Modern Times cappuccino review – unironically used typewriters

Modern Times Coffeehouse

In the basement of Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008

Read about my planned cappuccino tour around the DC area.

Politics and Prose is a rather famous part of the DC bookstore scene.  It is best known for its numerous book talks, that often feature prominent authors of all sorts.  It also helps that it is located in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods

A Google streetview image because I was feeling lazy

in DC;  a place full of rich people who like to attend book talks and actually buy new books from brick and mortar stores (pure craziness).  If this place didn’t sound cool enough, it also was rumored to have an  excellent coffee house in the basement.  Books and good coffee in a nice neighborhood – I had to see this.

Politics and Prose is located in a nondescript strip of stores along Connecticut Avenue NW.  The bookstore is quite nice (especially the discounted book section next to the cafe) and it would be a good place to browse.  It is also one of the more dignified  bookstores I’ve been to; it is the sort of place where you will see an older gentleman unabashedly set up a typewriter and begin his work as he sips coffee (I actually saw this).  The cafe is downstairs and was extremely busy on the Saturday afternoon I was there.  This is pretty normal for popular DC cafes; but if you go on a weekend don’t expect a seat.

The cappuccino at Modern Times

Modern Times has a menu that includes a wide variety of sandwiches and salads but, because it was so busy, I just ordered a cappuccino and  quickly took the seat of someone who was leaving.  Their cappuccino was a bit of an enigma.   The microfoam was excellent and the presentation was also quite nice.  The espresso element was too bitter, especially initially.  However, this bitterness gave way after a while (likely due to my own accommodation) to a dark chocolate flavor.  This kept my interest, even though it wasn’t the most pleasing taste.  My ratings (all of out 5) are as follows:

Smoothness: 3

Presentation: 4.6

Strength: 4.8

Complexity: 4.3

Foam: 4.8

Mean Score: 4.3

SD = .75

I will likely be back to Politics and Prose and will certainly get a cappuccino at Modern Times while I’m there.  However, next time I’ll try to come during a weekday when the cafe isn’t as busy; I suspect I’ll get a better cappuccino then.  I don’t think Modern Times is worth a trip by itself, but it is a good place to get espresso if you find yourself in the area.  Politics and Prose, on the other hand, is worth the trip.



Northside Social cappuccino review – a Murky connection

Northside Social – Coffee and Wine

3211 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, Virginia 22201

Read about my planned cappuccino tour around the DC area.

Northside Social has ample seating inside and out.

I think it would be fitting if I start my tour of DC cappuccinos with the place where DC’s most famous espresso bar finally gave up the ghost.  Before Northside Social came into existence, its store front was occupied by a different coffee shop named Murky Coffee.  Murky was owned by Nick Cho, who is famous for both bringing world class coffee to DC (the land of Starbucks and Caribou) as well as telling a customer who had requested an espresso over ice (coffee sin!) that he would “punch him in his dick” if he ever came into his store again. Unfortunately, Murky closed just before I arrived here in DC; apparently, although Nick Cho is serious about his coffee, he isn’t serious about paying bills, wages, and taxes.  I’ll have more on this in upcoming posts.  Several cafes in DC have a connection with Murky.

With that in mind, Northside Social is a very different place from what Murky was.  I was lucky to visit Northside with a friend who lived in Arlington when Murky was around, so he had some perspective on how much it has changed.  Murky was very utilitarian, with crappy chairs and extension cords everywhere.  It also pretty much only served coffee and typical indie coffee shop fare (muffins, scones, etc.).

Northside Social is a different story.  The new owners have made the interior very attractive, with lots of comfortable seating.  The space is also very large for a DC area cafe (it occupies a large converted house), with lots of smaller rooms where one can find a bit more quiet.  Most importantly, Northside Social specializes in a wide variety of wine and food along with the coffee.  I had a cranberry turkey sandwich along with my cappuccino; it was made with fresh bread made in-house and was delicious.  My friend had a scone (also made in-house) which he thought was also delicious.

I ordered the “classic cappuccino” (they listed this as an option on the menu – this will get you a proper 6oz drink).  They serve Counter Culture Coffee (a roaster out of North Carolina), which is the most common brand of beans in high-end coffee shops in the DC area.  Most coffee geeks agree that they rank among the best coffee roasters in the country.  So, Northside Social is certainly starting with excellent coffee.

