Cafe Witness

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Ethics of Cafe Lunches

I'm at the Crazy Mocha in South Side Works (surprising no one), and it's lunch time. My cup of decaf is almost empty, as is my stomach. I'm craving some Qdoba, which is across the street. But, even though the Crazy Mocha baristas have mentioned in the past that they don't particularly care if we bring in food from outside the cafe, I still feel guilty about doing it myself.

Not that I don't. I just feel guilty about it.

Today, the solution is simple: get up, go across the street, eat lunch and come back. But I've been noticing this place filling up quick after noon lately, and I'd lose my excellent seat if I did that. So I'm faced with a quandary: squat in the good seat and bring lunch back, or vacate the premises and take my chances upon my return?

These are the titanic struggles of my daily freelance existence...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Unpredictability of Wireless

Since I tend to spend most of my cafe time at one of my regular haunts, I figured I'd stop down to one of the Crazy Mocha locations I don't usually frequent for a change of pace. Considering it's close to where Ann works, I opted for the one on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield.

Then I came home so I could actually use the internet.

See, the frustrating thing for me when it comes to cafes is the spotty internet service. Just because a place advertises itself as having "free internet" doesn't necessarily mean it actually works all the time, if at all.

Part of the problem is my MAC powerbook, which (for some reason) has a tough time picking up wireless signals. (I'm suspecting my antenna is the size of a twig and is buried deep within the bowels of the engine.) Other Crazy Mocha-goers were able to access the cafe's wireless with far less trouble than me. But still, even after moving closer to the wireless homebase (further back in the cafe), I still couldn't get the signal steadily enough to actually conduct any kind of business.

It's not a cafe's job to give us free internet, so I can't fault them completely. But the baristas seem quite used to the question, pointing out that most computer users were huddling in the back where the signal tends to be stronger -- as though there's no flaw in the plan to post "free wireless internet" in the window and then shepherd the users to the back corner. If all I wanted was a drink and a conversation -- or a DVD rental from the cafe's nifty Dreaming Ant video store, in back -- I'm sure I could have made do.

But, alas, I wanted to get some work done, which means I had to take my (unusually watered-down) soy hot chocolate (which, admittedly, was another bad choice on my part -- too musky) and head home.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Pittsburgh's Best Raspberry Mocha - Option #5: Affogato

I needed a caffeine boost to power through today's video shoot at Affogato (for Monday's episode of Something to Be Desired, the web sitcom I produce), so I carried the raspberry mocha experiment into the weekend.

The Drink: Victoria, the owner of Affogato, made it up with whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle. She asked if I wanted skim; I said yes. I know, I'm a hoser.

The Price: $3-something (lost track while dispensing scripts and setting up cameras)

The Verdict: Possibly the perfect blend of mocha and raspberry. The chocolate drizzle was a bit oversweet, but that's what it's for. The drink went down smoother than any of the others I've tried yet, without an overpowering lean toward sweetness or coffee flavor. And the leftover chocolate syrup collected in the bottom of the cup for a welcome aftertaste, much like the Goat Mocha but without the espresso spike.

Cafe Observations: I'm here so often, it's all a blur. Must away; there's a film to be seen!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Pittsburgh's Best Raspberry Mocha - Option #4: Kiva Han (Craig St.)

I had 45 minutes to kill before picking Ann up from work today, so I figured I'd take a flyer on a cafe I dig but whose wireless internet is always unpredictable: the Kiva Han on Craig St.

Sure enough, the wireless was buggy. They've opened the connection up so you don't need to be a Telerama customer to use the service, but you do need a WEP password. This they keep tucked away safely behind the counter, presumably so the students in nearby restaurants (or, god forbid, the Starbucks across the street) don't leech their connection.

Of course, when it's not working, there's nothing to leech...

The Drink: A standard raspberry mocha, to go. No options given by the barista for whipped cream, etc., so I got what I was given.

The Price: $3.28 for a small.

