It is easy to argue that Portland’s weather is a big factor in why the city has so many cafés. Drinking copious amounts of coffee is one way to fight the blues that can accompany long stretches of nothing but clouds and rain.
While caffeine will keep you going for a while, relying on a coffee-only strategy to push away the dreariness will only carry you through part of the winter. By the end of February, you need an additional strategy to deal with the grayness. Otherwise, the next three months of clouds and rain will drive you crazy.
My strategy for making it through the early part of spring is to go into denial. After three years in Portland, I still haven’t bought an umbrella. Part of the reason is thrift, part sheer stubbornness, and part is just a way of maintaining a connection with my hometown, where it doesn’t rain enough to warrant buying an umbrella. Living in my own version of reality, I have come to accept that sometimes I will be lucky and stay dry and sometimes I will get soaked.
On a recent trip to visit Barista Alberta (a.k.a. Barista II), I started out with fortune on my side, narrowly escaping a good drenching as I walked to the bus stop. As I stepped into the shelter, the skies cut loose. By the time I reached Northeast PDX, though, the rain had stopped and the ground was dry. I stepped off the bus at 42nd and Alberta, thinking I could quickly walk the ten blocks or so to the café, safe from the whims of the weather.
My luck did not hold, however. By the time I reached the café, twenty-five blocks later (travel tip: always check the address of where you’re going before you get off the bus), the rain had returned and I was sopping wet. The walk was worth it though, for Barista Alberta is a café unlike others in Portland.
Approaching the front door of the café, I was somewhat wistful. Barista Alberta represented a sort of milestone in my coffee journey. There are other cafés in PDX that I have yet to visit, but of the top-tier, coffee-centered cafés, Barista Alberta was the last one I had to visit. I have known about the café for the last year and a half, but for one reason or another, had not yet made it there. I’m glad I saved it until last. I would not have appreciated it as much had I visited a year earlier.
One of the few cafés in town to carry the Financial Times, Barista Alberta caters to the artsy crowd as well as the banker crowd. With its dark wood paneling, the café feels like the study of a distinguished 19th century aristocrat. Stuffed antelopes, pheasants and ducks stare down at you from the walls with suspended indifference. If you visited the café in another era, you would expect to see men in tweed suits sitting around the tables, smoking cigars with each other, planning mergers and acquisitions or complaining about the current political landscape. In the current age, however, you see people enjoying finely-crafted coffees and staring intently at their laptops.
As expected, Barista’s espresso menu featured multiple roasters’ coffees. There were three espressos available on grind—Stumptown’s Ethiopia Yurga, Heart’s latest from Guatemala, and the Honduran Esmerín Enamorado from 49th Parallel in Vancouver, B.C. I didn’t check what was available as brewed coffee—why bother?
After a moment’s deliberation, I chose the Honduras Esmerín Enamorado. The barista pulled a nice, smooth shot that was rich and creamy. The flavors reminded me of buttered popcorn, with a sweet hint of prunes at the finish.
Sentiment permeated the air and my spirits were lifted as I sat at a corner table. Over the speakers, Toto sang about “blessing the rains down in Africa” (how could I curse the rains in Portland while listening to that song?). When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” came on, I was transported back to my days in elementary school (it’s weird how music does that to you—every time I hear a Journey song, I think of the 1980’s Journey video game we played at the local pizza parlor. If you don’t remember it, here’s a humorous YouTube review of the game to rekindle some memories).
With some of the finest baristas in town, Barista Alberta is creating a new, 21st-century aristocracy—that of quality coffee. The café stands out for the uniqueness of its form and the quality of its substance. It can be hard for cafés to distinguish themselves in this town, but Barista II clearly succeeds. You can visit the cafe to explore espressos or to escape the melancholy of spring. You could even try to hide in there until the rains go away and summer arrives. Just be sure to save me a table. I hope to return soon.
Address: 1725 NE Alberta, Portland OR 97211 (map) Phone: No
Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-6pm
Recommendations? Sit at the bar and watch the baristas in action