The cappuccino was a mixed bag.  The presentation and microfoam were excellent (because I was a little delayed in taking the picture, some bubbles started to form around the periphery – the original presentation was better than

A lovely cappuccino

the picture would suggest).  However, the underlying espresso was a bit bitter, and lacked complexity.  Given that I know they were using high quality coffee, I think they probably over-extracted the espresso. It was quite unfortunate given everything else this place has going for it.  My ratings are as follows (all are out of 5)

Smoothness: 3.5

Presentation: 5

Strength: 5

Complexity: 3.5

Foam: 4.8

Mean Score: 4.36

SD = .87

Northside Social has a pretty good cappuccino.  I will almost certainly be back in the future, hoping that they don’t mess up the espresso next time.  They seemed capable of producing great espresso here (if perhaps inconsistently), and the other amenities of the place make it a pretty wonderful cafe.

Next week I travel up to Friendship Heights to see how they make cappuccinos in the basement of the venerable bookstore, Politics and Prose.

A tour of DC cappuccinos

A couple of years ago I started a project to try a cappuccino at every legitimate coffee house in Madison, WI.  I ended (only missing a few places) that project a few days before moving to the Washington, DC area; now I would like to try a similar thing here in DC.  I learned a lot from my first project in Madison and I hope to share some of my experiences with DC coffee houses.  I’ve already explored a great deal of DC’s coffee scene but up until now I have not done so in a systematic way; this is what I will do on this blog in the coming months.

I like cappuccinos; that is primarily the reason why I will review those rather than other espresso drinks (or even drip coffee).  However, there are other reasons why cappuccinos are a good test of the quality of a cafe.  Most espresso drinks consist primarily of prepared espresso and milk in various forms and quantities.  The best way to test a cafe’s espresso is to drink it straight; however, this will give you no indication of how well that cafe prepares milk.  Alternatively, trying a latte will give you a good indication of how well the cafe steams milk, but the high milk to espresso ratio makes it very difficult to make an assessment of the underlying espresso.  A cappuccino is 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 foam; this composition allows the nuanced features of the espresso to come through, while retaining the silkiness and sweetness of the milk (that most people prefer).

One problem with enjoying cappuccinos is that excellent ones are a relative rarity.  Everything must come together: the cafe must use fresh, high quality beans, the barista must use the proper amount and perfect fineness of grind and must tamp the espresso with a certain amount of pressure (and only use one application of pressure), the machine must be at a certain precise temperature to produce a good extraction, the barista must use the proper amount of milk and be able to use the steam wand to produce a good amount of microfoam.  A problem (or many of them) can arise at any point in this process, producing a cappuccino ranging from good to terrible.  Large chains, such as Starbucks, have been able to produce espresso drinks of decent quality consistently by using “full-auto” espresso machines; these machines grind and tamp coffee by themselves, producing espresso at the push of a button.  This means that the barista need only froth milk effectively, largely avoiding the possibility of truly terrible espresso drinks.  However, this automation never seems to produce truly exceptional espresso.  Fortunately, most cafes still use “semi-auto” espresso machines, which require a barista of great skill…and keeps things interesting.

The bottom line: there are a lot of terrible cappuccinos out there and hopefully I can help you avoid them.  There are also certainly some amazing ones, that I hope to find (and keep all to myself!).  Just as I did in Madison, I will be using several criteria in my assessments of cappuccinos.  Most importantly, understand that my score is of the drink itself and not other qualities of the cafe (price, food, ambiance, other happiness producing properties…); I will comment on other features of a cafe but these will not be included in my scores.  The criteria are as follows, only slightly modified (and hopefully improved…) from the reviews I did in Madison (all rated on a 5 point scale):

Smoothness: Bitter cups will get a low score.

Presentation: Cappuccinos should be in a 5 -6 oz cup; milk art is always a plus.

Strength: A sufficiently robust drink will get a high score, a milky one will earn a low score.

Complexity: If the cup seems to have hints of several flavors, it will score highly.

Foam: A cappuccino should have a layer of finely frothed milk (microfoam).

The following map shows the cafes that I will visit; once I visit a cafe I will change its icon into a cup and a link to the review will be included in the title.  The latest reviews can always be found at this blog, under the “DC Cappuccino Reviews” category.   DC has far more cafes than Madison does, so I must be rather selective about the places I chose to visit (or I’ll never finish!).  Essentially, if I have found any indication on the internet (mainly yelp and google searches) or by word of mouth that a cafe has good cappuccinos, I have included it on my list.  I have also left off the large chains, as these are typically very similar to one another and thus not very interesting (see my review of the cappuccino at a Madison Starbucks). This is only a preliminary list and I will add cafes to it as I get new leads.


Finally, I will also take some time in each post to talk about the neighborhoods in which the cafes are located.  So, if you are a tourist wanting to know more about DC and you have a hankering for espresso, my reviews should be a good starting point.

Ok, now that all of that is out of the way, first stop….North Side Social in Arlington!  I hope it’s good!