By Laura Ingalls and Greg D'Avis
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The sweet aroma has lured us through the doors of Tucson's coffee shops again and again. Empty tables are scarce, as students, artists and other caffeine addicts buzz from the stimulating conversation and bitter drinks. For those who regularly imbibe, coffee has ceased to be a mere beverage. It is the focal point over which life is dissected and papers are furiously conceived.
For aficionados like us, it is the lifeblood coursing through our veins, the stuff of inspiration. Morning's alchemy, freshly ground from a whirl of pungent beans. The only thing better than the coffee before us is the next cup.
To our delight, it seems a new shop opens every day. With finals imminent, we set out to find the best cup o' joe in town.
A tall order, certainly, but we were up to the task. Our coffee intake has kept the economies of several South American countries afloat. We've been coffee snobs, and gone beyond that level Ä now we're snobby to the snobs. We don't drink coffee Ä we live it, man.
Judging ourselves qualified to serve as arbiters of taste in all things caffeinated, we set out one day last weekend to check out the coffee places near campus and decide which were most suitable for our UA brethren. The trip was not without cost Ä our minds were addled to the point where we ended up having a 45-minute discussion about World War II very early the next morning. But hey Ä no sacrifice is too great. Plus, we didn't have to sleep for three days.
Here's what we found:
1730 E. Speedway Blvd.
Greg: I'm just not cool enough to truly appreciate this place. Undoubtedly, if I had hip sideburns and Lennon specs like most of the clientele, I'd be able to overlook the average coffee and crowded atmosphere. But I don't, so I can't.
Laura: Hey now. Bentley's mocha shakes have been a religious experience for me for almost four years. I agree on the coffee, but the creamy decadence of the mocha shakes is hard to beat. They're great for the nascent coffee drinker who shies away from the bitterness of the real thing. Although it's crowded at night, I've always snagged a table. I can tolerate the artsy crowd more than Greg but sometimes the art on the walls is overpowering. My best friend and I had a lovely discussion about the "butt paintings" on the walls a few months ago over shakes.
G: I concede the mocha shakes point, but they're cancelled out by the crazy layout of the place. Tables are placed randomly, perhaps by the same mysterious people who placed the heads on Easter Island. Every time I have to make my way from the counter to my chosen seat, I must fight the urge to climb over tables, kicking food and patrons out of my way. Fortunately for decorum, I have enough social graces to realize that wouldn't be cool.
L: I have to say that any place that uses toys as table markers is fine by me.
800 E. University Blvd.
L: The coffee house I call home. It's like having coffee in your favorite friend's living room, with the comforting forest green walls and ample seating out on the patio. The only thing missing is a porch swing.
G: The coffee's okay, but a little on the weak side. The coffee isn't the primary element in the Paraiso equation, anyway Ä the atmosphere is so charming, friendly and homey that it even cheers up a grumpy old jerk like me.
L: True, the coffee quality varies day by day, depending on the flavor and time of day. It's a nice place to grab a quick lunch with a solid mocha and talk with friends. That's the beauty of it really Ä Paraiso is definitely conducive to conversation.
121 E. Broadway Blvd.
G: Weak, weak coffee, almost water with a little coffee flavoring in it. This is another hip hangout, so the baggy pants quotient is pretty high. The place is hampered by haphazard, overly campy decorations Ä it seems like the management just picked up odd items here and there and stuck them on the walls, such as comic book posters, John F. Kennedy paraphernalia and a rubber canoe. The lack of cohesion makes the whole effort seem forced and insincere.
L: To me, it's like drinking coffee at a yard sale. After one sip, it was clear coffee is not the main attraction for Quebec's clientele. It seems more likely that it provides a hangout for every chain-smoking artist this side of the arts district. If this is your scene, you've found a place, complete with bars on the windows. The tables and chairs are the 1950s formica and chrome kind, which I think are neat, but also add to the overall vacuous atmosphere in this place.
G: If you want more excitement in your coffee experience than the average addict, this might be the place Ä at night, it's more jumpin' than the average coffee house (Laura once saw a man in full armor there). If not, however, you are probably going to be better off somewhere else.
2830 N. Campbell Ave.
L: It was such a great concept at first Ä coffee, some food and a little caffeine paraphernalia. But lately, it seems the "Etc." has taken over and coffee comes second. With the exception of a few consistent flavors (Danish Nut Cream and Mayan Magic) I don't chance the lines of people trying to be trendy coffee drinkers. A 20-or-more minute wait for coffee that doesn't knock me senseless isn't worth it.