The Verdict: This mocha was heavy on the foam, which was different from the others I've had this week. I dug that; it was a change of pace that made up for the lack of whipped cream. It was also light on the raspberry -- as in, I didn't detect it. As a straight mocha, it was creamy and mellow. As a raspberry mocha, it comes up short.

Cafe Observations: Everything in the way of food looks great here. I'm a fan of their penne with walnuts, but I didn't have time to sample anything this time around. The image of what may have been a blackberry pastry remains burned deliciously in my mind...

What makes people choose Kiva Han vs. Starbucks? I look across the street and see dozens of perfectly content coffee drinkers in each locale. What makes them (the Starbuckers) different from us (The Kiva Haners)? Are we that dedicated to independent coffee shops? Do we want a meal with our coffee? Are the prices that different? Or, does it come down to two intangibles: safety of recognizable brand name and location (that is: which side of the street are you on)?...

Perhaps a poll should be conducted...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pittsburgh's Best Raspberry Mocha - Option #3: Tazza D'Oro

Living within walking distance of the Tazza D'Oro means they'll probably be involved in nearly every taste test I opt to explore in this blog. Such are the benefits of geography. It doesn't hurt that the cafe makes some of the best drinks in town...

The Drink:

Standard raspberry mocha, made with Torani flavor syrup. Whipped cream optional. Chocolate powder atop = classy touch.

The Price: $3.21 for a tall (medium).

The Verdict: This is where individual tastes come to play. Personally, I love the fact that this drink didn't overwhelm me with sweetness. It was more mocha than raspberry, with the syrup used as a hint of aftertaste rather than the spearheading flavor of the experience. In all, this was a wonderfully mellow drink that went down smooth and easy -- almost too easy, as I quickly realized I should have gotten a grande (large). But if you're a fan of big sweetness, the Goat Mocha from Tuesday is probably more your speed.

Cafe Observations: Upholding the European vibe of the cafe, this is one of the few places in town that can be considered "nearly full" and still function without a lot of crowd noise. In fact, despite the presence of at least 10 patrons, two employees and the washing of dishes (all serenaded by Tori Amos), the off-duty barista sitting in one of the easy chairs has been able to nap comfortably before his shift starts -- except for all the times he's been awoken by regular customers who stop by to say hello. One woman even introduced him to her family. You know you're making more of an impression in someone's life than just as a coffee slinger when someone takes the time to introduce you to their family...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pittsburgh's Best Raspberry Mocha - Option #2: Crazy Mocha (South Side Works)

Yesterday I stopped by the Crazy Mocha in South Side Works for the second of my five raspberry mocha samples this week. I ran out of time to post this update then, so here it is.

The Drink:

The barista (whom I'd never seen before) informed me that a raspberry mocha is called a "Goat Mocha" at Crazy Mocha, as it's one of their signature drinks. It comes with whipped cream and chocolate-covered espresso beans, setting it apart from the pack.

The Price: $3.82

The Verdict:

The Goat Mocha strikes a great balance between raspberry and mocha, with neither side overpowering the other. The flavor shot didn't carry the chemical affectation I've come to dread, and the drink's sweetness wasn't overwhelming. The espresso beans added a nice counterpoint, though I probably should've eaten them one at a time rather than doing what I did, which was allowing them to sink to the bottom and dissolve over time. By the time I reached them, their melting chocolate shells + smoky bitterness were almost too much to handle.


This Goat sets the bar very high for raspberry mochas.


Cafe Observations:

It's getting so I can never tell when it'll be busy at this Crazy Mocha. Yesterday the place was packed and I wound up at a two-seater by the door, which is the last resort for most visitors (when compared to the plush chairs or tables on the raised, insulated platform). College must be back in session...

I also didn't recognize the barista, which made me realize something amusing: I was a regular in this cafe for months, and have since slipped away due to time constraints. For all I know, she could have been working there for months now and I'd never know it, nor would she have any reason to believe I'd ever been in the place before.

