A Miamian’s Perspective on Coffee and Coffee Shops

Because it is nearly noon and I am still having trouble getting up and am dying for a (good) cup of coffee, I thought I would make a brief post about something that’s been nagging at me since I started my trip over a month ago.

Living in Miami, my main source of caffeine has always been the cortadito. For those who have never had a cortadito, please find yourself a decent locale for Cuban coffee stat. Cortaditos are basically composed of a healthy sized shot of Cuban espresso that is thoroughly mixed with a fair amount of sugar with some milk mixed in. It is basically the same thing as a cafe con leche, but a bit smaller for those who don’t want as much caffeine, and really, I feel that the cortadito has just the right amount of everything. See, Cubans make fantastic coffee. Coladas, which are basically large cups of espresso that are handed out with tiny plastic shot glasses (you do NOT drink a colada on your own unless you have trained for it!) for sharing with your fellow wiped out co-workers or hungover friends.

Cuban coffee is great, and the foods that come along with it are also pretty wonderful. Everyone should have a pastelito de queso y guayaba and a cortadito at least once in their lives. But the praise of cuban coffee isn’t what this post is supposed to be about. Instead, I want to talk about Miami’s severe lack of good coffee on the whole. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cortadito as much as the next guy, but the culture of drinking Cuban coffee is much, much different than that of drinking a nice latte at a coffee shop conducive to creative pursuits, or work, or creative work. Drinking a cortadito means standing at the corner cafeteria with all the old Cuban men who are either talking about their jobs or about Cuban politics, quite possibly smoking cigars, and nary a chair in sight (and if there IS a chair, it’s usually a small plastic one they brought themselves to rest on while they hang out on the corner all day). This, as you can imagine, does not make for a good writing or reading spot.

Another qualm about Cuban coffee is the amount of trash it produces. Served in styrofoam cups with plastic lids, it is certainly anything but environmentally friendly. In the past month, i’ve become so conscious about how much I waste back home. All the small coffee shops i’ve been to always ask if you’ll be staying or going. If you’re staying, your coffee is served in a real mug and you use regular spoons to stir things in which you then place in the dirty dish bins. If you’ve ever been to Miami, you know that’s unheard of (and I can already hear the voice of everyone’s mother complaining about how you have no idea if those spoons were cleaned properly, etc).

While attending college for what was basically forever in Miami, my main sources of coffee were the on campus Starbucks, the on campus convenience store, the occasional trip to Dunkin Donuts, or the off campus Starbucks. I, personally, have nothing against Starbucks. I don’t feel like they need a brick through their window like some people I have encountered. I don’t personally know enough about their company’s ethics to take on a real stance. I only know that a) no matter what city I am in, they almost always let me use their bathroom without needing to purchase anything and b) they give their employees benefits, which is more than I can say for most jobs these days (something you tend to notice a lot more once you lose your insurance security blanket).

But this post isn’t about Starbucks either (although to be fair, it could be a factor in what I’m about to say next). My qualm is basically this: Why is it that practically every other major city besides Miami can have fantastic coffee houses (along with fantastic coffee)? Ever since I began my tour of the US, I have been inundated with delicious cups of coffee in quaint little shops that have allowed me to steal internet and get my work done. Just last night, I wrote my last post while having a delicious cafe au lait at Ipsento here in Chicago. It was basically all that you would need from a coffee shop. Attentive, friendly service. A good selection of beverages and sandwiches. A decent price. A calm atmosphere with plenty of seating. Warm, inviting decor. And just a few days ago, my friend Steve took me to Intelligentsia, which made a damn good latte, although I feel they were lacking in atmosphere (much too bright and streamline for my taste). But apparently this is where the career baristas go to make it (word is the training is long and it can be months before you’re actually allowed to serve coffee to customers). Impressive.

Now, I can’t remember all the coffee shops I went to in NYC, but I would refer you to this list as a probable decent starting point (although I do recall hitting Mud on a NY visit back in my early 20s and enjoying it). Pittsburgh is also hip with it and has places like Big Dog to cater to the coffee shop crowd. And because I just spent 2 whole weeks working in Athens, Ohio, I feel I got a really excellent feel for their coffee shops and can recommend several quite nicely.

Village Bakery is the first place I went to. They had a pretty great selection of sandwiches, soups, and pastries, and the coffee was pretty spot on. My only qualm was that they were a bit on the high end side cost-wise and were closed on Mondays. But no biggie, because plenty of other good places were open as well.

There was Fluff Bakery, which was definitely more bakery than anything else (although they also have some sandwiches), but also had a decent coffee selection. The atmosphere was nice and welcoming and they had day old pastries for $1 a pop which is what I wound up mostly getting (they were still absolutely delicious!)

Whit’s was another good spot. They’re more frozen custard than anything else (also quite delish) but the coffee is good and you can grab a muffin or a bagel for a decent price. They’ve got some couches and the atmosphere’s alright, although a bit hectic at times since it’s not a very big shop.

My very, very favorite though, was Donkey Coffee. This is the kind of place all coffee houses should aspire to be. Their selection was amazing. The service was ideal (asking my about my roasting preference, my milk preference, informing me about their frequent visitor card, reminding me what items I was able to get free refills on, etc). The place itself is exactly what you would picture a coffee house should be. Couches in the front, 2 rooms in the back (one part of the back room elevated which I assume also served as a stage for their events), and apparently even more room upstairs to which I never even got because there was never a need (there was always that much room)! They had board games available and they put on open mic nights and other types of events. Basically everything i’ve ever wanted Miami to have but have yet to find. (I really, really miss this place).

I can’t say all of Miami is devoid of such things. I know of a place over in the North Miami area, the Luna Star Cafe, that’s pretty great. I can’t vouch for their coffee selection, but they had a pretty good beer list and they do have open mic nights and other events pretty regularly. Unfortunately, I’m in one of the furthest suburbs away from that spot, and to get there would probably be a good hour long drive, and not factoring in the cost of gas, let’s just say it would get really expensive really fast.

During my last few months in Miami, I finally discovered Cafe Demetrio, a cute little joint in the Gables with decent coffee. Definitely not in the ranks of the coffee i’ve had in the north, but it wasn’t bad and the atmosphere was alright (a little too snooty for my taste). They also lacked severely in the vegetarian-friendly options and they weren’t cheap, so that was a con in my books.

I know Panther Coffee is still kind of up and coming in Wynwood, but I haven’t actually had any coffee there yet, so I can’t make a fair assessment.

There may or may not be decent coffee shops on the beaches, but seeing as I’m a Miami suburbs girl, I won’t even pretend to tackle that issue. In my hood, you stick to the chains because anything that does open up that’s even half way decent (R.I.P. Pithaya Cafe and that little coffee joint off Sunset and 117th that used to have all the shows back when I was in high school) ends up going out of business within a year.

The point is that a. Miami needs to step up their game (when your city’s “Best Coffee Shops” list includes major chains and places that already closed down, you know you’re in trouble), b. I am now fairly addicted to good coffee and coffee shop atmosphere, and c. I MISS YOU, DONKEY COFFEE!!


[If you happen to know of other good coffee places in Chicago, Miami and/or other cities I have yet to travel to but might enjoy, please feel free to list them in the comments!]


3 responses

  1. I read this as I slurped from my giant sized mug of generic ground coffee. (beggars can’t be choosers out here.)

    I live to drink coffee, now I want to see if I can find the Cuban variety. Thanks.

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