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  • TMWard-JanNews-Coffee
    Newark Coffee

    Coffee Olympics Pt. 1

    Coffeehouses and culture have a long, long relationship…think monks tenderly planting and cultivating coffee groves so that their brethren could drink a new kind of hot beverage and stay up all night illuminating manuscripts with gold leaf critters, or the attempted repression of enlightenment-era coffee houses, because, gasp, those artsy and intellectual types were getting wild all day on what was, in all likelihood, one single, weak, cup of joe, and hopped up madly, they might exchange ideas and imagine new philosophies! 

    In the modern era, emerging artists often support themselves behind counters, pulling shots of espresso. Tip your barista, and never condescend: the person serving you deserves respect, and you have no idea the dreams and visions that may be active behind their eyes as they level and tamp the fragrant grounds that may inspire your soul to new heights of vivacity in turn.

    Our dedicated team of local artists and musicians bravely risked raging, untamed insomnia to review no less than six local coffee spots for 1) ambiance 2) flavor of coffee 3) presentation of coffee and 4) strength of coffee. All reviewing was conducted in one thrilling afternoon, and towards the end of the day we were ready, in the words of one guitar player who took part (he also plays drums and ukulele, he will have you know), to “wrestle mountain lions.”*

    Next month we will be reviewing more coffee spots with a group of local art gallery directors. Meanwhile, here’s some superlative caffeinated deliciousness to get you started. * Leave the mountain lions alone, okay?

     

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    Texireras Bakery - If you’re looking for a distinctive “Little Portugal” experience, look no further. This blue-tiled café, one of two cafe outposts for their massive baking operation, is warm and peaceful, with none of the ubiquitous blaring TVs that are the plague of modern eating establishments, and sweet, attentive counter staff who all wear starched white caps that make them look like benevolent bread nuns. You wouldn’t think that the smell of burnt toast would be soothing, and welcoming, but it truly is.  A basket with one sample loaf each of the day’s breads is displayed centrally; as if fine, classical, sculpture. There is a democratic vibe to many of my favorite Newark coffee spots, exemplified by Texeria’s mix of local bigwigs in suits, women rushing in and placing huge orders of bread or cake for special events, immigrant families with young children starting the day with hot chocolate and a shared meal, and weirdos like me, and the long haired guy who stood behind me in line in an iron maiden vest. There’s more than a dozen different kinds of wonderful breads (including the round, heavy cornbread, which I have long mispronounced as “Bro Bread” for many years), easily several dozen kinds of pastry (I like the egg-glazed sweetbreads that look like sleeping birds), the traditional kale soup, and a newly expanded range of sandwiches.  The coffee: a galao (expresso and hot steamed milk) High marks for ambiance and presentation, with a lovely nutty flavor. While a galao is stronger than drip coffee, it is not quite as strong as say, Turkish coffee or one of those multi-shot monsters you can get at Starbucks.  Stay a while and sip slowly, perhaps dipping in bits of your toasted buttered roll. Bliss, for under $1.50 a cup. Note: as with most places staffed by Portuguese speakers in the Ironbound, order a “Gah-Lau.” (Last part rhymes with “Pow!” as in “Pow, I just wrestled a mountain lion!) If you order using the word cappuccino you may be presented with a galao topped with whipped cream and a cherry. It’s not like that’s such a bad thing…

     

    Taqueria Morelos - This tiny Mexican spot is about the size of an apartment but immensely welcoming, with bright décor (flags, art, Mexican and American currency, Loteria cards, etc, etc in festive profusion) and a friendly staff who lovingly and rapidly hand pat out the corn tortillas from batter on a stovetop behind the counter, creating your own private cooking show for you while you wait briefly for hot yummy food like the spicy pork tacos. It smells of lime, and the sizzle of cooking sings under the plaintive, romantic music the owner likes to play. A real working class treasure of fresh, good food, and the care with which the handmade wooden planters, painted pink, are maintained just outside their door is an instant tipoff to the pride of place of Morelos. Two people can get a solidly square meal for around $20. An espresso with hot steamed milk set me back $2.50, and was strong and pretty smooth. Asking for a café con leche initially yielded drip coffee, be specific and own your desires!

     

    Three Sisters - Authenticity, a much obsessed-over quality amongst creative types, is arguably as subjective as our Coffee Olympics judge’s scores. While this recently opened café, formerly the site of the somewhat faded café called, wistfully, “Princess”**, did not score especially highly for ambiance due to a simple, workaday approach to the décor and lack of time to develop patina, it is in fact, owned and run by three sisters, who all get up well before dark seven days a week to make sure school children, civil servants, and sleepy artists alike don’t lack for caffeine and egg sandwiches. In this way, they ensure our society doesn’t crumble, and for that I am grateful. (And yes, since it is mere steps from my place of residence I have been known to put a coat and boots on like a cavewoman draping herself in furs, brave the elements, and procure, like a wary stone age huntress, that crucial first cup of coffee for me and my beloved. Don’t judge y’all) It is large and bright, on the corner of a block facing Independence Park. In good weather, I strongly suggest getting your java to go and wiling away some time on a park bench under the trees. Depending on which of the sisters makes your galao the strength will vary a bit, but flavor and presentation are very good. Presentation for a to-stay cup is the standard tall glass mug. A galao is currently about $1.75. The hardworking ladies also own and run another café, Nova Alianca, on Ferry Street. I don’t know when they sleep….

