Eccentric Hawthorne spot with Egyptian, Turkish influences makes for lackluster trip eastside
Imagine, you are in Cairo or Istanbul, in a bustling yet cozy maqhaa (coffeeshop) with the aroma of rosewater, mint and fresh Turkish coffee wafting up from the kitchen below. Traditional red cushions, carved wooden furniture and an array of stained glass lanterns surround you. What if I told you that you could find this experience here, in Portland?
15 minutes from campus, on Hawthorne boulevard, lives a bright red double-decker red bus with a maqhaa hidden in its walls. Tōv Coffee & Tea is an Egyptian-owned food cart-esque café within a bus, specializing in Egyptian & Turkish-style coffee and tea drinks.
Tōv’s menu is a short and sweet blend of classics — such as Egyptian coffee served traditionally in a briki pot and finjan cup brewed over hot sand — and original creations such as their popular “Mint Thing,” a fresh mint syrup cold brew. They also serve pastries, including the quintessential levantine dessert, konafa, and the iconic Ba’alawa (baclava).
I am not a coffee drinker, so I stuck to the classic sahlep, a wintertime thickened milk drink topped with nuts popularized in the Ottoman era. On the side, I ordered a small piece of konafa, while my companion ordered the Mint Thing. Their menu is quite pricey for a college student, with their cold brew at $6.50
Unfortunately, both my companion and I were unimpressed. Sahlep – traditionally a comforting, sweet and thick drink with fragrant orchid/rose notes – ended up both flavorless and thin. It was essentially just frothy milk topped with pistachios. It did not compare to the sahlep in the streets of Istanbul, or the version we make at home. As for Mint Thing, I must confess that neither my friend nor I are the most reliable reviewers: wWe are not cold brew fanatics. Even so, we were disappointed in the lack of advertised mint flavor. The mint was definitely present, but it was like La Croix, promising so much but offering so little.
Finally, onto the pastry. I am something of a konafa connoisseur. As my companion and I are Palestinian, recognition of a good bite of konafa is in our DNA. While in Amman, I tried over a dozen konafa shops in hopes of finding the perfect cheese pull, crispiness and sugar/rosewater balance (by the way, as to where I stand on the Khishneh (crispy) vs. na’ameh (soft) debate, I fall firmly within the former camp). Thus, I do believe I am qualified to say that this konafa was not deserving of the exorbitant $10 we paid for the small piece. The cheese had no pull, the flavor was bland and it did not taste even remotely fresh.
Despite all that, I would not discourage anyone from exploring Tōv. Coffee devotees might be in for a tasty (and visually appealing) surprise with the traditional Egyptian/Turkish coffee, Nectar of the Gods or Arabic People Latte. Tea lovers might enjoy their chai latte or Hibiscus Karkada. Admittedly, konafa is a difficult dessert to get right and tastes the best fresh out of the oven, so their pistachio rose water cookie might be a better alternative.
In all, Tōv offers an authentic aesthetic. The small shop, with its Egyptian tunes and ambiance, does a brilliant job of immersing you in Arab/Turkish coffee culture. In fact, I plan to return with Arab coffee enthusiasts (my parents) to get a more accurate review.
Being Syrian-Palestinian with family in Jordan, I often find myself craving the taste and feel of “back home,” despite growing up in the U.S. Tōv was nostalgic; it hits the spot. It is a visually stunning place with kind people and a rare atmosphere.