This is a mocha latte?

Supposedly, a mocha latte from the cafe at City College of New York.

The three times I’ve ordered a mocha latte, I’ve received something that looks like this. You’re doing it wrong, CCNY cafe.

A 30 Dollar Cup of Pre-Digested Coffee

Kopi Luwak Arabica

What you’re looking at is 30 dollars in a cup, believe it or not.  This is Kopi Luwak Arabica.  Why is it so expensive? Well…

Pure Kopi Luwak Java Arabica Coffee

It’s all in the digestion… or production… process.  You see, this coffee is made from beans that have been previously digested and crapped out by an Asian palm civet.  In the picture above you can see an example of the coffee beans prior to cleaning and roasting, and the finished product on the left.  The cost of the animal husbandry and the long process of securing the digested beans is what makes the coffee so expensive.

Jezalin's New York in Limelight Market

When I lived in Singapore I’d heard about this coffee.  It’s mostly produced in Indonesia.  I never did take the time to try it out while I was there, and of course I wasn’t about to spend 30 dollars on a cup of coffee here in the US, so I was happy to see a Groupon pop up for a 20 dollar discount at Jezalin’s, which is where I had my first kopi luwak experience.

Jezalin's New York in Limelight Market

Jezalin's New York in Limelight Market

Like the rest of the Limelight Market (corner of 6th Avenue and 20th Street in Manhattan), Jezalin’s has a really nice, classy atmosphere.  When I got my cup of coffee, the girl behind the counter (also visible in the picture above) came over and showed me the display and explained the process.  I was already familiar with where the coffee comes from, but it was fun to listen to her talk about it.

So, was it worth it?  It was definitely worth the 10 bucks I wound up paying.  The kopi luwak tastes like coffee, but it has a thicker taste to it.  It’s not as strong as coffee.  It has a more mellow, earthy (poopy?) taste to it.  Oddly enough, I felt like taking a nap after finishing it off.  At 30 bucks a cup, it’s not going to replace my morning cup of coffee, but it was a pleasant experience overall, and I’ll definitely convince my wife to try some.

McCafe Drinks

Last year in June I purchased a drink at McCafe for the first time.  It was the outlet in Pasir Ris’s White Sands mall.  I ordered a double chocolate frappe and it was the most horrible drink I’d ever had.  It was watery and bland.  It didn’t taste of coffee or chocolate.  It mostly just tasted of ice.  The best part of the drink was the whipped cream on top.

Well, maybe it was the outlet or maybe things have improved with the quality of their drinks.  Lately, while waiting to catch a movie at Downtown East, my wife have been getting drinks and sitting in the McCafe there to chat, read and kill time.  When I go there I get an iced latte.  It’s my favorite ‘fancy’ drink.  Out of the three times I’ve bought that drink there I’ve had two hits and a miss.  The one time the drink wasn’t good was because the girl gave me a glass of iced milk instead of a latte.  Seriously.  You couldn’t tell there was coffee in it at all.  Thankfully, though, when I brought it to their attention they fixed the drink.

Anyhow, the quality of the drinks has gone up.  I guess my original assessment isn’t valid anymore, because I’m loving the fact that I can get reasonably priced coffee there that’s good now.

The presentation is nice too:

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My wife’s cappuccino.


Mobile Photo 26-Jan-2010 AM 12 31 01
My iced latte.

Kopi Alley (at Downtown East)

One of the best things about Singapore, to me anyway, has been the food.  Also, as a coffee lover, it didn’t take me long to try the Kopi that you can find at most every hawker center in Singapore.  There are people that hate it, but somehow I got addicted to the stuff and love to have it after dinner whenever possible.  I won’t go into the details of how it’s prepared, because I honestly don’t know them, but it’s well worth trying if you ever get the chance.

There are plenty of places you can go to get Kopi.  Like I said, you can get it from hawker centers, but there are also fancier looking restaurants set up in malls that sell Kopi.  Some of them call it coffee, like the place on the bottom level of White Sands in Pasir Ris (Kayakun Toast I think?), but it’s still the same, and it’s still good.

