The Ruta Java

Where to Go for a Cup of Joe

Ruta Maya Coffeehouse
photograph by Jana Birchum

In 1986, as I prepared for a four-month stay in Austria's capital, I pored through guidebooks proclaiming Vienna's heartbeat could be found inside its multitude of coffeehouses. Although the closest thing to a coffeehouse I'd experienced back then in Sherman, Texas was a dreary doughnut shop or the far-from-worldly Denny's, I imagined Vienna's locales as dark, intriguing places where the cosmopolitan gathered to read from tattered novels and international newspapers, and to speak of significant matters in hushed, if knowing tones. I imagined myself inside these dark halls of European bohemia and hoped naïvely that by virtue of my simple presence there I would somehow absorb some of this Euro-chic. Funny thing is, I didn't even drink coffee then. But I learned. My subsequent years frequenting coffeehouses both stateside and abroad taught me to shun what I initially believed were glamorous swirls of cream and dashes of cinnamon in favor of smaller, thicker, grittier cups of coffee.

Today, a guidebook covering Austin might also claim that our city's pulse can be found inside its cafes. On any given day or night, folks crowd into coffee and espresso spots, some for music, others for food and conversation, still others for time alone with a good book, and almost everyone for an honest cup of joe.

For coffee aficionados, these are the golden days. While the bottomless mug of anemic roadhouse brew will likely always have its rightful place, the American coffee scene has forever moved out of the dark ages and into a glorious era of experimentation and appreciation. Coffee-sipping has become a national zeitgeist, and although a few local players (namely Cup A Jane and Soma) have been forced to shut their doors recently, Austin residents in general seem to be sustaining the burgeoning java house trend.

It used to be that the only choice you were faced with when ordering coffee was whether to dress up your cup with cream or sugar, or down it "black" (actually a rusty brown). In fact, until Starbucks educated the masses, gourmet coffee for most meant those tri-colored International Coffee tins which have little to do with the bean and everything to do with what is ground up with it. Of course in Austin, those ahead of the times could cop a creamy cappucino at Quackenbush's as far back as 1983, but before the coffee Renaissance settled in, ice-cream parlors were the local hang-outs of choice.

503 Coffee Bar
photograph by Jana Birchum

Today, a cup of coffee might mean a smooth latte, strong espresso, or frothy macchiato, and the bean that made it could have come from Ethiopia, Guatamala, or Hawaii. What's more, many local coffeehouses handle their own roasting and blending, further distinguishing their beverages from those of their competitors. And if that's not enough choosing, how to fill your cup is only one part of the coffeehouse choice. Given the sheer number of coffeehouses in town now, another consideration is hand-picking your atmosphere. What follows is a list of Austin's favorite coffee hang-outs. We've tried to be as comprehensive as possible, but have intentionally excluded the many fine bakeries in town that also serve great coffee (i.e. Texas French Bread, Sweetish Hill, Upper Crust, et.al); coffee roasters without a cafe atmosphere (such as the well-loved Anderson's and Trianon); and diners both chain and otherwise. Drop us an e-mail (mail@auschron.com) if we've inadvertantly left out your favorite java gem.

Austin Java Co.
1206 Parkway, 476-1829
Mon-Thu, 7am-midnight; Fri, 7am-1am; Sat, 8am-1am; Sun, 8am-11pm; smoking outside only

This happening house where Lamar and Enfield converge features a menu that goes far beyond that of your standard coffeehouse. At lunchtime, Austin Java crawls with both business types and students who line up for a wide variety of soup and salad combos and daily specials. Dinner proves a quieter time to dine, although the cafe's 10 moderately priced pasta plates, handful of appetizers, and wine and beer selections also draw a crowd. Austin Java does a mean breakfast business as well, with omelettes, several takes on eggs benedict, French toast, pancakes, breakfast tacos, and migas on the menu.

Despite the focus on food (the cafe's creamy tomatillo crawfish pasta [$9.95] deserves laud as does a daily special of Shepherd's Pie [$5.95] packed with fresh rosemary), Austin Java hasn't neglected its coffee selection. A basic daily blend will set you back $1.25 (free refills). Most of the cafe's coffees come from a roaster in Tyler, and an extensive list of both hot and cold espresso- and cappucino-based beverages includes the one-of-a-kind Caramel Knowledge ($2.95), a shot-in-the-arm for sweet tooths. One of my favorite dessert treats is the Vietnamese coffee ($1.95), a hefty serving of Cafe du Monde French roast brewed into a bed of condensed milk and poured over ice. Austin Java's sizeable patio out back makes it a prime place to absorb your caffeine with a healthy dose of sunshine.