    **It should be noted as evidence of the local love of caffeine that my tiny neighborhood sustains dozens of cafes, ranging in style, each with their own stalwart clientele. Literally across the street from Three Sisters is another café that we have yet to review, recently under new ownership, transitioned from a nameless, biker mama/ senior citizen/chain-smoker hangout to the adorably earnest, “Love Cafe.” Yes, that is really is the name. I have noticed that coffee spots almost never close, they just get remodeled and renamed. One block away there is a somewhat mysterious, all-night crepe shop, staffed by sulky emo teens, that I suspect has happily become a place of refuge for the biker ladies and smoky seniors….and that is only one of numerous establishments within a 200 foot radius of me as I type this. Yes, multigenerational coffee paradise, that would be East Side, Newark. Whether you are fresh from a baby shower or coming off a bender, there will be coffee for you!

     

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    Pao da Terra - While I am sure there are dissenting opinions, I am firmly convinced that their toasted buttered rolls are the best in the neighborhood. I can’t even fully explain why. They just are. Yes, the queue to order and pay can be confusing, and inefficient at times, much like the soccer games playing on the TVs, but the bread is just heavenly. It’s also not too far from Newark Penn Station, they have a better than average selection of cold drinks, and stock some pastries that the other bakeries and cafes don’t, including three different sizes of the pasteles de natas (I love the planetary, jumbo-sized ones, with their dark sunspots of caramelized sweet custard), as well as some light salads in a Brazilian style. The people watching from street-facing tables is fun. As with the inexplicable superiority of their toasted breads, their coffees taste better to me when ordered to stay rather than to go. I can’t say why. It’s just easy like coffee morning, baby. It may in fact be a temperature factor. More research may be required, and of course, that means ordering more flan, and one of the pastries that is shaped like a child’s hand. And a couple of those cheese danish…Anyway, a galao is $2.25. View it as a down payment on a fabulous mood.

     

    Freetown Café - This new Jamaican spot downtown is run by a brother and two sisters, and has been a most welcome addition to the downtown meetup spots I keep in my mental back pocket. I met with someone there whom I was trying to both relax and impress, and it worked, due to a combination of a nice hot latte, vegan carrot cake, spicy eats, and good beats on the stereo. The service is warm but not fussy, and a trained artistic eye can’t help but rest happily on the gorgeous Dutch-resist fabric that has been used to wrap chairs and booths in an inventive manner. It reminded me of Yinka Shonibare’s incredible installation a few years ago at the Ballantine House of the Newark Museum. As with Three Sisters, this new, family-led venture replaces a lesser effort previously housed in a corner storefront, in the case of 41 Halsey, Freetown has rescued us all from some desultory, noncommittal purveyors of mac and cheese. I love food that is both hearty and healthy, plus this is a good go-to joint for a mix of meat and non-meat eaters in your party. My latte was $3.50 for a medium cup. I’m very sensitive to temperature, and it was Goldilocks all the way, not too hot and not too cold. 

     

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    Tops Diner, 500 Passaic Ave, East Newark. Just across the river from Newark city proper, this gleaming ziggurat of carbohydrates and Americana has somewhat higher prices (Latte was $4.50) than anywhere else we went, but honestly much of what you’re paying for is the dazzling, choreographed spectacle of their menu and operations, the jukebox-like combinations of food, people, and music that can be found day or night amongst their booths. Also, they will just bring you a giant slab of bread with a knife handle thrust into it, which is really performance art. Sometimes it’s Frank Sinatra playing as club kids plow through mounds of Nutella pancakes, Apple Pie Waffles, or the “Fat Elvis,” or elegantly dressed families, children in tow, with several dozen plates of wildly varying foodstuffs, dining for hours as 90’s alternative hits play. You can order practically anything, one tab I picked up for a large after-hours crew of artists I was entertaining in town involved a seafood-stuffed, custom omelets, a single order of sautéed spinach my lovely waitress made sure was vegan, two rounds of double malt Scotch, Chicken Murphy, and some cheesecake. And that’s just what I can remember. Recently retired menu items (they change the menu constantly) include the “Bay of Pigs” entrée (don’t ask), and the Red Velvet pancakes. However, they’ve added some really great new salads, so I forgive them. Everything is good, everything comes in huge portions. Just submit. They have a varied selection of hot drinks besides a standard latte, and honestly I’m convinced at this point they will customize anything. Therapy is more expensive, and less fun. Note: Sit at the bar if you want daytime conversation. The waitress who looks like a punked out Greek goddess is chatty. If your mood is more noir and you’re gloomy, unsober, or feeling vulnerable, hope for the slightly sad-eyed, tattooed blond, a veteran who will often just look at you and tell you what you should be ordering based on your condition. Respect. 


    Evonne M. Davis and Emma Wilcox are working artists and cofounders of Gallery Aferro, a Newark alternative arts nonprofit. Begun in 2003, Gallery Aferro offers exhibitions featuring local, national and international artists, a wide range of public events, a year-round studio residency program, educational offerings, group tours, a publication line, a gift shop and public art initiatives.