A whole lotta latte: Cafés to visit in downtown PDX

By Charlotte Wallace

It is no strange, unexplainable phenomenon that a coffee shop has emerged on what seems like every block of downtown Portland. In a city with weather  typically below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and what feels like constant rain, a coffee shop is a convenient escape. You can do your work, consume large amounts of caffeine and only have to spend about $5 to stay as long as you wish. Downtown is drowning in coffee spots, but not all beans are created equal. After a rough few days of excessive caffeine consumption, I can report the best and the worst of the downtown coffee spots.


Case Study (802 SW 1oth Ave)

Conveniently located in the heart of downtown a block from City Target, this coffee spot is always busy. If you like your coffee strong and your chai spicy,  you cannot go wrong with Case Study. They roast their own beans and all their coffee beverages are dark roast, hence the strong flavor. Dark roast is not normally my preference, but Case Study’s coffee has a pleasant, slightly nutty and not too bitter flavor: it is dark roast without the burnt Starbucks taste. Beware, Case Study’s flavor is prone to fluctuation due to their changing beans. The house-brewed chai is excellent if you can handle Sriracha-level spice. Case Study’s beverages are simple like their wood furniture and dark interior color scheme. They make a good cup of coffee but there are other places close by with better lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and hot chocolate. For example, there cappuccinos do not have the right balance of foam to espresso: they are above the pleasant amount of bitter. The price is fair for the good quality, however the chai is quite expensive at $5 for the 6 ounce size. Overall, it is a nice place to spend the afternoon studying or with a friend.


Café Umbria (710 SW Madison)

Café Umbria is only a few blocks north from Case Study. However, Café Umbria is a “no go.” They claim to offer a dark roast and a medium roast, but the only roast they offer is burnt. There is no pleasant atmosphere to idle in that justifies the bad coffee. They also failed to make a decent latte. The foamed milk on top of mine completely lacked the pleasant creamy texture desired in a latte. Bon Appetit serves Café Umbria in Fields, Maggie’s and the Dovecote and for how expensive meal plans and coffee in the cafés are, we deserve better.  


Behind the Museum Café

(1229 SW 10th Ave)

Behind the Museum Café has an excellent medium roast and excels at more elaborate coffee beverages like cappuccinos and lattes. But if you prefer dark roast, Behind the Museum Café is not for you: all their beverages lack the strong, bitter sensation loved by those who prefer dark roast. The café is located behind the Portland Art Museum but not affiliated with the museum. They roast all their own beans and only use organic coffee beans. Behind the Museum Café’s expertise is not limited to coffee: they have ceremonial matcha and the best matcha latte I have had. The café also offers great food like onigiri, sandwiches and beautiful pastries baked fresh daily for hungrier visitors. The only issue I have with Behind the Museum Café is the very small sizes and no option to size up. The lattes are a decent size but everything else can be finished in a few sips, and I find myself becoming disappointed when my delicious beverage disappears all too quickly. The atmosphere is pleasant and makes this coffee spot a nice place to spend the afternoon. The café is full of traditional Japanese art and modern ceramics from Portland artists. It is a great place to study. I am embarrassed to mention that I end up there almost every Sunday. I would never expect a place specializing in Japanese snacks and tea to have the best iced latte in Portland. Their cappuccino is also perfectly balanced and not too bitter from the espresso.


Courier Coffee (923 SW Oak St)

Small and easy to miss, you will never find an annoying tourist or anyone taking a picture of their food or beverage in Courier Coffee. It is my personal favorite because they serve traditional French style coffee, snacks, and pastries. The beverage sizes are a bit larger than Behind the Museum Café’s, which is a plus since everything at Behind the Museum Café is just a bit too small. Courier Coffee roasts their own beans and does a medium roast, which is more bitter and has more flavor than Behind the Museum’s. I enjoy the clean, minimalist atmosphere and the barista who forces me to practice my French. Although pleasant, Courier Coffee is small, so there is not enough space to study. It’s more suited for having a café au lait or a latte before brunch with a friend on Saturday. The flavor of the coffee is not overpowering but rich and the price is on the low side for how good it is. It is only $4 for one of the best lattes in Portland. The rich flavor, creamy texture in the foam, right temperature and perfect balance of coffee to milk make the latte an experience you will return for. The traditional, French style hot chocolate is also worth trying, repeatedly. Courier Coffee is unique because it combines a traditional French café atmosphere with the artistic styling characteristic of many parts of downtown Portland. It is all white except for local art for sale on the walls. You can have a classic café au lait, but, on warmer Sundays, you can also enjoy a farmers’ market plum shaved ice with caramel and red beans.


Heart (537 SW 12th Ave)

Heart is certainly the most expensive of the downtown coffee shops: for a very small latte you pay $5, and the price jumps with the complexity of the beverage and the size. However, the coffee at Heart does have a good flavor. They roast their own beans and do a strong dark roast. If you like a bitter, rich taste in your dark roast, as many people do, Heart is right for you. They accomplish the bitter flavor without the disgusting, burnt taste at Café Umbria. The latte was quite good and the foam had the best creamy texture of all the lattes I had downtown. Heart has cool, black modern décor and nice outdoor benches for when the sun makes an appearance in Portland. Heart is located in one of the best parts of downtown. It is right across the street from Tasty n Alder and near popular art and clothing shopping destinations  like WM Goods and Alder & Company. It’s a fun place to sit and people watch while enjoying overpriced coffee. The coffee was not too strong in caffeine content, so for people who like a strong buzz Case Study is probably a better choice.

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