Captain Quackenbush's

2120 Guadalupe, 472-4477
Mon-Fri, 7am-10pm; Sat & Sun, 9am-10pm; smoking section

This popular hangout on the drag was serving coffee before coffee was cool. Today it's difficult to navigate the place at lunchtime, when campus types fill both its non-descript back room and the adjoining space with its Italinate-toned walls, gilded mirrors, and cigar counter. Quackenbush's does a variety of sandwiches and salads as well as a daily special that goes easy on your wallet. The matzo ball soup is comfort food at its best and rivals only the gigantic cafe au lait. Health nuts will appreciate the smoothie selection. Try the kiwi ($2.47) for an astringent, refreshing vitamin kick.


The Coffee Exchange

1200 W. Sixth, 474-5300
Mon-Sat, 6:30am-9pm; Sun, 6:30am-4pm; smoking outside only

More coffee specialty shop with a few tables and stools than coffeehouse, the Coffee Exchange roasts beans, blends them, and packages them by the pound. But the crowded shop also sells coffee by the cup, and a particularly decadent early morning treat is the slightly crunchy sorbetto topped with tiny bits of shaved chocolate. The Exchange is good spot to search for that coffee-related gift for the folks back home; or, grab a tall barstool in the shade out front and watch the traffic whiz by on West Sixth.


Dolce Vita

4222 Duval, 323-2686
Open daily, 11am-midnight; smoking outside only

Coffee and ice cream make a great pair, but espresso and gelato go unrivaled. This sophisticated little place with its harlequin decor and homemade, specialty ice creams takes dessert and coffee seriously. Dolce Vita's espresso tends toward the thick and slightly smoky, and the cafe's gelato is the best I've tasted this side of the Atlantic. A bountiful brandy selection and wide variety of Italian sodas complete the menu, and an artful assortment of music (jazz, blues, opera) played inside and piped out to the patio's festive umbrella-ed tables hits the spot as well. Dolce Vita is not the best spot to snuggle up with a good book; though the chairs inside are stylish, they aren't exactly of the lounging variety, and the tables are tiny -- there's not much room for anything beyond a couple of cappuccinos and your dessert, on which you'll want to stay focused anyway.


503 Coffee Bar

503 W. Oltorf, 462-0804
Mon-Thu, 7am-11pm; Fri, 7am-midnight; Sat, 8am-midnight; Sun 8am-11pm; smoking outside only

A great place for healthy victuals and mild espresso drinks in South Austin, 503 has been in business just over a year, but unfortunately remains uncharted territory for many Central Austin residents. The coffee bar is a comfy little spot, with changing art, several small tables, two living areas with the requisite vintage couches, and a sizeable backyard patio. Live music livens up 503 every Saturday (no cover) from 9pm to close, and during the daily happy hour (4pm-7pm weekdays), beer imports and microbrews are $1 cheaper and espresso drinks are half-price. I also suggest slipping into 503 for lunch. The cafe prepares an out-of-the-ordinary chicken salad sandwich ($4.95) loaded with chunks of rum-, ginger- and cilantro-marinated white meat studded with walnuts and rum-soaked raisins. Fans of pimento cheese will appreciate the upscale mezzo pesto sandwich ($4.95), a dense mound of shredded jack, Jarlsberg and cheddar cheeses packed with green olives, fresh basil, roasted pine nuts, sun-dried tomato, and garlic. Sandwiches come with a side dish -- a bean and barley salad moistened by an orange-ginger vinaigrette the day I visited -- and soups, salads, and a la carte items such as hummus ($1.75) and tabbouleh round out the menu.


Flightpath Cafe

5011 Duval, 458-4472
Mon-Thu, 10am-11pm; Fri & Sat, 10am-1am; smoking outside only

Look up from the new deck seating out front and you can practically see your reflection in the guts of a DC-10. Flightpath's gimmick is its location, and this Austin veteran still fills nightly despite its need for an interior facelift and the impressive roar of planes gliding overhead. Most folks at Flightpath are engrossed in textbooks or hunkered over a PC keyboard, but conversationalists won't be sent away. Sharing space at a formica-topped table is the norm here, so don't be shy. Grab a gritty espresso or cop a cup of the city's best hot chocolate and enjoy the airshow.


Flipnotics Coffeespace

1603 Barton Springs Rd., 322-9750
Mon-Thu, 7pm-12am; Fri & Sat, 7am-1am; Sun, 8am-12am; smoking outside only

One of the best things about sipping coffee at Flipnotics is that the background music is usually of the live variety. This outdoor coffee cabana with wooden picnic tables and plastic chairs dotting its deck (and a few scattered places to sit inside a dimly lit back room) calls itself a coffeespace but probably sells as much beer as it does brew of the caffeinated sort. Flipnotics' frothy cappucino deserves an honorable mention, and the cafe's food, offerings both savory and sweet -- quiches, sandwiches, pastries -- are honest and cheap.


