I really, really love coffee shops.
My love for them dates back to various periods of limited finances, [f]unemployment, and austere saving, during which buying a single $2 coffee was one of the few luxuries I allowed myself. I guess psychological conditioning truly does work, because I still get an incredible amount of pleasure from going to a coffee shop and savoring a single cup of joe and a pastry for several hours. I have been known to drag my boyfriend an hour across the city just to “check out this cool café!”, where I then proceed to do the same thing that I do at any café, which I am well aware is really not terribly exciting. Yet somehow (at least for me) it never seems to get old.
Buenos Aires has a famous café culture. Forget college student baristas in Starbucks t-shirts yelling your name incorrectly over a sticky counter — here you are served at your table by serious gentlemen, impeccably dressed with a formal vest and a bowtie, who open your bottle of water or wine with a practiced flick of the wrist and serve your brimming café con leche without spilling a drop. Sober but stately architecture, ornate fileteado-style lettering, and antique photos and signs lining the walls lend a sense of well-worn elegance. These traditional cafés notables on nearly every downtown corner are truly an experience, where you can often order anything from a full dinner to a cappuccino and a croissant.
The concept of “coffee to go” is nonexistent at these places. You come to linger, spend time with a friend, or read the newspaper, but most importantly you don’t rush. The environment is truly enchanting, and losing track of time feels like the right thing to do.
I really love these places, in all their old-school charm and welcoming warmth. But I’ll be honest — there’s something I need that they just can’t give me.
REGULAR. BREWED. COFFEE.
Good, flavorful coffee that is brewed not too strong but not too weak.
Coffee that I can drink clean and black or with just a tiny bit of sugar, without feeling like I am imbibing jet fuel.
Coffee without milk, that doesn’t leave me with a heavy belly full of lactose.
The first few times I requested “un café” (what could go wrong, right?) in one of these cafes, and was served some sort of small, strong, bitter espresso, I felt confused and frustrated. I love coffee but I am not a person who can drink espresso. I attempted to ask what the options were, but as often happens upon arrival in a new Latin American country, despite speaking fluent Spanish, I had no idea what any of them meant.
I ended up Googling, with keystrokes marked by frustration, “HOW TO ORDER COFFEE IN BUENOS AIRES”. I left off the “…God dammit” that I was tempted to include at the end, though I wondered if I might get more relevant search results that way, because I surely wasn’t the first foreigner to be confounded and frustrated by this.
Judging by the proliferation of articles with nearly exactly the same title, I certainly wasn’t alone. After much research and testing, I think I have finally understood the main preparation options…though I’m still not sure they make sense to me. Here are some key terms you should know:
- Un café. Like I mentioned, this isn’t “coffee coffee”. It’s a shot of espresso. You can get it in the following three sizes:
- Chico: Small — very small.
- Jarrito: It’s slightly bigger than “chico”. I’ve heard it described as a “mini-mug”. However the last time I ordered something in a jarro, it was probably a pitcher of beer (okay multiple pitchers) when I was studying abroad in Costa Rica. You can imagine my confusion upon hearing that a medium coffee was the size of something that I imagined to be for a large serving of beer.
- Doble. This is double the size of a chico. It’s still really small.
- Americano. In some places, ordering an americano is one of the closest approximations to what I think of as “regular, drinkable, black coffee”. However here it’s basically an espresso with a little extra water, which to me tastes basically the same as an espresso, which I am not (wo)man enough for.
- Cortado. I’ve been told that this is like a macchiato. Basically it’s still an espresso, but “cut” with a little milk. However for me it still lives in the category of espresso and I can’t handle it.
- Lágrima. As a staunch non-milk-drinker, I will never be remotely attracted to this drink, but I’m sure it’s wonderful for some people. The lágrima is a cup of hot, steaming milk with a single drop (“tear”) of espresso. Does that thing even taste like coffee? I can’t be sure.
- Café con leche. This is the only one I can handle, and the best candidate so far to become something that may become my “usual”. It’s technically half espresso, half milk, all steamed together (not technically correct terminology, probably), and it doesn’t taste like drinking jet fuel. I honestly still prefer regular black coffee over a belly full of milk, but this one gets the job done.
The good news is that these traditional cafés, though certainly the most ubiquitous, are not the only option for coffee in the city. In recent years, there has been an expansion of the specialty coffee movement in Buenos Aires, much to the delight of hipsters and coffee lovers. Now these more modern cafés pepper the city, though concentrated in trendy neighborhoods like Palermo.
One step inside one of these places and you’re transported to Williamsburg or Somerville. You know what I’m talking about — at least one exposed brick wall; “unfinished” wood accents; carefully mismatched chairs, tables, and gently worn couches in natural or pastel colors; a deliberately casual assortment of “vintage-looking” knick-knacks among brown paper bags of organic, single-origin coffee on rustic shelves; and at least two beautiful people between the ages of 25-35 doing freelance photography work on Macbooks.
AND REALLY GOOD COFFEE.
Maybe I’m totally sold out; a shameless, blind, millennial with a rabid appetite for consumption and no appreciation for the ways of yesterday. But when it comes to coffee, these places just aren’t messing around. They buy high-grade, organic Arabica beans from Colombia! They send their skinny jean-clad baristas to international competitions and workshops! They have flat whites on the menu, and coffee brewed and filtered five different ways! (Chemex? Aeropress? Do you want a balanced acidity or fruity notes?) (Answer: I have no idea; you took the workshop, not me…can I just have a coffee?) These cafés even serve things like banana nut muffins and yogurt with fruit and granola! My American-ness rarely shows this aggressively, but I just really love these damn snacks.
The traditional café notable experience is not one to be missed; it’s nearly unparalleled in porteño-ness and will leave you feeling transported to another era. It’s great for Sundays, or taking some quality time to catch up with a friend. However as a twenty-something extranjera just looking for a place to study or work while I drink decent cup of coffee that is not in the form of a tiny espresso or eight ounces of hot milk, I can’t hide from my truth — you’ll find me sitting on the vintage couch under the exposed brick wall of your local hipster café.
I do still have some of my principles about me, though.
I haven’t gone to Starbucks.