Ristretto Couch – A Beautiful Blend of Form and Function

Near the end of July, I visited Ristretto’s new café, at the corner of Northeast Couch and 6th. At the time, the café was still under construction and the workers were frenetically working to finish the build-out. You couldn’t really tell what the café was going to look like. I finally made it back to see the café, and all I can say is, wow.

With shapely steel and bamboo tables, Ristretto Couch is another example of Accelerated Development’s faculty for design, elevating the industrial look to an art form. I didn’t think anything could trump Ristretto’s Nicolai space, but Couch comes close. (Apparently, I’m not the only one who was impressed. New York Magazine’s Grub Street blog included Ristretto on its list of 58 Extraordinary Shops Around America.)

It is not just beauty that makes the new café enjoyable. The coffee is good too. The barista pulled a very nice shot of espresso (Beaumont  Blend)—sweet, smooth, almondy* and chocolaty.

Steampunk, modified.

The customized Steampunk is another reason to check out the cafe. A technological curiosity, the Steampunk is kind of like a vacuum pot, kind of like a Clover, and kind of like a French press. Mostly, it’s just kind of unique. It is a fully automatic brewer that can be programmed to mimic all kinds of brew methods.

The Steampunk, from the backThe barista can control many different  brewing parameters, including water temperature, agitation (frequency, strength), and brew time.

Action shotRistretto is the only café in the Northwest to have one so far, so if you are interested in trying coffee brewed this way, Couch is the place to get it. (I tried the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe on the Steampunk. It was a bit more roasty than some of Ristretto’s coffees I have tried. It opened up as it cooled, with some sweetness and a mild acidity coming through.)

Getting ready to serveNew for Ristretto, the Couch shop sells several beers and wines, as well as some food options beyond the typical morning pastry fare. The tapas plate, with bread and olive oil, Marcona almonds, and green olives was tasty (though at $10, a bit pricy to be a regular habit). You can add prosciutto from Olympic provisions for a heartier meal.


The café is roomy enough that both workflow and customer flow should be smooth, as long as people don’t stop too long to gawk at the Steampunk. Overall, Ristretto Couch is a great addition to the PDX coffee scene.

Address: 555 NE Couch Street, Portland, OR 97232 (map)
Phone: 503-284-6767
Hours: Monday-Saturday 6:30am-8pm
Sunday 7am-6pm
Coffee: Ristretto
Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommendations? A shot of Beaumont Blend
Recommendation #2: Check out the W.C. (seriously)
Website: RistrettoRoasters.com


*My spell checker didn’t like almondy, but I didn’t like almond-y, so I’m going with it.

Opening (Very) Soon - Ristretto Couch

Two weeks ago, Ryan Cross, Ristretto’s director of wholesale, led me on a quick tour of the company’s new café, at Northeast Couch and 6th. As you can see below, the space wasn’t quite finished, but it should be opening any day now.

The view from the front doorAnd from behind the bar

The most unique feature of the shop will be its Steampunk brewer. Built by Alpha Dominche, a company based in Utah, the brewer made its public debut at the SCAA 2012 Event in Portland. It is a programmable brewing system that looks kind of like a cross between a French press, a Clover, and a four-group La Marzocco Linea. The Steampunk can simultaneously brew four different coffees (or teas), each to their own (programmable) specific brewing parameters. It will be the centerpiece of the café’s unofficial ‘slow bar’, where customers can get individually brewed coffees to order.

The Steampunk is headed for the spot on the bar framed by the scaffolding and the ladder

Ristretto is the first company in the Pacific Northwest to get a Steampunk, and I was hoping to snag a couple of photos. Unfortunately, it happened to be at Accelerated Development’s workshop, where workers were building a custom countertop for it. Next time…

One last perspective

Barista Alberta - the great escape

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
            Saturday-Sunday 7am-6pm
Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommendations? Sit at the bar and watch the baristas in action
Website: baristapdx.com

Extracto Il Secondo

After spending time with the supermodel at Jim and Patty’s, I headed westward down Fremont Street, en route to the Albina branch of the Multnomah County Library. As I was walking, a  whiff of freshly-brewed coffee tickled my nose. It smelled wonderful, so I followed my nose toward the scent and stumbled upon another quality Portland café, Extracto 2*.

The sign is easy to find

[*Confession: That’s not exactly how things happened. What really happened was that I was kind of lost, so I checked my location on my phone, realizing that I was close to Prescott Street. Prescott Street stuck out in my mind as the location of the café (these days I tend to remember Portland streets by the cafés that are on them). I was only a few blocks away, so instead of going to the library, I headed for the café.]

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Case Study Coffee - Coffee on the Rocks

It had been a while since I had been to a new café, and I was feeling particularly motivated to try something new, so I headed to Northeast Sandy Boulevard to check out Case Study Coffee. Case Study is one of the newer cafés in Portland, having opened only eight months ago. The café sent two baristas to the 2011 Northwest Regional Barista Championship. Neither of the baristas made the finals, but the fact that such a new café would send two competitors to the competition shows that Case Study is serious about coffee.

Case Study Coffee

While it may be fairly new, Case Study appears to not be a secret. During my time in the café, a steady stream of customers came through the door. The café was fairly loud—not with music, but with people talking. I overheard people brainstorming about their next big creative venture [on a side note, have you seen Portlandia’s sketch about creative ventures? It takes place in one of the cafés we have already reviewed here]. Several Laptopistanis were glued to their screens and some of them also had their smartphones glued to one ear. I watched a writer distractedly go between staring at her notebook and checking her email on her iPhone. It looked like she either had writer’s block or she was hoping that the phone would give her a legitimate reason to not be productive.

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