HighLife Cafe

407 E. Seventh, 474-5338
Sun-Wed, 9am-midnight, Thu-Sat,
9am-1am; smoking section

The French press sets HighLife Cafe apart from Austin's other coffee bars. While this cozy place brews a mean little espresso (and even makes ultra-light scrambled eggs using the machine's vapors), the best thing to do here is to settle in for some scintillating conversation (film books line the shelves so the subject of cinema might be an apt topic) and order your own private pot of joe. Beans are pressed through an antique, hand-turned grinder behind the bar and then doused with steaming water. The aromatic coffee brews while en route to you, and watching the grounds as they are slowly squeezed to the bottom is almost as fun as enjoying the full-flavored cups that result. Food is more than half the equation at HighLife. Try the smoked trout plate with polenta, the High Plains hummus, or pair your java with a breakfast of homemade waffles.


Jake's Coffee
(inside 12th Street Books)

827 W. 12th, 499-8828
Mon-Fri, 8am-7pm; Sat, 10am-6pm; Closed Sunday; smoking outside only

ACC students have long been privy to this comfy coffee counter surrounded by books. Forget the Barnes & Noble/Starbucks formula, Jake's is what a literary coffeehouse is all about. The tall, tiled counter, set within arm's reach of several soaring bookshelves, is the perfect place to peruse the work of a little-known author, sip on a cup of organic coffee or a hot, spiced tea, and nibble on a muffin or pastry. Jake's smoothies ($2.25) are the perfect warm weather choice and there are those who love the Ginseng Rush soda. For a rush of the caffeinated kind, there's nothing quite like the Headhammer, a cup of coffee bolstered by an added shot or two of espresso.


Little City

916 Congress, 476-2489
Mon-Fri, 8am-midnight; Sat, 9am-midnight; Sun, 9am-10pm
3403 Guadalupe, 467-2326
Mon-Fri, 7am-midnight; Sat-Sun, 8am-midnight; smoking in the back of the downtown location, and outside at both locations.

An urban coffee bar par excellence, Little City's downtown location, with its hip, stained-concrete floors and cool slip-covered chairs, draws a constant crowd. "Micro-roasting" occurs on a daily basis at Little City's Guadalupe location, and the cafe's signature coffee is a 100% arabica high-altitude bean. In addition to selling the standard hot and cold beverages and beans by the pound (buy your bags on Tuesday for a $2 discount), Little City serves a luscious caffe sorbetto ($2.50) that goes down like a rich milk shake with the miraculously full flavor of a strong cup of joe. Little City on Congress does a mean sandwich business at lunchtime, and both locations offer the usual variety of baked goods. After-hours visitors beware: You may have to wait for a table at the Congress Avenue location.


Los Armadillos Coffee

1605 W. Fifth, 322-0280
Mon-Fri, 7am-5pm; Saturday, 8am-5pm; Closed Sunday; smoking outside only

This tiny java shack is first and foremost a coffee roaster, but a bar with stools inside and a few tables set up outside qualifies them for coffeehouse status. While you can slip in for coffee by the cup ($0.78) and a sweet snack supplied by Texas French Bread , Los Armadillos' principal line of business is selling coffee by the pound to individuals and a number of local restaurants. The company imports over 20 different whole bean coffees, including varietals, blends, estate coffees, and decaffeinated beans. Roasting is a daily affair, and Los Armadillos has left no major coffee-growing region untouched, with beans shipped from plantations in Africa, Central and South America, Indonesia, and Hawaii. Prices per pound begin just over the $6 mark with Los Armadillos' 2 estate coffees, the Guatemalan San Rafael Organic and the Kona #1 Special Captain Cook topping the list at $8.95 per pound and $13.90 per pound respectively. If you are unsure of where to begin given Los Armadillos' wide selection, the Java Estate Jampit varietal ($7.10 per pound) makes a rich, dark pot with almost no acidic aftertaste. The House Blend, comprised of Colombia Supremo, Brazil Santos, and Java Estate Jampit, offers a more pronounced bite and a deep aroma thick with spice.


Lovejoy's

604 Neches, 477-1268
Open Daily 4pm-2am; smoking

More bar than coffeehouse, Lovejoy's nonetheless bills itself a haven for those in search of "fine coffees." It's a great little haunt for that early evening cup of coffee to get you motivated for the long night ahead, or an ideal late-night spot for a sobering shot after a crawl along Sixth Street. At Lovejoy's you can even shoot a game of pool while you toss back your joe, though too much caffeine won't do much for a steady cue. Here the mood is dark, yet homey, reminiscent of a neighborhood pub, and the coffee options are plentiful.