Being a "regular" is a matter of perspective...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Pittsburgh's Best... Raspberry Mocha - Option #1: Tuscany Cafe

I've decided to kick off my weekly themes with something simple: the search for the city's best raspberry mocha. Why? Because it's literally the first thing that come to mind when I stepped up to the counter at the Tuscany Cafe on East Carson Street. And, since I'm not a raspberry mocha snob, I should be able to remain somewhat impartial. I hear that's good.

The Drink:

The owner of the Tuscany Cafe happened to be my barista. He suggested a white chocolate raspberry mocha rather than the traditional dark. I took him up on his suggestion. It came with whipped cream and I did not argue.

The Price: $3.45

The Verdict:

I would never have known this was a white chocolate mocha. I rarely get white chocolate except for Starbucks (hush), so perhaps my tastes aren't as refined as they could be. Or, perhaps the difference really is negligible.

The whipped cream was thick but dull, and the flavor shot -- like all flavor shots -- tasted heavy on the chemicals and light on the flavor. It's still a completely adequate raspberry mocha, and a safe baseline against which to judge the rest of the week's contenders.


Cafe Observations: The Tuscany is now "smoke free," according to its front door. As a non-smoker, I'm not complaining, though I didn't realize they'd made the change. Has the citywide smoking ordnance gone into effect already or was this proactive on their part?...

The Tuscany baristas make great music selections. I have no idea what cross-breed of alt-lounge I've been listening to for the past two hours but it's relaxing and invigorating at the same time, which is a great feat. The mix also included a faux-lounge cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," which deserves mentioning...

Now available: white ceramic Tuscany Cafe mugs with the cafe logo printed on red, for only $3.95. Support your local indie cafes!...

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Falacy of the Large Cup of Coffee

I've mentioned this before, but I continue to realize it's true: I don't drink (or eat) very quickly.

Traditionally, I'm the last person done at the dinner table. My colleagues will be halfway through dessert before I've even rounded the bend on the main course. It's not because I talk all that much -- though I do talk a lot -- or because I'm slow-moving. It's because I'm slow-digesting.

For some reason, even since I was a child, I was a slow eater. I've realized over the years that I don't enjoy eating qucikly -- the concept honestly never even enters my awareness -- and so my natural speed for consuming a meal is somewhat glacial.

My coffee-drinking habits mimic that.

Unless I'm talking with someone or reading, it doesn't occur to me that there's a drink beside me. I'm too busy typing or thinking to take those nervous habit sips or pause-for-reflection sips that most of my drinking is comprised of. As such, the large coffee sitting beside me sits barely 1/3 empty after more than 2 hours.

Why do I order a large? Is it because I intend to stay for awhile and feel obliged to purchase something that justifies that length? If so, I seriously need to reconsider, because even a small drink can last upwards of 6 hours under my non-watchful eye...


Speaking of which, the bigscreen TV is back at Crazy Mocha in the South Side Works. I know because I'm sitting here glancing at the Bill Cowher resignation press conference. I recall the day Cowher was hired as the Steelers head coach -- more because I was living in Erie, PA, and vaguely paying attention to sports than because I'm a Steelers fan -- and it still seems like only yesterday. To realize it's been 15 years is kind of sobering. What have I done in that time?


- dropped out of high school
- traveled the country
- got my GED
- worked at a college radio station
- graduated from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh
- moved to Phoenix, AZ, and moved back
- survived having my car totalled
- worked for 5 years at a multimedia company
- started a web sitcom
- quit my day job to work for myself
- lived in London for a month
- organized a PodCamp
- purchased and paid off a car (that's still running)
- changed addresses at least 10 times
- lost 1 grandparent to natural causes and another to Alzheimer's
- dated 5 different girls / women
- seen 4 of my close friends (and many more relatives and acquaintances) get married and have children

Maybe it wasn't yesterday after all.

Good luck, Bill.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Plug Trouble

Ann has the car today so I ventured down to the Tazza D'Oro, since it's within walking distance.

