poorly. Given their history in this area, I would hope that CCC would be more adept at dealing with guests.

At the same time, I must rebut the notion that the customer is always right. Without commenting on the merits of the taste of an espresso over ice, no one should be asked to prepare something that violates their sensibilities or culinary/artistic/beverage integrity. If they truly believe that espresso over ice is a bad thing, then the expectation that they should make it is unreasonable. There is a distinction between providing a guest something that may be unpalatable to the provider and preparing something unpalatable.

I recall the last time I was purchasing a tuxedo from my tailor has been with me for years. I made some joke about wanting to have the trouser legs cuffed. He stopped working immediately as the suggestion ran egregiously afoul of fashion standards and his personal sensibilities. After I explained that I was kidding, he explained that this was not a joking matter, this was his passion, his life's work. It would be one thing for me to buy it, quite another to ask a professional to prepare it.

None of this is intended to support of rebut the position on the iced espresso. I just think that the general public would do well to ratchet down the notion of their absolute certainty in the face of service industry personnel.

Eileen said...

@restaurant refugee: I appreciate the time you've taken to get another opinion out there. I can see why your tuxedo maker would want to make you a tuxedo that did not violate the sense of fashion and professionalism that he is educated to protect; it's his reputation on the line, and he knows that you could well be asked where you got your tuxedo, and you'd rat him out.

I'm not sure how analogous I think that situation is to the coffee situation. No one else was even going to find out what I was drinking unless I told them!

But, to be honest, my reaction was probably partially affected by the fact that I live in a country (Chile) that is not my own, and have had or witnessed harsh words or looks on more than one occasion when someone ordered something at the wrong time of day (like my tuna sandwich in the morning, or a Brazilian friend's scrambled eggs at night). I like to think that the United States is a little more live-and-let-live.

I hope the tuxedo fit you like tuxedos are meant to, and that the event was a smashing success. I'm sure you haven't made any more sartorial jokes since that event!