G: The quality of the coffee depends on which flavor you happen to draw. Irish Creme or Cocoa Almondine are dynamite, but Island Paradise and similar flavors taste like they added too much of the island. As Wildcat music editor Noah Lopez says, "I don't want to have to walk through a mall to get coffee."
L: Keeping with the mall atmosphere, I'm often abandoned by the host at my table with no waitperson in sight. One night I dropped my silverware in front of a waiter two times before he realized we hadn't talked to another human for 15 minutes. Maybe it was because we were marooned in one of those sections they have roped off. "High Maintenance Coffee Area Ä Do Not Serve." Usually there's only one table being used in these sections while a line of night owl coffee drinkers extends out the door. At least they're open 24 hours a day now.
G: The constant additions to the festivities don't help. Live music at night? Bad idea. The balloon guy that travels table to table? Bad idea. Coffee Etc. is the McDonald's of coffeehouses Ä it gets the job done and it's the obvious choice, but it doesn't go above and beyond the call of coffee.
308 E. 10th St.
L: Huzzah! A good coffee house and eatery open until 1 a.m. If it was open 24 hours, it would get all the money I pump into Denny's. Situated in the historic Hotel Congress, the Cup is a great place to brood and take in some of Tucson's culture and people. A couple of things that could be improved. The latte I had was surprisingly bland, after having their regular coffee night after night. Also, I wish they served lunch sooner than 1 p.m.
G: The strongest coffee I've tasted in a while. It'll put hair on your chest. The building is fascinating, a slice of authentic Tucson history Ä if conversation lags, you can just talk about how cool the place is. Added points for a waiter who seems to have stepped straight out of a Jim Thompson novel. The Cup has the kind of character that comes naturally, and can't be forced.
3400 E. Speedway Blvd.
G: It's a drive, but worth it for the quality. The best cup of coffee I had all day Ä strong, but not overwhelming.
L: The coffee was non-descript, but the mocha, with chocolate shavings on top of the whipped cream, has always been a hit with me and my dad.
G: The whole experience was pleasant Ä Cuppucino's has a calming atmosphere, with the spread out tables, high ceilings and inobtrusive music. And damn fine coffee.
L: Calming, yes, but not the kitschy familiarity of older establishments. I think big window panes and the fact that it's situated right in the middle of a strip mall give me a "drink and get out" feeling.
745 N. 4th Ave.
G: A good, solid place within walking distance of campus. The coffee is solid, if unmemorable, and the workers are friendly. The building is interesting, reminiscent of a loft apartment,and the bathroom is one of the more bizarre places I've seen in a while.
L: Epic has a lot of extras for such a relatively new place. It has a nice selection of teas, Turkish coffee and you can get a French press there.
1135 N. Park Ave.
L: A welcome newcomer to the Tucson coffee house market. The owner has tastefully redecorated the old Lean Bean house, and has turned this convenient location into a wonderful place to grab coffee and lunch. The iced mochas are my favorite way to relax from a stressful day.
G: With such an ideal location, it's a shame that the quality of the House hasn't always been there under previous management. Once you get past the nightmarish parking (our advice: stop the car in the middle of Park Avenue and take your chances), the House is a nice little place. Good mid
coffee, although the mochas have their appeal as well.
Milagro Fine Coffees
3073 N. Campbell Ave.
G: Probably the most distant of our selected coffee haunts, Cafe Milagro is also one of the most satisfying. It boasts a good cup of coffee, a laid-back mood and friendly employees.
L: You probably haven't heard of this place. That's because it's tucked away on the west side of Campbell Avenue. It's classy, with cohesive decor and helpful,clean-cut employees. My only complaint is the hard chairs. My advice: drive past that other place on Campbell and check out Milagro.
911 E. University Blvd.
G: Pony Espresso caters to a different need than other shops Ä it seems to be more study than conversation oriented. The bizarre hours lend credence to this theory Ä what other coffee house closes at 6 p.m. on Friday nights? You can find stronger coffee most places, but if you're looking for a quiet coffee/study session near campus, this is the place.
Tucson's coffee houses offer something for every caffeine fiend. While java dreams provide the pretense for visiting these haunts, it is also the atmosphere and conversations these places inspire that keep us coming back cup after cup.
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