Café I Do (Hongdae, Seoul)

[This is another in a series of articles about Seoul and its coffee scene. The trip took place in early November, and I’m posting my recollections as I finish them.]

Squeezed in between a mobile phone store and a small office building, it would be easy to walk past Café I Do without even noticing the café. The oversight would be your loss, however, because the café is one of the most inviting in Seoul.

On a chilly November afternoon, Jinsu and I ambled up the old wooden porch at Café I Do, in Seoul’s Hongdae District. We stepped into the shop and took a look around. At the front of the café, a narrow passage separated the coffee bar on the left from the sample roaster on the right. The floorboards creaked with each step as we made our way to a small table in the back of the shop.

Cafe I Do. Photo courtesy JInsu Lee

“What do you think?” Jinsu asked, gesturing at the décor.

I looked around. The shop felt familiar, homey. Electric heaters rotated slowly back and forth, keeping frosty drafts from outside at bay and providing a welcome refuge for my cold hands and tired feet. An array of photos and knickknacks were spread throughout the café. It was the type of place that might remind you of sitting in your grandmother’s kitchen while sipping cocoa and eating popcorn as snow falls outside.

“I like it,” I replied. “It’s so….cozy.”

Photo courtesy JInsu Lee

Jackie Chang, a well-known competitor in Seoul’s barista competitions, founded the shop in 2010 with a couple of his friends. Chang was not at the shop the afternoon we were there, but one of his co-founders (and head barista), who goes by the name of Spike, was.

Spike sat down with us to tell us his own coffee story, a story that begins far from Seoul. Spike studied hotel management in Switzerland, and as part of his education, he worked at a hotel in Italy, where his co-workers introduced him to espresso.

“When I got a cold,” he explained, “my Italian friends gave me coffee. ‘Drink this, you’ll feel better,’ they said.”

Leaving Italy, Spike returned to Korea to fulfill his mandatory two-year Korean military service requirement. When that was finished, he was ready for something new.

“I didn’t want to learn more hotel management. I wanted to find something that I really wanted to do,” he said.

He tried several different jobs, eventually ending up as a barista in another café. Coffee soon caught his attention.

“I got the passion six months later,” he said.

Jinsu and Spike, talking coffee

Spike liked that he had more influence over the quality of coffee, compared to wine.

“With wine, I could choose certain ones for people. This one’s better than that one, or this one goes with that meal. But with coffee, I could actually make different tastes and aromas for customers. That’s really interesting for me. That’s why I want to make coffee and be a barista.”

Spike credited Chang, for fueling his desire to learn more about coffee.

“Our owner, Jackie Chang, taught me how to taste espresso,” said Spike. “He’s a real barista. He just loves coffee. He’s not in it for the money.”

Spike was confident that Café I Do could stand out in Seoul’s crowded coffee industry.

“All our customers know we’re different,” he said. “They know that at the chains, the employees have no skills as baristas. They go to those places because the coffee is really cheap. When they want something that tastes different, they go to a smaller shop. Our customers know that.”

Getting customers excited about the coffee is a big step for growing the specialty coffee scene. Seoul’s coffee drinkers display an curiosity about coffee that bodes well for the future of the specialty industry.

“Every day we have to change the beans in the blends because the beans change every year,” he said. “All the customers ask me, ‘today’s blend, what’s in it?’ They really like to talk about it with the barista.” Where the magic happens. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Café I Do has two different blends, one for straight shots and one for milk drinks. The shop does not serve single-origin espresso shots, though they do offer several single-origin drip coffees. The café’s AeroPress bar indulges customers who want to emphasize the brightness in the coffees.

“These days, Korean customers and baristas really like acidity in their coffee,” Spike said.

My espresso was sweet and light-bodied, well-balanced with a strong chocolate aftertaste. Jinsu enjoyed his mocha, though he would have preferred dark chocolate. Knowing we had further coffee stops ahead, we held off trying the AeroPress coffee.

Café I Do is not as slick or polished as some shops, which is one of the reasons I liked it. Of all the cafés we visited in Seoul, it seemed like the one that would most likely be found in Southeast Portland. On a rainy day, Café I Do would be an ideal spot to hide with a novel or a notebook.