I hadn't paid much attention to this before, but I found a flaw in the laptop-friendliness of the cafe: the outlets have wall plates on them, which creates just enough of a buffer around the actual point of entry that my MAC power supply can't enter the outlet and support its own weight. (It actually might be able to use the bottom outlet in the setup I'm sitting beside, but there's a string of Christmas lights plugged in there.)

Accidental oversight, design choice or subtle hint that laptop users shouldn't set up camp for hours on end? You decide...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Roll Call: Crazy Mocha, Shadyside

FYI, here's a snapshot of who's having a cup here at Crazy Mocha, Shadyside:

- a guy in his late 20s / early 30s, reading a hardcover copy of The Aeneid

- a woman in her late 40s / early 50s, doing her bills and balancing her checkbook

- 2 regulars, guys in their mid to late 50s, smoking up a storm while working on their laptops

- two college chicks looking around self-consciously, unsure of what to do with their midday free time

- a guy chomping a cigar while studying what appears to be a thick medical book

- a man in his 60s doing absolutely nothing. Just sitting at a table. No drink. No cigarette. Wearing a sport jacket over a polo shirt and looking around. For over half an hour now...

Charting a Course

I'm wondering whether I should establish a course for the coming weeks of Cafe Witness. As much fun as it is to comment arbitrarily on the cafes I visit, I have so many other pressing duties in the course of a day that I feel I may let this blog lapse if there's not a concrete reason for updating it. So I've been kicking around some possibilities.

- The Best ___ in Pittsburgh? (search high and low for the best mocha, the best chai, etc.)
- The Best Drink at Cafe X? (sample each specialty drink at a cafe to decide which ones top the list)
- The Differences Among the Crazy Mochas (there are over half a dozen Crazy Mochas in Pittsburgh, each with its own flavor)
- The Cafes of Region X (Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Oakland, South Side, etc., all have multiple cafes to choose from)
- Cafe Patrons: A Compendium (people-watching has led me to realize that every cafe gets its own variety of the same stable of "types")

If anyone out there has any suggestions, feel free to pass them along. I'll do my best to make this blog as informative and entertaining in the minutes I can devote to it every weekday. In the meantime, I'll start with one approach next week and test-drive it to see if it takes.


Today, I'm at the Crazy Mocha in Shadyside, on Ellsworth Avenue. This is the "smoking permitted" Crazy Mocha that confounds me every time I'm here because I'm not used to seeing ashtrays at my cafe table. The regulars who are here seem to value two perks of the place: Crazy Mocha's chain-wide free wireless and the ability to puff cigars while web surfing and latte-sipping.

Another thing I've noticed, having been here in both the daytime and the evening, is that the baristas here seem to play a wider variety of music than those at the South Side Works location. I've been told before that the SSW baristas can't play anything with "objectionable content" in it, whereas I was once treated to a (very good) barrage of rap at the Ellsworth location. Perhaps it's a measure of the personal differences among baristas or an indicator of the difference in milieu (SSW is certainly meant to be a more posh, pseduo-corporate location to complement the upscale national chains it resides beside), but it's worth noting. Personally, I can only handle so much BOB FM, so it's good to know Ellsworth provides an alternative.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Resurgence

After a four month hiatus, I do believe it's time to restart this blog. Why? Because I enjoy it, and because it's nice to have a spot away from my other works where I can express myself differently.

So, for a semi-new year's resolution, I'll be attempting to update this blog on a daily weekday basis. It will get easier to do so once Ann starts her new job on Thursday, meaning she'll have to follow a 9 to 5 schedule and, therefore, so will I. That means I'll be taking each day's work on the road to a cafe, where I'll feel compelled to get things done rather than wandering from the home office to the kitchen and back.

I'll lay out some goals for myself as I see fit. In the meantime, let's just see if I can get this "daily update thing" back on track.

(And yes, I'm writing this from ye olde Crazy Mocha in South Side Works, where the big-screen TV is STILL broken, and has been off the wall for a few weeks now. Oddly, I still find myself looking over at the space where it used to be, out of habit. It's the same habit that causes me to continually check the walk-in area at a restaurant even after the party I've been waiting for has arrived and is sitting beside me.)