CoffeeBeer >> Double Shot Buzz >> Previous Coffee Columns >> 2 Suburban Long Beach Cafes
During my visit this past spring to Southern California I stayed with my mother who lives in Long Beach. Her house is in the Los Altos neighbourhood, no more than a mile from the house in which I grew up.
Comprising most of the suburban part of Long Beach, Los Altos first popped into existence in the 1940s, when the original homebuyers were mostly war veterans purchasing their homes with government loans. My house was brand new when my family moved there in 1954, back when the nearby Los Coyotes Diagonal was still an open field where my brother and I could catch lizards and snakes and spot the occasional jackrabbit.
My mother currently lives close to the Los Altos Shopping Center where we used to hang out as kids. Back then there were two department stores -- a Broadway and a JC Penney's -- as well as an actual stationery store (when people still wrote letters on paper), a Thriftimart grocers, a Sav-On and a Thrifty Drug Store, Whittaker's Music, and even a shoeshine stand. In more recent years there was a Borders Books that has sadly gone, along with most other things. Today the only department store is a rather ramshackle Sears, and there is the highly useful Trader Joe's grocers, the somewhat posh Bristol Farms supermarket, a rather depressing Rite Aid drugstore, a computer dealer, a comic book shop, a Pilates gym, and a Target store. The Post Office seems to be the only survivor in the main centre, with the legendary Hof's Hut coffee shop and Ecco's Pizza still surviving across the boulevard.
Having lived in the more urban seaside section of Long Beach, as well as in Seattle, alongside the English Channel, and in Sheffield, I'm not that thrilled with the modern suburban cultural prospects of Los Altos. So I was pleased to discover there are two bagel coffee shops in Los Altos Shopping Center to which I could actually walk from my mother's house. I realise that walking in suburban Southern California is a risky undertaking, not only because of the traffic-dominated terrain but also because of the natives who might call the police to report suspicious individuals perambulating without benefit of wheels. But I've become used to this reaction from my visits, and I simply dress as individualistic as I can and arm myself with smiles and friendly "hellos". That way at least I'll appear more of an eccentric nutter rather than a prospecting burglar.
So I set out one day, dangerously on foot, to investigate one of these bagel and coffee spots. The Bagelry & Bistro is on the south end of the shopping centre just down from the Fish Tale restaurant. It has a very simple frontage and sells its coffee in takeaway paper cups only. They sell a wide variety of fresh baked bagels, so I decided to buy a few for breakfast while I was there. At 2:30 in the afternoon when I visited, many were already sold out, but I ended up with a half dozen in the remaining flavours: jalapeño, sundried tomato, cinnamon raisin, rolled oats, blueberry, and "Everything".
My double macchiato was served in a large paper cup. I was surprised when I picked up the heavy cup and the barista assured me it was 2 shots of espresso and a whole heap of foam and not steamed milk, as was my fear. It wasn't a bad macchiato at all, although there was way too much foam. But the barista promised she'd use a lot less milk next time.
As I walked down a corridor to the back garden I passed a display of handmade jewellery for sale on the walls. Because I had been wearing my own handmade jewellery constantly on this visit to advertise my new Bizzarrea line, I was struck by the coincidence.
I left the soundtrack of Latin American and jazz and sat in the garden, a pleasant place enclosed by surrounding buildings and big umbrella tables, 3 very tall feather palms, and other potted plants and planters. It was hard to believe I was only a few steps from the 1957-era public library that I used to frequent as a little girl. (I've always been an avid reader).
Sadly the patio is just a few metres southeast of the flight path for the nearby Long Beach Airport, so the jets are teeth-shatteringly loud and scarily close. I remember growing up in our house and thinking cracks in ceilings were normal. Although frequent earthquakes caused some of the cracks, they were mostly a result of the now-outlawed sonic booms caused by the jets. One doesn't experience sonic booms these days unless a meteor explodes in the sky, which coincidentally happened just two nights earlier in central California.
I had the chance to have another paper-cup macchiato on another occasion when my cousin from up north dropped in for a visit with his iPad. As there was no WiFi connection at my mother's house, I accompanied Mark to the nearest Starbucks so we could both check our e-mail as well as have a coffee. I know I seldom write about the Starbucks global empire, but occasionally I like to break the mould.
This Starbucks is located on the street side of a massive car park reserved for K Mart and Lowes, and it has its own espresso drive-thru lane. It feels as if it may have started life as a McDonald's, but I have no way of knowing. My double macchiato was satisfying, thank god, as we were only there for the WiFi and some caffeine. (I've learned from previous experience to specifically order an espresso macchiato at Starbucks so that they don't give me a giant caramel latte.) Mark's coffee was perfectly adequate, but then Mark is quite used to Starbucks coffee because most Starbucks locations feature free WiFi, so this is where he always accesses the Internet while travelling.
As we sipped I took my maiden voyage on an iPad, checking e-mail and Facebook as well as sharing bird's-eye views of our respective homes with GoogleEarth. As we gazed out onto Bellflower boulevard we could see a Burger King, a Donut World, a paint shop, and a nail parlour, along with countless lanes of moving vehicles. Both Mark, who lives near Santa Cruz, and I agreed that after both of us having grown up here, Long Beach is a nice place to visit knowing we don't have to live here anymore. Suburban Long Beach is truly surreal, with its amazingly wide-open spaces between the flat streets and flat one-storey houses. It's no place for an agoraphobic or for a confused cat.
Speaking of iPads and WiFi reminds me of a recent short and very irrelevant e-mail conversation with a workmate who was trying to work from home while I was working at work: