November has arrived in Portland, bringing cold, gray, damp miserable weather. Grayness, however, is just an excuse for me to drink more coffee. Hooray! So on a rainy Portland afternoon, I took the yellow MAX line north to the Overlook Park stop. From there I walked up Failing Street, crossing over I-5 and through the trendy Mississippi Avenue neighborhood. After walking for about fifteen minutes, I reached Ristretto Roasters.
Ristretto is one of the places I have had on my list to visit since I read about it in MIX magazine in September. The company has two stores, the Beaumont cafe on Northeast 42nd and the one on North Williams. The Williams café (the one I visited) is considered their “flagship” store, though they still roast their coffee at the Beaumont café. When I walked in the door, I could immediately tell that Ristretto is a place focused on the coffee and not just the café experience. The aroma in the air that greeted me told me that much.
Walking up to the bar, I saw on the board that they had two espressos available—the Beaumont Blend and an unnamed single-origin. I asked the barista which single origin she had on grind. Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed “Panama!”
Now, I’ve been in lots of places where the baristas are excited about the coffee, but I haven’t ever seen a barista with quite as much enthusiasm as she had.
Panama? “Is that something special?” I asked her, secretly hoping she would break out into Van Halen's famous anthem. She told me that they had just switched over to it. It was clear that she was excited about the coffee, as only a fellow coffee nerd could be.
“[The other barista] says it tastes like carrots,” she said, almost giggling with delight. Carrots!
Up to that point I had been planning to try the Panama. But any of you who know me well know that carrots (especially cooked) are not my favorite vegetable. I would have to talk myself into trying that one.
“Carrots, huh?” I asked. “That sounds interesting. I’ll take the blend.” I was unconvinced.
“Yeah, carrot flavor does sound kind of strange. Maybe I’ll bring you one later,” she told me.
I found a table while and sat down to wait while she prepared my espresso ($2.10). Looking around, I noticed that the café had a high ceiling with exposed wooden beams and two skylights that helped brighten up the space, in spite of the gray sky. Just past the end of the coffee bar, an odd sculpture or fence-like structure (it was art, I’m sure) separated the bar from a large common table toward the back of the café. The dark wooden tables and chairs matched the bar and a couple couches sat up front next to the large roll-up glass door.
The barista served my espresso alongside a very heavy shot glass filled with sparkling water. I took a sip of the espresso, trying to find the “ripe berry” notes that Ristretto’s website says are in the Beaumont Blend. I couldn’t really discern the flavors, but I will say that the espresso was a low-acid, full-bodied espresso with an underlying sweetness that lingered on the tip of my tongue. It was very smooth, and I finished it without even putting any sugar in it. The coffee could stand on its own and left a pleasant aftertaste.
A little later, the barista brought me over an espresso made from the Panama beans. My first impression was that it was very spicy. It almost tingled on the tip of my tongue. It was very savory too, like tomatoes. The flavors reminded me of salsa—Old El Paso Mild Thick’n’Chunky Salsa, to be more precise (something I ate quite a bit of growing up).
Further down in the cup, I noticed some other things. The espresso was buttery, but it had a much lighter body than the Beaumont blend. It had a slight drying effect on the middle of my tongue and upper mouth, and the edges of my tongue detected some tanginess. The flavor and feel were very different from the first espresso, although like the first one, it was good enough to be downed without sugar. I did not, however, detect any carrot notes. I was a little bit disappointed—not because I was excited about tasting carrots, but rather because I had a hard time imagining what carrot flavor would be like in a coffee.
I returned to my notebook and started writing. After a couple of minutes of writing, I was sitting there thinking about how to build a business when I noticed a strange taste in my mouth. You guessed it—carrots! The barista had been right. The flavor caught me off guard because I had moved on to thinking about things besides the coffee. Maybe I had been trying too hard before. I almost laughed out loud. Who would have thought that a coffee could taste like carrots? It may have just been the power of suggestion—a newbie like myself tends to find the flavors that have been suggested—but I was still surprised.
Overall, I was pleased with my visit to Ristretto. I had a couple good espressos, including a very unique coffee from Panama that was enjoyable even with the vegetable aftertaste. If you’re in the neighborhood on one of these rainy days, I think you would enjoy stopping there. I’ll probably go back sometime to see what other flavors the barista can dig up for me. And with that bad pun, I’m signing out. . .
Address: 3808 North Williams Ave (map)
Hours: Monday-Saturday 6:30am-6:30pm
Free Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommend it? Yes, even the weird Panama espresso