I’m a latte girl. Now, I don’t sugar my coffee, and I can tell when a roast is burnt or simply crappy, but I’m so far outside of the coffee intelligentsia that I’m often intimidated by some of Portland’s “best” coffeehouses. You know the ones – the coffee bars serving up five different single-origin micro-roasts with the über-hip baristas offering six new ways to brew a cup - many of which use equipment you're more likely to find in my sister’s biochemical engineering lab at OHSU than in a neighborhood cafe. I may not be a true coffee connoisseur yet, but I drink a lot of coffee, and spend a lot of time in coffee shops. When you work from home and can go days without seeing a single person you don’t live with, the coffee shop visit becomes a much-needed social opportunity. I’m normally all for jumping into new flavors and experiences, and I love learning about and supporting local artisans of all stripes, but some of Portland’s noteworthy micro-roast spots fail to do the thing I think coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants can do best: create community. Most of my favorite neighborhood coffee shops serve up Stumptown, Ristretto, Portland Roasting, or even imported roasts, providing good food and comfy couches instead of focusing on perfecting their own signature beans. These spots are the kind of cozy rooms you want to spend time in, places to meet your neighbors and friends, a feeling I just don’t get from those ultra-modern roaster meccas. The obvious problem is that many of the latter admittedly often serve up a better latte. I know the only way to develop my palate is try try a bunch of really good cups, but if that means spending more of my time in places that don't make me feel comfortable, it's just not going to happen.
All of this goes a long way towards explaining why I love the Laurelhurst-area Oblique Coffee Roasters, located in the large, mint-colored building at 3039 Southeast Stark Street (map). Oblique owners John and Heather Chandler prove that Portlanders can have their great coffee and comfortably drink it, too. The cozy Southeast spot just celebrated its first anniversary, but they’ve already established a balance between serving up a truly great espresso roasted in-house and offering a warm and inviting space for everyone, whether you’re ordering a cup to go or hanging out for the afternoon. Oblique feels like what your living room dreams of becoming, with great light from the bank of windows facing SE Stark, historic tchotchkes and photographs lining the counters, comfy couches and overstuffed armchairs, and plenty of tables to lay out your newspapers, textbooks, or sewing materials. It’s no surprise that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein decided to shoot some scenes of “Portlandia” in the historic building. The Chandler’s enthusiasm for community, coffee, and the Rose City (John’s a local, born and raised) can be seen in every detail of Oblique, making them one of the most quintessentially “Portland” spots to grab a great cup in town.
There’s a reason Oblique feels like a home: it is one. The owners/roasters/baristas/bikers/artists/mucisians/dog-lovers John and Heather bought the space in 2007, and spent three years painstakingly renovating the 1891 Victorian mercantile building that was in danger of being torn down by the city. When they purchased the building, the entire structure was leaning eighteen inches at the Southeast corner of the foundation, a seventy-foot-tall elm tree was growing into the basement, and the roof was patched with cardboard, but they could see the old building had a lot of potential. They preserved the original hardwood and architectural details of the classic building and corrected most of the tilt – though the whole place still sits a bit wonky on its foundation, the origin of the name Oblique (For a full account off the renovation, check out the project website). The couple now lives upstairs, spends most of their day serving up coffee and chatting with regulars, and uses the basement as a band practice room and wood workshop – creating tables and a one-of-a-kind hand-carved sign from the gorgeous wood of that fateful elm tree. They've got dreams of expanding the retail and community space into the basement - perhaps a bike shop or a live music venue - in a few years. The Chandler's creativity, entrepreneurial passion, and love of Portland is contagious. As we poked around the piles of lumber, skill saws, and drum-sets, it was easy to imagine the current storage and work space filled with loud music and happy conversations.
You can really feel the love that went into this place, and the coffee is excellent, fragrant and smooth – believe me, I’ve asked plenty of people who know far more about these things than I do. As I sat down with John to talk about the space, the coffee, and Portland, I didn’t feel at all like I was being judged for sipping a [totally yummy, creamy] latte. John – once a commercial fisherman and cook on a rig off the coasts of Washington and Alaska – believes the micro-roaster trend doesn’t have to create an insular community of coffee snobbery. He is happy to help people learn more about the origin of his beans, and is elated when he’s able to deliver a great brew to someone who can really appreciate the quality of his roasts, but he will never hesitate to offer a simple latte or drip coffee to-go, with a big smile to boot. He even put his roasting philosophy into food logic for me, which earned him major points: He likens roasting coffee to carmelizing onions and garlic – too little heat and time produces an under-flavored, pallid product, while too much heat can burn the sugars and create bitter aftertastes. John's idea of a perfect roast is that middle sweet spot - where the flavor is robust but still sweet. Beyond that, individual origins of beans give different flavor notes, but the principle is the same. As he put coffee into culinary terms to this latte girl, sitting in a ridiculously comfortable armchair in a 120-year-old building, on an almost-sunny January day, I couldn’t help but grin. Maybe I’ve got to give those Portlandia guys a little more credit, because this is the spirit of Portland at its best.