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Barista Wars VII: Getting My Java Fixe

November 23, 2011

Sugar Fixè Patisserie
Oak Park, Il.
Clouds in my coffee

You’re probably wondering where I’ve been – not external me, the blogger bloke, the guy up there sitting in his ripped Clash on Broadway shirt and vintage sweat pants, who cares about him? I’m talking about internal me, down here on the digital ground, the espresso hound, the bane of baristas.

The answer is, I’ve been on the scene, don’t doubt that for a moment. But I’ve hit a little bump in the road that has thrown me off my game and staggered my system. Here’s the problem: The cappuccinos I’ve been getting lately have all been good, and the baristas have all been exceptionally nice. Can it be they’ve all learned how to pitch me, throwing friendly curves and changeups instead of innocent tosses down the middle? Don’t they understand I require more barista wars to report on? Where’s the fun in peace, love and understanding?

Here’s what the past week was like: The guy at Ch’ava up on Clark Street patiently shared his Chemex methodology with me – love the idea of roughing up those fickle grounds during the initial pour! Further up Clark, the guy at the Coffee Studio who looks and acts like my friend Richard laughed (you read right) at a joke I made: double rim shot, please! And on home turf at Asado, on a turntable prominently set up in front, they were playing an instrumental LP by the James Brown Band. How funky is that?

All of this competence and niceness keyed me up for a confrontation out in Oak Park, which has been a coffee desert since Buzz Cafe changed its beans and its young employees grew ever greener at the bar. I’m spoiling for a fight at the Sugar Fixè Patisserie – with a name like that, you’re required by law to trash it – which I’m patronizing because they serve Julius Meinl coffee. Being from Austria, that ain’t exactly prime bean, but it’s a lot closer to Italy than Starbucks – subject, hoo-ah, of a new John Wesley Harding song, “There’s A Starbucks (Where The Starbucks Used To Be)” that the evil empire would be featuring if it had any taste.

So: I order a double macchiato, asking for the “classic” version, but holding myself back from instructing the young, agreeably non-sugary woman behind the counter to lay a “hat” of steamed milk on the espresso. My reticence, I’m fully aware, guarantees my doom. She tells me to take a seat, that she’ll bring me the drink. I sit at my own little table content, for the moment, to browse through the advance copy of the new Peter Robinson mystery I bought for three bucks at the bookstore around the corner.

I’m counting on the book being better than Robinson’s last one. He’s never off his game two books in a row. Well, actually, I haven’t read his earliest novels, so I shouldn’t be making that statement. And the new book isn’t in the Alan Banks series, it’s a standalone. How many of those are as good or better than the main event?

But, wait. I’ve gone through the entire Robinson ouevre and the proprietess is still making my macchiato. Did I just hear her ask her co-worker how to do it? I feel my happy frown starting to come on.

Sure enough, when she finally delivers the goods, following that goofy Meinl practice of laying a spoon across the lip of the water glass,  I see there’s no hat on my macchiato. It has, instead, the dreaded head of foam. I take a sip because I have to. She’s eagerly watching me.

“How is it?” she asks. Which is a little like asking Jay Leno how he likes being called lantern-jawed.

I think I’m going to foam at the mouth a little, but it isn’t as easy to climb out of my recent good vibe as you’d think.

“Good,” I hear myself saying.

In my head, I’m cursing Austria and everything it stands for, going back to Archduke Maximilian. I recognize, don’t I ever, the potential for a really good scene here. I can complain to two baristas for the price of one. But just this time, I’m going to leave it to my external me to get worked up. The Barista Wars will be fought another day. Internal me has a Peter Robinson novel to plow through. Call me a softy, but who wants to waste time crying over steamed milk? It is, after all, Thanksgiving.

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