Manor Road Coffeehouse

1809 Manor Rd., 474-2505
Mon-Fri, 7:15am-midnight; Sat & Sun, 8:30am-midnight; smoking section

Manor Road Coffeehouse
photograph by Jana Birchum

It doesn't get much funkier or more eclectic than this relative newcomer to the Austin coffee scene. Egyptian bas reliefs and a trickling fountain announce the cafe's entrance, and once inside you feel you've penetrated a gypsy or fortune-teller's intimate den. Windows at Manor Road are dressed with an amalgam of draperies -- floral curtains share billing with batik prints and purple lace flounces. Estate sale still-lifes compete for your attention with modern canvasses, and mismatched tables, chairs, and desks fill both the halves of the cafe, one side of which is generally reserved for live music.

Italian sodas, beer, and wine join coffees and herbal teas as the drinks of choice. Food offerings are as diverse as the furnishings, including breakfast tacos under $2, miso soup, empanadas, a changing selection of salads, and a slew of home-baked cakes and cookies.


Metro Espresso Bar

2222 Guadalupe, 474-5730
Open 24 hours daily; smoking upstairs 2pm-6am

A favorite spot on the drag (formerly called Insomnia), Metro fills up late at night with students and a thick curtain of cigarette smoke. The coffeehouse doesn't feature the shabby-chic decor popular at most student hangouts, but the ultra-contemporary, utilitarian loft look provides a welcome change of scene. The caffeine-sensitive be forewarned: Metro's tight little espresso is a killer.


Mojo's Daily Grind

2714 Guadalupe, 477-6656
Open 24 hours Mon-Saturday; Closed Sunday night; smoking section at the bar

This favorite on the drag fills day and night with industrious students who feel at home behind the tables and slouched in the chairs and couches that cover this converted old house. Mojo's menu centers on coffee, although a handful of pastries, not to mention the latest magazines and an amusing selection of vintage games, are available to go along with your brew. The coffeehouse used to roast its own beans, but now buys in bulk from Texas Coffee Traders and sells by the pound as well as by the cup. For a bracing caffeine kick, down a tight black espresso and save the slightly sweet iced mojo for a warm weather treat.


Mozart's Coffee Roasters

3826 Lake Austin Blvd., 477-2900
Mon-Thu, 7am-11pm; Fri, 7am-1am; Sat, 8am-1am; Sun, 8am-11pm; smoking outside only

A swanky, waterfront coffeehouse with candlelit tables, Mozart's seems to cater to "grown-ups" inside, while its deck draws a significantly younger set. In addition to offering a changing selection of coffees by the cup and the usual espresso drinks, Mozart's roasts beans in-house and sells its coffees by the pound. Mozart's menu also features yogurt, a surprisingly nice complement to a cup of house-roasted Kenyan AA.


Ruta Maya

218 W. Fourth, 472-9637
Open daily, 8am-2am; smoking

A downtown veteran with staying power, Ruta Maya's muraled stoop greets urban loungers day and night and provides the perfect vantage point for people-watching. Inside, coffee drinks, a variety of house-roasted coffee by the pound, a cigar room, and live music offer ample entertainment. A political education is also possible at Ruta Maya, where the fight of Central America's indigenous peoples, the Mayan, is championed. Buy Ruta Maya's namesake, Mexican-grown coffee-by-the-pound and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the native people of Central America.


Spider House

2908 Fruth, 480-9562
Mon-Fri, 7am-1am; Sat, 8am-2am; Sun, 8am-1am; smoking outside only

It's hard to stir this huge house-cum-coffee bar most evenings when students pile into the comfortable chairs and couches, but order an aromatic chai or colossal hot chocolate, and take to the wrap-around patio until a space frees up. The Spider House feels like the sprawling home of a long-lost aunt, and a solid selection of pastries and assorted appetizer-type plates adds to the comfort factor. Loungers in for the long haul will appreciate the odd backgammon game or Scrabble board, especially if studying is not your diversion of choice.


Starbucks Coffee

Six Locations

This Seattle-based coffee giant probably ought to be credited with elevating the humble coffee bean to gourmet status. As the #1 retailer of specialty coffees in the U.S. (according to 1995 figures), Starbucks brought the bean to everyman's attention. The company, incidentally named for the java-sipping first mate in Moby Dick, was begun back in 1971 by three coffee connoisseurs dedicated to selling high-quality, whole-bean coffees. In 1987, Starbucks turned to Italy for inspiration. Betting that Americans would appreciate their own version of the Italian espresso bar, Starbucks took the unusual step of selling coffee by the cup at its retail outlets. Today the popular coffeehouse's locations do follow a franchise formula when it comes to atmosphere and menu offerings, but coffee remains concern number one. n

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