Address: 1F, 410-10, Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea (map)
Subway stop: Hapjeong (Line 2 or 6), Exit 6, or Sangsu (Line 6), Exit 1
Hours: Monday-Sunday 12pm-12am
Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommendations? Bring poetry or your best friend

Coffee Lab (Hongdae, Seoul)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Seoul has an abundance of coffee shops. While there are cafés all over the city, if you are looking for quality coffee, you should head for the Hongdae area. The area has three different universities, with thousands of students who in need of lots of caffeine to stay focused during marathon study sessions. Bustling with young people, Hongdae is also famous for its nightlife and burgeoning arts scene.  New trends, like better specialty coffee, sprout up in this part of the city.

Our first stop in Hongdae was at Coffee Lab. Coffee Lab was founded in 2008 by Bang Jong Koo, the 2005 Korean barista champion. (In Seoul, it seems like every Korean barista champion has his or her own shop—a positive development for Koreans who want better coffee.)  

Coffee Lab. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Read More

Lava Java (Ridgefield, WA)

On the way up to the Northwest Barista Championships in Tacoma, Brandon Arends and I left Portland about 7am, giving us time to stop for coffee somewhere. Brandon said he knew of a good place along the way, so we didn’t stop at one of the cafés in Portland before leaving town. About a half hour after leaving SE Portland, we pulled off of I-5 at exit 14 near Ridgefield, Washington in search of a morning wake-up.

Despite knowing that Brandon had high standards, I was still a little skeptical when he pulled into the parking lot of a small strip mall out in the middle of nowhere (check this map to see what I mean). There didn’t seem to be much of anything nearby—no houses (unless you count the RV park that you could see in the distance), a few stores and zero foot traffic. The lack of people made me wonder how a cafe so far away from anything could stay in business. My previous experiences with similar out-of-the-way shops have rarely been great, and have sometimes been disastrous, so I was less than enthusiastic.

A plain exterior, but. . .

As we parked in front of the Lava Java sign, Brandon told me that he knew the owner of the café, Phuong Tran. He also said that she won the 2005 US Barista Championships. Oh. That changed my perception of the café rather quickly.

Read More

Dog River Coffee Company

If you happen to be driving to Portland from Eastern Washington and you just cannot drive another hour without stopping (if you’ve got kids, you might know what I mean), Hood River is a good place to get out and stretch your legs. When we drove back to Portland after Thanksgiving, I was hoping to drive all the way to Portland without stopping. However, I was outvoted 3-1, so we pulled off the freeway and drove up to Oak Street, the main street in the touristy part of town. We parked and hopped out, looking for a café. Just up the street, beyond the absinthe bar, we spotted the Dog River Coffee company.  It looked like the type of place where we could get a little boost for the last leg of the trip (the café, not the bar).

Dog River Coffee 

For those of you who don’t know, Hood River is a small town about an hour’s drive east from Portland on I-84. It is located on the southern bank of the Columbia River and is a well-known destination for wind surfers who come to take advantage of the Columbia Gorge’s ever-present winds. It is also a popular place for people who are in transit to/from Mount Hood for camping, hiking or skiing. The downtown is geared for tourists and is full of small shops, restaurants and cafés. If you venture up the hill very far, the town offers some spectacular views of Mount Adams across the river to the north.

Read More

The Undertown Café (Port Townsend, WA)

One of the joys of being a traveler is exploring new places. Of course, one of the frustrating things about traveling is that sometimes you can’t find what you’re looking for. When I go somewhere new, one of the things I always want to find is good espresso. Unfortunately, I have been to towns where you just cannot find good espresso, no matter how hard you look.

I recently traveled Port Townsend, Washington, located on the Olympic Peninsula at the mouth of Puget Sound. It was my first trip to the area, and when I got there I was really in the mood for some coffee. Seeking the wisdom of “the cloud”, I sent out a tweet asking if anyone knew of a good café in Port Townsend. Someone responded and told me that I should go to the Undertown Café. He did not elaborate much, but I still decided to take his recommendation and check it out.

The Undertown is underground

Read More