Checking out the coffee scenes on South Congress, South First


In 2007, we proposed a series titled “10,000 Coffee Shops.” We found only 100 around Austin, but it felt like 10,000. Our point: That in the 1980s, there had only been three such spots here.

Now, of course, there are many, many more. Starting last year, we began a new neighborhood-based journey through Austin’s coffee scene. Here are a few of the places we found; you can follow the caffeine-fueled expedition as we continue throughout the city at society.blog.austin360.com.

» RELATED: See a map of coffee shops at mystatesman.com.

SOUTH CONGRESS AVENUE

You’re always a short walk from good coffee vibes on South Congress Avenue.

Dominican Joe Coffee Shop

515 South Congress Ave. 512-448-3919, dominicanjoe.com

6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday and 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Very limited parking. Strong, free Wi-Fi with no password. Offers decaf (Americano), tea, chai. Muted music inside. Traffic noises outside.

In 2006, this coffee shop was among the first in Austin to go beyond simply purchasing fair trade beans. Its partnership with an Austin nonprofit, Makarios, benefits targeted development projects in the Dominican Republic through the sale of beans under its own label. The zigzag-shaped space — set up on two levels and broken up with curves in a handsome strip center at East Riverside Drive and South Congress Avenue — once housed part of a family-owned office supply store. A small patio along Riverside is protected from the sun and traffic by bamboo, but it still gets steamy during the hot months. At first, Dominican Joe was mobbed by student-age guests working on laptops. They now share the large spot with unhurried retirees and people meeting quietly face to face. The long service counter displays a bewildering array of treats beyond espresso-based drinks, which themselves are offered in as many as three sizes and are listed on the blackboard under helpful headings: “Hot,” “Cold-Colder,” “Classics,” “Concoctions” and “Specials.” These selections range in price from $2.10 to $5.50. Smoothies, bagels, fruit (thank you!), sandwiches, salads, wraps and nutrition bars await one’s decision at the counter. At times, this place gets packed, but multiple baristas divide up the duties.

Jo’s Coffee

1300 South Congress Ave. 512-444-3800, joscoffee.com

7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Good, free Wi-Fi. Offers decaf (Americano), tea, chai. All open-air seating competes with street sounds.

In 1999, this spot revolutionized the delivery of coffee, the design of shops, and even the flow of street life, not just on South Congress but all over Austin. Overnight, a simple green and red box was planted on the corner of the avenue and West James Street and — this is key — right at the sidewalk line. One ordered through a walk-side window; the seating was open-air and shaded, much of it facing foot, bike and auto traffic. Instantly, street life became theater for those who stopped for espresso and other coffee drinks, then a growing array pastries, tacos, chips, waters, teas, sandwiches and, for a while, beer. The last one was huge because alcohol laws had always forbidden anything that looked like open beverage takeout service. (It has since disappeared from the menu.) The coffee has always been good, even if it has been bested by a few specialists around town. Nothing can take away from the location, though, enfolded in the bosom of the Hotel San Jose and its adjacent social and entertainment events. Jo’s didn’t invent SoCo, but it is impossible to think of the city’s charismatic tourist attraction without it. Despite its popularity, there’s almost always an empty seat, subject to the weather.

Mañana Coffee & Juice

1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-872-3144, mananaaustin.com

7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Free underground parking. Strong, free Wi-Fi. Offers decaf, tea, chai. Quiet inside and out.

One of the last pieces in the South Congress Hotel puzzle is in place. Conceived by the New Waterloo group, Mañana Coffee & Juice slips into a narrow spot behind the urban dining magnet Central Standard. You can enter this light, trim space from East Monroe Street, or from the hotel’s courtyard, where spillover tables invite guests to linger on clement days. Many of the interior seats line long counters rather than tables and so attract solo typists more than folks chatting. The coffee drinks — made by alert baristas — are potent, and the beans come from Cuvée Coffee, while the teas are drawn from Kusmi Tea. A rare offering for an Austin coffeehouse: cold-pressed juices, along with milks, plus fruits and veggies overseen by chef Michael Paley. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman makes the quite fresh baked goods and snacks. These days, our downtown hotels rely on in-house Starbucks outlets, but that won’t do on idiosyncratic South Congress, where almost none of the businesses hail from out of town. Despite the lack of venues to rendezvous inside Mañana and the oddly uncomfortable stools at the bar, it’s likely to become a regular haunt.

Sage Cafe

2810 South Congress Ave. 512-916-8804, manray30.wixsite.com/sage-cafe

8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Free parking at Great Outdoors. Offers decaf, tea, chai. Free Wi-Fi with password. Quiet inside and outside.

Formerly Garden District Coffee, then Sage Coffee, this nature-loving spot is now called Sage Cafe. And for good reason, since the small outfit on the grounds of the Great Outdoors nursery offers a lot of food and drink. The outer terrace is swathed in green and cooled by deep shade on most days. Inside, which fills up quickly, old furniture is grouped into a few meeting or reading areas. One orders at a short counter from a multitude of offerings that include frappes, kombucha, protein drinks and cold-brewed and espresso-based drinks. Compared to the rest of the interior, the kitchen looks pretty spacious. What was this building in past eras? Its bones look like something out of the 1930s road culture. Nowadays, it’s as laid-back as possible for St. Edward’s University students from across the avenue and shoppers at the Great Outdoors.

