Sometimes it feels like the streets of Portland and Seattle are paved with great coffee. Cafes are abundant, and both cities have iconic coffee brands large and small. But you know what? There’s darn good coffee throughout the Pacific Northwest, and today I’m focusing on three shops between those two cities, located off the I-5 interstate corridor in SW Washington State.
All three of these cafes are fine stops to refuel at, or kill an afternoon, whether you happen to live in this beautiful part of America or are just passing through, happily caffeinated and ready for adventure.
Vancouver, Washington, is just a stone’s throw across the Columbia River from Portland, but it’s fair to say that the city gets left out of conversations regarding major coffee markets. And that’s precisely why Torque Coffee founder Ryan Palmer chose the city to establish his roasting operation and first cafe.
Three years ago, he and his family converted an old auto automotive garage a block or so from City Hall—and almost kittycorner from the lovely and spacious Esther Short Park—into an expansive coffee outfit. Since then, few could deny Torque has established a firm presence in the SW Washington coffee community, developing a reputation for quality beans and beverages in a funky, chic warehouse space.
“If you’re not from a major market, you don’t exist,” Palmer said. “We just worked harder.”
I do not doubt him. Palmer says that 90% of the labor to make Torque into an inviting cafe, complete with retro Formica tables and church pews, was done by friends and family. Originally opened as a wholesale partner of Coava Coffee, these days Torque’s 7-kilo Vittoria roaster produces small batches of specialty coffee, including their Launch Control espresso blend, roasted with plenty of Vancouver pride.
Torque recently opened a second spacious location just down Washington State Route 14 in Washougal, Washington. And there are plans in the works for a Portland cafe, though they’re still in the initial stages.
Ridgefield is a little town of about 5,500 residents, about a half an hour north of Portland, Oregon (depending on the traffic). It lacks many amenities, including a major grocery store, but what this fast-growing town does have is a cafe run by a United States Barista Champion.
Phuong Tran won the USBC in 2005, and her Lava Java cafe in Ridgefield has emerged, perhaps unexpectedly, as a talent incubator for coffee professionals in this part of the Pacific Northwest. Tran’s still settling into a new location, just a half mile across I-5’s exit 14; a downtown Portland expansion popped up briefly in 2012, in what turned out to be a fairly haunted space inside West Side Bikes (also briefly occupied by Heart Roasters). Lava Java’s new location gives I-5 commuters and the majority of Ridgefield residents easier access to their daily ritual. Plus, quick access on and off of the freeway makes it easy to re-caffeinate when traveling between Portland and Seattle.
Lava Java sits in an unassuming office complex, but don’t be fooled by the appearance. Tran and her crew brew beautiful single origin espressos from Stumptown Coffee Roasters on their La Marzocco FB/70 espresso machine. Since Tran first started in coffee in 2003, she has viewed her craft as a continuing education. In addition to being an early USBC champion, Tran is also an SCAA certified instructor and barista competition judge. Her employees go through an intense training regimen, the duration of which lasts about a year, give or take.
One employee, when asked about Tran’s training standards, told me simply and with a smile: “Yeah, it never ends.” You could say the same thing about the flavors in my Stumptown Honduras Finca El Puente macchiato, tasting of balanced berries and caramel. Ridgefield may be a small town, but for coffee lovers, Lava Java is a big name in this part of the United States. It’s safe to say they’ve put tiny Ridgefield on the map.
Red Leaf Organic Coffee
Red Leaf offers a little something for every traveler—yes, even kids who’ve had enough of riding in the car. Their two different locations (one in Kelso and one in Woodland) are a nice distance between Portland and Seattle, and make a perfect stopping point to get out and stretch for a few minutes. A third location will be opening in Longview within a couple of months, says owner Melissa Vandervalk.
Red Leaf is something of a hidden gem, and caters to a diverse clientele. You might hit up their Kelso shop’s drive-thru for a peppermint mocha or a smoothie; or you might instead choose to sit with a cup of featured drip coffee. On a recent visit I tried a cup of medium-roasted Guatemalan drip paired with an absolutely delicious frosted maple cookie. Maple comes naturally to Red Leaf: Vandervalk and her husband, Ray (“a great chef and fisherman”) are originally from Canada. All their pastries are prepared in-house at the Kelso Red Leaf location, and soon the coffee will be roasted in-house as well, on the Vandervalk’s new Ambex 10-kilo roaster.
Before I left, Vandervalk offered me a taste of their vegan, gluten-free chocolate loaf, which made me question almost everything I thought made up a great pastry. A stop at Red Leaf might leave you with similar questions: is this what coffee in small town America looks like now? Will there be more great cafes opening in the future in little Northwestern cities like Kelso, Ridgefield, and Longview? And do I have room for another maple cookie?
J. Peter Roth worked for 12 years as a coffee professional in Portland, Oregon, where he currently lives and writes. This is his first feature for Sprudge.