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I've been trying to figure out the New York City coffee paradox for some years now. I don't understand why, in a city with a not-at-all-unjustified reputation as a caffeine-fueled madhouse, there's no coffee culture to speak of. A Starbucks on every other block doesn't constitute a coffee culture; neither do the hundreds of coffee carts serving barely passable, often burnt (though laudably cheap) coffee. You can find a few scattered outposts of coffee worship—like Joe, 71 Irving, and the Mud Truck—but they're the exception. The point is that expecting, demanding, caring about great coffee is weirdly not part of the New York City lifestyle—not part of the city's self-image or its cultural dialogue.
Not so in Portland, which is where I am right now. I love that I can wake up in my room at the chic, comfy boutique Hotel Lucia downtown, and I can ignore the coffee maker in my room, skip room service, and walk a few blocks to the fabulous, homegrown Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Today Stumptown is brewing a Honduran variety; I like its acidic bite and long, mellow finish. The soaring, brick-walled cafe is packed with people lingering over their mugs, luxuriating in the coffeehouse smells and sounds.
Good coffee is both a big deal and no big deal in Portland. It matters a lot—but it's also expected, assumed, almost taken for granted. I wash my coffee down with a glass of Stumptown's homemade thyme iced tea (this is where my Manhattan-inspired caffeine overkill comes in), then I head to Pearl Bakery, where they brew beans from Seattle's small-batch coffee roastery Batdorf and Bronson. I breakfast on Pearl's densely almondy Basque tart and temper the sweetness with a cup of Batdorf's smooth dark roast, and I pick up a loaf of crusty fig-and-anise bread for later. Today I'm having lunch at an outrageously delicious outdoor Thai shack called Pok Pok, which opened last year and is already a raging success (it just expanded to an adjacent indoor dining space called the Whiskey Soda Lounge). A few months ago I stopped for lunch at the shack before heading to the Portland airport, and my green-papaya salad and lemongrass-marinated game hen were so transfixing I stayed too long—and almost missed my flight home.