Last week, I saw an article touting the “18 best coffee shops in Chicago.” (It turns out the article is from March, but in a world where Andy Grffith’s death announcement can make the rounds this week, two years after he died, it’s understandable that it might come up again.)
Anyway, I looked at the list and thought to myself, “Challenge accepted.” Visiting all of these coffee places seemed like a research project for which I was ideally suited, due to my appreciation of good coffee and my willingness to divert myself with completely useless activities.
Through the miracle of Facebook, I enlisted a crew of irregulars who expressed greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm for joining me on this quest. I had originally planned it as a one-a-week project over 18 weeks (I did the math for you); but looking at the map of locations, it became clear that some of the shops were close enough to accommodate multiple stops.
Today the Grand Project began. Three of us met in a suburban parking lot, piled into a single vehicle, and set forth into the city. Herewith, the first report.
Dan, your humble narrator
Jim, who has separately chronicled the day’s events here
Ron, the self-proclaimed “least hipster” of the three of us, and that’s saying something
Location #1: Gaslight Coffee Roasters, 2385 N. Milwaukee
We arrived at the door a few minutes early, as the place doesn’t open until 9:00 on Sundays. Inside, the smallish room is sparsely appointed, with hardwood floors, exposed-brick walls, eclectic wall decor (old blueprints, a taxidermy duck, a mounted deer’s head, an old barbershop sign), and simple furniture.
Ron had a cup of Gaslight’s regular drip coffee (I don’t know the roast). Jim sampled the espresso, which he declared unambiguously the best espresso he had ever tasted. He enjoyed it so much that he had a second cup. I started with a cold-brew iced coffee, but based on Jim’s euphoria, I decided to try the espresso as well. (Jim doubled down with another espresso himself.) I’m not sure why, but all the espresso we saw today was served with a small glass of sparkling water. Is this a Thing now?
As we were ordering the first round, a tray of fresh-baked goods was brought in, so for round two, I had a blueberry pastry, and Ron had a cherry version of the same thing.
The iced coffee was quite good, with a subtle citrus tone. Being cold-brewed, it did not suffer any weakening from being iced. I believe it was Guatemalan, but I hadn’t quite decided what notes I was taking. (It was my first coffee of the day. Sue me.)
I did, however, take note of the conversation topics:
Paris – Ron and family are heading there in a couple of days; while Jim went a couple of years ago, so they discussed housing and restaurant options. My only visit to Paris was in 2000, for a three-day business trip.
Cameras – I am considering getting a good camera, so we talked about DSLR versus mirrorless. My Galaxy S4 takes decent photos, but I want MORE BETTER.
The inherent phoniness of tasting notes – yeah, when I said “citrus” up there, I was totally making it up, but now if you drink the same thing, you’ll taste citrus. (Or you’ll come up with your own phony descriptor.) This part of the conversation also involved Jim’s assertion (which will be tested) that in a truly blind test, people often cannot distinguish between red and white wines.
Location #2: Ipsento, 2035 N. Western
At first glance, Ipsento is a tiny space mostly occupied by the coffee bar and a separate sales counter, but there’s a staircase at the back leading to an additional small room with tables and a couple of bench seats. Furnishings are eclectic – perhaps the remnants of yard sales and estate sales, and the wall decorations are old window frames and doors. Still, the space is warm and comfortable.
The coffee choices were numerous and hence difficult to decide. Ron went with a Panamanian run through an aeropress – essentially a French press; I’m not sure what makes it different. Ipsento had two espresso varieties – a “Wildfire,” which was portrayed as “smoky” and a Guatemalan which sounded pretty similar to the espresso at Gaslight. Stricken with indecision, Jim took the obvious tack of having one of each. I went with one of the house specialties, the eponymous “Ipsento,” which is a latte with coconut milk, honey and a touch of cayenne. That’s it in the photo. I am normally a black coffee guy, but someone had to try a froufrou drink – and the Chicagoist piece had specifically mentioned this one – so I made the sacrifice. It was very tasty, though had I realized how rich and filling it would be, I might have foregone the breakfast sandwich.
Oh, did I not mention the breakfast sandwiches? Ipsento has several of them, and a variety of lunch sandwiches as well. All are named for authors. Jim went for the Ernest Hemingway, which consisted of salmon, egg, cream cheese and capers on a large croissant; and Ron and I had the Mark Twain: egg, tomato, basil, and cheddar cheese, also on a croissant.
As I mentioned, the Ipsento was filling, and the sandwich was even more so. Jim was beginning to think that four espressos in short succession might not have been the best idea for his stomach, so we had to decide: call it a day, or hit one more location? We chose to be Men of Adventure, and set out for the next place.
Location #3: Buzz: Killer Espresso, 1644 N. Damen
Had we been thinking a little more clearly at the beginning of today’s venture, we might have gone here first and worked our way north. Buzz is just north of the North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection in Wicker Park, which meant that by the time we got there, parking was in scarce supply.
Buzz is a bit larger than Gaslight and Ipsento, with a very pleasant- (and full-) looking outdoor patio. Inside, again, a very simple clean establishment with a few two-person tables along one side and a four-top at the back (which was conveniently empty for us).
All three of us, perhaps feeling a little coffee-choice fatigue, elected to go with a pour-over of Sidama Chire. As we sat around discussing blogging, we concocted more made-up tasting notes: citrus (again), fruity, bright, and Ron said nutty.
The baristae were clearly very passionate about their product and their work. The pour-over technique involved pre-measured cans of beans, ground immediately before use; filters soaked ahead of the pour with water at the exact proper temperature; and the pictured single-cup… whatever you call that device that fit over the top of the cup. In any event, it was a really good cup of coffee.
Conclusion of Part the First
And with that, the first leg of the journey was over. In Ron’s car on the way back to the burbs, we agreed it had been an auspicious start to the venture, and that we would have to figure out when to do the next one. Ron will be out of town for a couple of weeks. He valiantly said we could go on without him in the interim, but I think I spotted the glint of a tear in his eye, so we may wait.
I had originally decided that I was not going to try to rank the coffee shops. And in fact, I had such widely varying drinks that it would be extremely difficult to compare them. However, I did find one objective measure for comparison: ink – how many tattoos the workers displayed. (I will not make aesthetic judgments, and I didn’t get a good enough look at the clientele to determine the customer ink quotient.) Therefore, in high to low tattoo-quantity order, I rank these first three establishments as follows:
In the next installment (unless we decide to go elsewhere), we will visit a shop that makes a bold assertion; a place that may be of special interest to Doctor Who fans; and perhaps … a bicycle shop?