In Search of Coffee, Part III: Astro Coffee

IMG_7755 (598x800)

Looking towards downtown Detroit.

A couple Fridays ago when the girls were with a sitter, I drove to Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood (though, as Wikipedia points out, the actual city of Detroit is much older) located on the west side of the city. Originally occupied by Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s (most from County Cork, hence the name). At the end of the decade, Maltese immigrants came through, and in the early 1900s, Mexicans.

IMG_7746 (600x800)

Central Station, Corktown.

This up-and-coming neighborhood (according to various news articles I’ve read, most recently in The New York Magazine’s “Post-Post Apocalyptic Detroit”) is a hot spot for cool restaurants (including the always-crowded Slows Bar BQ), clubs, retail stores and yes, a coffee shop in the form of Astro Coffee, which opened three summers ago. Astro Coffee lies at the edge of Corktown, kitty-corner from the abandoned Michign Central Station.

IMG_7752 (800x600)

The 2100 block of Michigan Avenue (Astro Coffee is housed in the green building).

I was really excited to finally visit Astro Coffee. We tried as a family to pop in one Saturday, but a sign on the door told us they were closed for a week-long holiday. This particular stretch of Michigan Avenue was quite busy with business lunchers and some families at Slows and Mercury Bar across the street. As I walked by the front window, I noticed the Ritual Coffee (from San Francisco) sign, which made me both happy and unsure (I have mixed feelings about Ritual. It’s a long story).

IMG_7757 (580x800)Inside, there were some pastry and cookie selections up front, with daily sandwiches (which the flies seemed to enjoy, even with the mesh domes meant to keep them out) along the side counter. I ordered a cappuccino and a sage shortbread cookie.

IMG_7756 (785x800)The clientele was what one would expect. There was the usual one or two people on laptops at the back communal table, a couple regulars at the bar area, a few business folks ordering cups to go. I sat at the counter facing the street. The guy behind me was talking to a friend about such and such picking up his new TV show (yawn) and the older couple next to them were tourists (I’m guessing. They were speaking French).

IMG_7762 (800x800)So what about the coffee? you ask. Delicious! It was full-bodied, and bitter the right way. The crema was thick and creamy and I can’t remember, but I don’t think I needed sugar. The cookie was served on a pretty little vintage plate. It was quite sweet and the sage tasted suspiciously like rosemary, but hey. I was there for the coffee.

In Search of Coffee Part I: Josef’s European Pastry Shop

josefs.coffee

Josef’s

I love a good cup of coffee. Rephrase. A good cup of espresso. Regular drip coffee makes me too shaky (if you haven’t heard, drip coffee actually has more caffeine than espresso. true story). Specifically, a cappuccino if it’s done right, a dry cappuccino if it’s done mostly right, or a macchiato, if the barista doesn’t know how to make a proper dry cappuccino.

I was pretty spoiled in San Francisco in that regard. The city has an abundance of independent cafes to choose from, many of which are snooty about their bean varieties (which, although annoying, does make for a good brew). It’s unusual for a restaurant not to offer espresso drinks, and you can often get your cappuccino fix at non-coffee establishments. For example, Fraiche, the frozen yogurt shop, offers the highly regarded Blue Bottle coffee (Oakland), along side their organic yogurt, homemade bread and chocolate chip cookies.

Peets

Peet’s in the Village. If only the inside were as inviting. (photo credit: http://www.peets.com)

Finding a perfect cup in the Grosse Pointe/Detroit area wasn’t going to be easy, I knew, from my previous trips here. There used to be a chain in town called Caribou Coffee, which made a decent cappuccino, but it was hit or miss. One of their Grosse Pointe locations was taken over by Peet’s (Berkeley), which I’m sad to say completely turned the cozy cafe (fireplaces, armchairs, community table) into a sterile space with boring furniture (and no fireplace).

starbucks

The local Starbucks. (photo credit: http://www.starbuckseverywhere.net)

The other location was taken over by Starbucks. All things said and done, I’d rather not do chains. Although, as mentioned in my Top-Twelve post, I have to admit that the Starbucks in town makes a better cappuccino than any San Francisco Starbucks (confounding!).

morningglory

Morning Glory (photo credit: http://www.morningglorygrossepointe.com)

Oh, Morning Glory. How I want to love you… Nestled in a small shopping district called The Hill, this newish (2012?) coffee shop’s interior is inviting and eclectic and fun (and they have a lovely outdoor patio for warmer days). The baristas are really sweet. But… the coffee. As one Yelper reviews, “the latte was drinkable, which makes it good for this part of town (where the options are Starbucks and stay home).” Hysterical and pretty much spot on.