Here are some photos of Kopi Alley at Downtown East:

I really like the design theme they went with for Kopi Alley, and I was a bit surprised, considering what they sell.  It looks nicer than a lot of so-called fine dining restaurants I’ve been in.  By the way, the total cost for the items in the last 3 photos was only 5.30 SGD.  That’s not too bad at all, and it was overkill.  We went there after dinner and we wound up not finishing that chocolate spread toast, so we could’ve done without it.  It was a bit too sweet too, but… what did I expect, ordering chocolate spread toast?

McCafe: I’m Not Lovin’ It

A few weeks ago, a guy I communicate with regularly on Twitter asked me if I’d been to McCafe and tried the coffee there.  He’s not much of a coffee drinker but I think I was complaining about Starbucks prices and he mentioned it as an option.  I’d never really considered going to McDonald’s or their McCafe for ‘premium’ coffee before.  I mean, how great could a latte or cappuccino from McDonald’s be?

He was telling me that a lot of his friends go there instead of Starbucks because the prices are cheaper.  I happened to be in the mall at the time (using Twitter on my phone) so I stopped by the McCafe there to have a look for myself.  I wasn’t impressed.

I’m not sure if this is another case of Singapore overpricing anything that even hints at being a luxury item, or if it’s simply a matter of currency conversion and the fact that this is an imported item.  Either way, the prices didn’t seem too much different from what I could find at a Starbucks here, so I kept going.

Yesterday I decided I might as well give it a shot.  I wanted something cold and coffee-like, and I happened to be by this same McCafe in White Sands Shopping Mall in Pasir Ris, so I walked up to the counter and ordered their “double chocolate frappe”.  Ok, so that’s not exactly a coffee drink, but it should still have some coffee in it.

The presentation was nice.  It certainly looked good:

So, it was time for the real test.  The taste test.  I took a sip through the straw and… fail.  It was watery tasting.  Even if it had a low coffee content it should have still tasted … thick… since it’s a frappe, but what I tasted most was crushed ice.  There were a few pieces of chocolate shavings in the bottom of the cup that were nice, but overall the drink was unsatisfying.  I couldn’t even taste coffee in it.  Is there any coffee in it?  I’m pretty sure that chocolate frappes from Starbucks have espresso in them.  Maybe I set my standards too high.  I was hoping for something like this McCafe in Italy.  Nonetheless, that’s the last time I’ll be going to McCafe for fancy coffee drinks.  I’ll stick with Coffee Bean or Starbucks when I get that urge.  Still, though, the best coffee I’ve had so far from a restaurant is the plain old Kopi O from the hawkers.

I’ll have to try to get out more and find some real premium coffee shops.

Auntie Wants Her Coffee

(Image Source: Coffee in Malaysia)

This is just something short that I wanted to mention.

Last night my wife and I went up to the shopping area at around midnight to pick up a few things.  There’s a 24 hour Shop ‘n’ Save there!  Afterwards, we dropped by the hawker so I could get a cup of iced Kopi O.  I’m addicted to the stuff.  My wife had some juice.  She likes the Kopi O, but had to get up early for work today, so she had guava juice instead.

Anyhow, as we were sitting there chatting we noticed this little old lady walking up the aisle between the tables.  She must have been about 70 years old and used a cane to help get herself around.  I was surprised that she was out so late.  Like I said, it was around midnight!  Still, it seems like people in Singapore stay out later than anywhere I’ve ever lived.  It has to be because the country is so safe!

This little old lady walked up to a table of young guys next to us and started speaking in Chinese.  I’m not exactly sure what she said, but I picked out the word Kopi O, and I recognized her tone.  She was asking the young guys drinking beer to do an old lady a favor and get her a cup of coffee.

I started imagining the worst case scenario, where the guys would ignore her, or blow her off, or, worse yet, say something rude to her.  That would’ve been quite a scene!  I bet that old lady would have gained retard strength and gone to work on them with her cane.

Instead, it caused a lot of indulgent smiles, and one of the guys got up right away to go get her the coffee she wanted.

I suppose I wasn’t really that surprised.  Asian culture is different from Western culture after all.  There’s a lot more emphasis placed on respect for elders here.  And, in the end, it was somehow satisfying to see this little old lady smiling and laughing over something as simple as being treated to a cup of coffee at the hawker.  I’d like to think I would have done the same for her, if she had asked us instead.

Drinking From A Bag

When you move abroad you expect to run into things that are different from what you’re accustomed to.  Things like the types of food you’ll find, the language, the customs, and the way people dress.

