Editor’s note: Travels of a Barista Dirt Bag is an ongoing series of dispatches from barista/ guest blogger Zach Hester. The search for a delicious cup of coffee is taking Zach from his native Kentucky bluegrass, down the Mississippi Delta, across the Southwest to the shining Pacific Ocean. In Part II Zach searches for the best Coffee in New Orleans. Get caught up on his previous travels here.
The Big Easy
I blinked and must have missed it. Sure, I’m a bit rough around the edges this morning, the two bottles of wine at dinner last night from our gracious hosts down here in New Orleans didn’t exactly set the mood for an early and productive morning in the Big Easy, but still, my nose is usually better than this. I find coffee shops. There it goes again, another strafe down the sidewalk, another miss. I see beautiful Live Oak and Weeping Willow, a Whole Foods, a parking lot set off the road a bit and tons of New Orleans character, but no coffee. Where is this Velvet Espresso Bar that serves up Stumptown and why can’t I find the shop?
Trying to sift through the groggy early morning cobwebs and sitting on the sidewalk, I hum along to Bob Dylan’s croon, “Went to See the Gypsy” the march for the morning’s vibe. I wonder about this place. Maybe it’s out of business. Glancing down at my phone I curse the hour, 8 am. I recognize under normal circumstances that this is not early, but we are in New Orleans. Putting my arm out against a sidewalk sign I pull myself up, declaring that it’s time for breakfast. Whole Foods will have to be the place this morning. All is well, they have delicious foods and I could use a bit of potassium in my diet.
Still a bit off kilter from the travels and libations, I find myself pushing a bit too hard into that sidewalk sign for something to lean on. Nearly tumbling over, I try to collect my balance and glance around, wondering if there are any loose witnesses. Luckily for me, New Orleans is a still town at eight in the morning. Also, that sign I nearly fell into, reads “Velvet” across the top. Isn’t that something?
Now, I can look at this two ways I figure. On one hand, I was clearly sitting outside of this shop for at least two or three songs, loitering with my bottom on the pavement and my feet in the road, just oblivious to the world. This is certainly very plausible. OR, and this is what I choose to believe, my touching of that sidewalk sign, my trip and stumble, maybe my patience, caused a reaction. Call it open sesame, or a little New Orleans voodoo, or whatever, but it’s real, it happened. All of sudden that place lit up and became illuminated, the corner shop with the hanging marquee, the yellow building with the Velvet paintings hanging from the outside walls, how could I have missed it?
I walk inside and what makes itself immediately apparent is a third wave, voodoo steeped, gypsy wagon of a shop. The Mad Hatter stares back at me as I glance over the menu, his visage in oil on canvas hanging from the back wall, just staring. Aside from the (as I’m soon to learn) very adept barista behind bar, the Mad Hatter and myself, there’s no one else around. I ask her about the espresso, she informs me she’s pulling “Stumptown.” I do not inquire further. She pulls me a shot and from somewhere underneath her stage procures a Gibraltar glass full of seltzer water and one very clean, very white, tray. A Not Neutral demitasse is slowly and deliciously filled with syrupy, high pressured coffee. If someone had told me this crema laden ounce and a half was crème brûlée and not coffee, as I break the crust with the spoon, I would not have been surprised in the least. I smile and thank her.
Science or Art?
After telling her how delicious the shot is, I ask if I may have a siphon to follow the shot up. She says, “Oh, of course. That’s magic.” I nod, wanting to go on this ride. She lights a flame and water warms in the borosilicate glass. By this point in the morning, people are making their way into the tiny space. An older man and clearly a regular, strolls in, immediately informing the small room that he severely needs a vacation from New Orleans. I think of the start to my morning and empathize. After some small talk, he notices the siphon, amazed by the contraption that sits aflame. She proclaims “this is a siphon. Oh, it’s magic.” He nods and putters, “certainly looks like witchcraft to me.” I sit in the corner grinning, reflecting on the morning to point.
After a few moments and a few more bizarre and sporadic pleasantries, I receive my siphon. It sits delicately in a twelve ounce Intelli cup and smells of walnuts and molasses. I thank her again. I asked for a siphon and voila—here it is. I never did ask her what I was drinking, where it was from, not a shred of investigation or inspection, because hell, I’m on vacation, and sometimes it’s just nice to have a cup of coffee and be someone’s customer. I was interested, sure, but I held my tongue, reminded of an interview I saw of Gerald Stern a few weeks ago. The crux being, have some reverence for the craft, let what happens behind closed doors stay behind closed doors.
I have often—especially in my earlier years with coffee—had an ongoing and playful debate with friend and coffee tutor, Alex Meece. He swears, up and down and on the Coffee Bible itself, that coffee “dearest Zachary, is science. Pure and simple.” And sure as anything I know, I’ll look at him, square in the eyes and shout, “art.” This morning though, it seems the debate has been settled, and we are both wrong, dear friend. Coffee, is neither art nor science, coffee is magic. And it deserves its revelry. Pure and simple.
- To continue hearing about Zach’s amazing experience touring the United States through the lens of our favorite beverage and more, sign up for our email address below or follow along with Zach as we listen to the Barista Dirtbag Saga.
- For more information on Barista Parlor, and our original review, please visit here: Barista Parlor: Anchoring Nashville’s Coffee Scene
Photos by Creative Commons and www.gonola.com.