I don’t know where they are getting their coffee beans or what they are doing to them, but the taste is bitter (in a bad way) or burnt and the foam lasts about two seconds. And forget about getting a cup to go, which is served in styrofoam (eeek!), which ruins the flavor even further. To their credit, their blueberry scone was buttery and fresh tasting, and their country eggs (scrambled with cheese and bacon) was excellently cooked (not overdone in the least, which is often the case at a place like this).

josefs.building

Josef’s (photo credit: http://www.josefspastryshop.com)

One morning while I was driving around with the girls, I spotted Josef’s and made a mental note to check it out. My online searching told me that the shop has been around since 1971 and that the original owner sold the place in 2008 to two brothers from Montreal. I took the girls there on a Friday afternoon. We were the only ones there when we walked in, and the woman behind the counter was warm and friendly. There was a loooong counter filled with pastries, cookies, pies and cakes. I asked if all of them were made in-house. She said yes. All of them? Again, “yes” with a nod and a smile.

josefsThe girls chose a smiley face sugar cookie and a sugar cookie dipped in chocolate and filled with jam. I opted for the almond croissant, telling myself to enjoy it, even if it wasn’t La Boulange. I was thrilled to spot their espresso machine and ordered a cappuccino. It was perfect – success! And the croissant. Delicious. It was flaky and buttery, and the filling had just enough almond flavor not to be overwhelming (and not too sweet, either). It wasn’t La Boulange, it was better. I was so happy, I started chatting with the woman about San Francisco, coffee, the kids (normally you couldn’t pay me to talk to a stranger. Not even a nice one).

So there you have it. The search for a good cup of coffee in Grosse Pointe is over. For now. I’m going to keep checking out places as I see them, but when I’m out and about and need a pick-me-up, I’ll head for Josef’s.

(Coming Soon: Part II of In Search of Coffee, featuring Detroit’s Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company)

 

 

Hawaii: Running at Ala Moana Beach

Running at the beach

I was able to get several runs in at Ala Moana beach (a 15-minute drive from Mom’s house without traffic) during our short Hawaii vacation – yay! Definitely needed some exercise to balance all the sugary foods I consumed (if you can resist multiple helpings of the haupia pie that is eyeballing you from the refrigerator every day, you are not normal).

Here are some of the things I saw…

Home

My mom's house

Mom’s House

We’re back from our short Hawaii trip and I have lots to share! Even though my whole family (except me) was sick with colds, we had a great time. We didn’t leave the house much, but the purpose of the trip was to spend time with family, which we did.

Road to Kalihi Valley

My mom lives in a neighborhood called Kalihi Valley (you might know the area from HGTV. They recently featured a home there, which is currently for sale). The valley is nestled between a lush mountain range, so it gets lots of rain and is very green. She lives in the lower level of a cinder block house and my Auntie and Grandma live up top.

My sister and her family live a few blocks down from my moms, at the bottom of a really steep hill (that used to be steeper before the city paved it a few years ago), in the same house where my grandparents lived when they settled on Oahu. My mom, sister and I lived in the smaller back house until my grandpa had the duplex built (early 80s?).

momsginger

Loads of ginger flowers.

Looking up at mountain range

My grandpa was a natural gardener; it was in his blood. The plants liked him, too. They listened to him and gave back to him. Sadly, he’s no longer around to pass his secrets on to me, now that I’m willing and eager to pay attention. My 90-year-old grandma still tends to her plants when she can. She loves orchids especially.

grandma

Grandma

Every inch of the small front yard has a flowering or edible plant on it and the perimeters around the house are filled as well. There’s ginger, ginger root (which my mom dug up for me to take home), papaya, malunggay (also called moringa. found in lots of Filipino dishes), tomatoes, bananas, eggplant, chives, green onions, edible ferns, bitter melon, bird of paradise, orchids, poinsettias, gardenias, succulents and aloe (I’m  sure I’m forgetting some!).

The green thumb gene may have skipped a generation (my mom is an excellent gardener. me, not so much), but I’m still going to try my hand at it in Michigan (we’ll have a backyard all to ourselves!).

momspapaya

Papaya and bitter melon vines.

momsgingerroot

Ginger Root

momsaloe

Aloe

I never realized how different Hawaii was from the rest of the country until I left home and came back to visit. I know it seems pretty obvious. It’s an island with island culture, but it was simply just “home” to me. Each time I go back, I am more grateful that I grew up there and have roots there. It will always be home, just as San Francisco will always be home, long after I move.

Gung Hay Fat Choy: It’s Gonna Be a Biggie

Chinese Building on Waverly Place

Building on Waverly Place, Chinatown.

Chinese New Year is a big deal in San Francisco. Public schools are closed, Chinese food is gobbled, firecrackers are popped and at the end of the two-week celebration, a huge parade (the largest outside of Asia) featuring lion dancers, a 200-foot long Golden Dragon, stilt walkers, marching bands and acrobats floats through town.

I’d planned on kicking off the lunar year with an invigorating run. That plan got squashed when I woke up with chills and congestion. Thankfully, I’d scheduled our sitter to come for a few hours, so I took myself to lunch at Woodhouse Fish Co. on Fillmore Street. I ordered the deep-fried fish tacos and a hot water with lemon.