One thing I didn’t expect however is that “to go” drinks are usually given out in plastic bags.  The first time I saw this was in the Philippines in March of 2008, when I was visiting Margee’s family.  I thought it was really amusing.  The bags are mass produced and shops buy them to put the drinks in.  When you buy a drink, and say you want it “to go” they will open it and pour it into a bag, along with some ice.  Then they’ll drop a straw in, pull the drawstring tight and pass it over to you.

I asked my wife about this and she said it’s because it’s cheaper.  I didn’t get it.  I asked her, “In what way is it cheaper for them to have to hand out an additional plastic bag?”  So she told me that there are deposits on the bottles and cans.  If you get a drink and take the bottle or can with you, you have to pay for the deposit as well as the drink, and it’s inconvenient, or sometimes not possible, to return the container to get the deposit.  So, to avoid that, the stores pour the drinks in bags and handle the return of the containers themselves.

I later found the same to be true in Singapore at hawker centers.  When you get a drink to go, it’s most often poured into a plastic bag.  The hawker centers use the bags not only for drinks from cans or containers, but for the drinks they make themselves, like the local iced Kopi.  I imagine it’s cheaper for them to use the bags than to use paper cups.  I also imagine it’s more about being able to put ice in the drink than having something to do with a deposit in Singapore.

I’ve seen people carrying everything in these little bags: juice, soda, coffee, and even beer (in the Philippines).  It took a while to get used to, and it was a bit strange to carry one around myself, but I’ve become accustomed to it.

Oh, and one other thing about “to go” orders.  Here in Singapore it’s referred to as “take-away.”  When I first got here I would sometimes ask for something “to go” and the person taking my order would just give me a blank look and ask again if I wanted my order “for here” or “take-away.”  In the Philippines, it’s referred to as “take-out.”

Sometimes it’s small things like that, that remind you of how far from home you are.

Is Starbucks Really That Great?

I used to be a pretty big fan of Starbucks.  I would stop by one when I had time, or when I happened to be near close-by, to get a cup of “fancy” coffee.  I didn’t go often, because of the price, and because there usually wasn’t one that close to where I lived.

What did I like most about Starbucks?  Well, the coffee was decent, but it wasn’t really that great.  The atmosphere in the store is nice, but I never really hung around.  Most of the time I would go through the drive through, or, if I were in a mall, I would get my coffee and get out.  So… what was it?  After spending some time thinking about it, I realized that the only reason I really went to Starbucks is because of effective marketing.  It wasn’t for the cheesy atmosphere and it definitely wasn’t for the so-so coffee.  It was because of how I viewed myself when I was standing there holding a cup with the Starbucks logo emblazoned on it.  Starbucks managed to effectively market itself as a prestigious, premium coffee seller, and because of that, I felt as though I were treating myself to something nice when I purchased their product.  It’s not really bad.  I can’t call them evil for it.  It just means that they did their business the right way and used effective marketing plans.

Having realized that, and having realized that there are far better coffees available than what they offer, I’m no longer as interested in going there anymore.  That’s right!  I’ve found a coffee that is far superior to what Starbucks offers, at a fraction of the cost.  It’s called Kopi O, and it can be found at any hawker center in Singapore.  You won’t be served by a fancy “barrista,” you probably won’t have air conditioning, and I doubt you’d find free wifi (though most wifi in the US locations isn’t free anyways), but you’ll get a damn good cup of coffee that will certainly hit the spot after a meal, or along with your breakfast.

I’m sure those of you in other countries are wondering how that helps you, but use it as an example.  The best coffee, or really the best of anything doesn’t always come with the highest price tag.  So, get out there and take a few chances and explore smaller shops to see if they have a better version of what you’re interested in.

As for myself, I’d take Kopi O over Starbucks any day, which is why I’m glad I found this fantastic little store in the Downtown East mall:

It sells the same stuff as the hawker stalls that sell Kopi O, but it’s located inside the mall.  The prices are a bit higher, but only by about 30 to 50 cents, which is ok, considering its location.  When my wife and I visit the mall to see a movie, we can buy our tickets, have dinner, and then hang out at this little coffee shop while we wait for the show to start.  Oddly enough, this Kopi Alley store is located right next to The Coffee Bean ( a Starbucks clone for those of you not familiar with it), but that doesn’t seem to be hurting its business any.