Woodhouse Fish Co. restaurant

As I waited, I witnessed at the table to my left, an exchange between potential business associates, meeting in person for the first time. “It’s so nice to put a face with the voice,” and similar niceties. The woman, a second generation San Franciscan (a rarity, as she pointed out) was upbeat and bubbly. The gentleman, who had never been here before, got a short rundown of some of the city’s history (the African American community on Fillmore Street during segregation, the influx of Japanese and Japantown, the Italians in North Beach, Chinatown). The conversation quickly turned to all the different foods we have at our fingertips, thanks to the mix of cultures. “I love my city,” she said. “I’m always discovering new places.”

fraiche.inside

After lunch, I popped in next door to Fraiche, my favorite frozen yogurt shop. Organic, of course. I always get the same thing: a regular natural (plain, nonfat yogurt) with olallieberry puree and mochi, a Japanese sticky, starchy dessert made from rice flour. (I overheard them saying to a customer once that it was a secret recipe, but I know how to make it. I’ll share sometime). But today I opted for a Blue Bottle cappuchino.

fraiche.window

I tried to concentrate on my library book (The Tiger’s Wife), but it was a beautiful day and I kept staring out the window, watching traffic and passersby. I thought about the woman at lunch and how proud she was of her city and how I share her fervor. Is the move going to be a huge letdown? Am I really going to venture out and discover all the cool places in Detroit? Or am I going to sulk in my kitchen (aka my office) and long for home?

I’m keeping an open mind. My friend Christine says not to think of it as being better or worse, just different. I can live with different.  No matter what, the Year of the Horse is going to be a biggie for us. And so it begins…Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Batteries to Bluffs: My Favorite Presidio Trail

Presidio: Batteries to Bluffs Trail

South end of the trail.

When we started considering leaving San Francisco (around late summer, I think) I began appreciating my surroundings a lot more. I wanted to burn the beauty of this place into my memory and also not take it for granted. Plus, I needed space away from the kids, away from everything, to think clearly and get into focus. So I started going for small walks (which eventually turned into runs) in the Presidio. My goal was to take every trail on the map (and I think I’ve pretty much done that, except for maybe a small stretch of the Bay Trail.

batteriesbluffs.trailstairs

First set of stairs.

All the trails have something special to offer, but the Batteries to Bluffs Trail is hands down my favorite. The trail itself is a short .7 miles,  which can be easily extended via a number of other trails, if you want a longer trek. I usually start at Baker Beach and take the Coastal or de Anza Trail back.

Presidio: Battieries to Bluffs Stairs2

Another set of trail steps on a foggy day.

According to the Golden Gate National Parks site, the trail has over 500 steps, but other trail sites puts the number closer to 470. Regardless of the exact step count, it’s a decent workout and takes about 45 minutes both ways if you’re walking at a decent clip.

Marshall's Beach

Marshall’s Beach

About halfway up the trail, you can take a very short detour (100 feet-ish) to Marshall’s Beach. I’m always amazed at how few people are on this beach. Its views of the Golden Gate are spectacular, and to the South you can watch the waves make their way towards Baker and China Beaches.

Note: If you’re contemplating a tough decision or need to solve a mind-boggling problem, come here. If you don’t find answers, at the very least you’ll leave believing they’re out there.

Marshall's Beach and the Golden Gate

Marshall’s Beach looking North.

When you are almost to the North end of the trail, there is a small lookout with a stone bench, where you can look down on Marshall’s Beach. Even though it’s a beautiful view, I normally don’t stop here because A) there are usually one or two nude sunbathers at any give time, which is fine but ruins my zen and B) I’m too busy trying to finish the trail at this point, that I don’t have time to rest.

Yesterday, however, I noticed a bunch of people looking out towards the water so I stopped to see what the fuss was all about. Dolphins! There were at least two, maybe more, frolicking very close to shore.  Given my fragile emotional state (we’re moving – did you hear?), it was enough to send me over the edge. I had to choose between weeping and dry heaving in front of strangers or pulling myself away from the dolphins. Had to go with door number two.

Question: Was it really a dolphin or was it a porpoise (both of which have been spotted in the Bay)?
My short answer: Who cares?

batteriesbluffs.trail2

The North end of the trail.  Continue North along the Coastal Trail to reach the old Batteries and eventually the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza.

The most people I’ve passed on the trail is about 30 (and 15 or so of those were in a tour of some kind), but usually the number is more like to four to seven. If you go early enough, especially on foggy days, you may likely be the only one on the trail the entire time, which is both invigorating and frightening (for paranoid me, anyway).

Presidio: Web

Spider web on the trail.

In late summer on hot days (if you’re lucky enough to experience a hot summer day in San Francisco), lizards will scurry along the trail, scaring the bejeezus out of you in the process. You’ve been warned. There are also tiny little birds that dart across the path, inches away from your feet. It took me several shrieking incidents to discover that these are indeed birds and not rats. Still. I don’t need that. My heart is beating fast enough already with the steps and the stalkers hiding in the bushes. In the fall, there are hundreds of spider webs and cocoons that look like something out of a sci-fi novel. Creepy in a beautiful kind of way.

batteriesbluffs.trail

Looking down on the Batteries to Bluffs Trail (standing on the Coastal Trail).

Why so many tourists flock to Fisherman’s Wharf instead of the Presidio is ludicrous to me. Well, fine. Let them eat their overpriced crab while bumping elbows with a million other people wearing “I heart SF” sweatshirts. I’ll be here, on the Batteries to Bluffs trail, taking my deep breaths and searching for dolphins.