Toms Austin

1401 South Congress Ave. 512-350-2115, toms.com/toms-roasting-co

8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. Street parking only. Offers decaf (Americano); no tea or chai. Email entry required for Wi-Fi. Muted music inside and not too loud outside.

Don’t know what it is about coffee and philanthropy, but they seem to go together. In 2014, charming Blake Mycoskie — briefly a citizen of our city — followed up his famous “One for One” shoe and eyewear charities with roasted coffee, which helps pay for clean water projects. Showcased during South by Southwest that year, Mycoskie transformed a century-plus-old home on a rise at South Congress and East Gibson Street into a chic retreat, with oversized porch swings, lounge furniture, fireplaces, sheltering oaks and landscaping front and back. Two shopping niches offer the shoes and eyeglasses, while laptoppers congregate in an oddly arranged area to the back. Coffee comes by way of drip, cold, pour-over and espresso. A limited number of other beverages have been added, but there’s still a minimalist feel to the place. Good fit for the SoCo scene, with just enough local authenticity. Sometimes, little parties gather in the back, but the interior spaces, painted in playful colors, are hushed.

Apanas Coffee & Beer

1007 S. Congress Ave. 512-387-334, apanascoffee.com

7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Street parking. Wi-Fi with password. Offers decaf (Americano), teas, chai. Lively music. Quiet corners.

What great timing, and a great location. This southern colony of a shop that opened in the Domain in January sits on the sidewalk level of a large apartment complex. It’s large. Very large. The L-shaped interior is brightened by light wood panels and buttery hues. An extra-long counter winks at guests with espresso-based drinks, drip coffees, teas, juices, pastries, hearty sandwiches and pub grub. More than a dozen beers can be had on tap. One can choose, too, from multiple outdoor tables set next to the busy avenue. A couple of imports from the world of bars: different happy hours each day and (muted) TVs above the seating areas near the counter. But there are plenty of places to focus here. The sharp staff is ready to serve, inspired by owner Aamil Sarfani, who stayed at a coffee farm in Nicaragua during college — the shop is named after a lake there — and figured out how to offer the farmers “double fair trade” for their distinctive beans.

SOUTH FIRST STREET

South First Street rivals South Congress Avenue in several ways, including its comparable wealth of quality coffee shops.

Seventh Flag Coffee Co.

1506 South First St. seventhflagcoffee.com

6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Parking in back. Strong Wi-Fi. Offers teas and chai; no decaf. Music sometimes loud. Despite traffic outside, picnic area fairly quiet.

I adore this place. This, despite the fact they don’t carry decaf coffee of any kind. The owner took an old wood residence and transformed the inside with almost Scandinavian precision and lightness, then added a variety of tables and counters accompanied by amazingly comfortable molded wooden stools. One low couch sits in a niche, and shaded picnic tables tempt the mostly young crowd on fine days. Perhaps to maintain quality or efficiency, the menu is quite limited. Three toasts have proven quite popular, and there are also a few nutrition bars, water and juices on offer. The always alert baristas — who looked like they were hired from the same talent agency — moved over recently to City of Saints coffee beans for espresso-based drinks, as well as cold and hot brews. Sometimes the musical volume is too loud for us oldsters, but they’ll turn it down if you ask. What do I order without the decaf option? Coconut green iced tea in the summer, green tea in winter, unless I’m going crazy on the caffeine. Above a mantle hangs a black flag adorned with seven white stars. It reads: “Our country of friends.” Indeed. Both my husband and I feel supremely at home here.

Once Over Coffee Bar

2009 S. First St. 512-326-9575, onceovercoffeebar.com

7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Onsite parking in front. Good Wi-Fi, no password. Offers decaf, teas and chai. Muted music. Serenely quiet on back creekside deck.

One of the first places in town to offer French press coffee, Once Over now uses a shiny Curtis Gold Cup machine, which a helpful barista described as “robo pour over,” to go along with espresso drinks. Recessed in a nondescript strip center, this always packed place offers a few tables out front under a big tree surrounded by untended planters, as well as a divine creekside deck out back. Now that nearby Bouldin Creek Cafe is more of a restaurant and less of a coffee shop, the mix-and-match Once Over provides the most reliable link to the neighborhood’s funky coffeehouse past. It’s very laid-back. There’s a 10 percent discount if you use cash and another 25 cents off if you bring your own cup. You don’t pay at point of contact but rather after being served. The excellent drinks aren’t extravagant or whimsical. The baristas pours four types of red wine and four types of white wine, along with Austin Beerworks varieties. The usual snacks and pastries call out to an easy mix of people working on projects together or alone. The baristas usually engage with folks sitting at the long, barlike counter. A good number of guests are loyal regulars, who engage in fluent banter with the staff.

Summer Moon Coffee

3115 S. First St. 512-804-1665, woodfiredcoffee.com

6 a.m.-midnight Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Some onsite parking; street parking nearby. Solid Wi-Fi with password posted on chalkboard near entrance. Offers decaf (Americano), teas, chai. Moderately loud music. Not too noisy on small deck out front.

This place is very popular with students. And the brand has expanded to other neighborhoods since this original shop opened in a tiny strip center on South First not far from St. Edward’s University. A good deal of emphasis is placed on the fire-roasted coffee beans — “100 percent organic, 100 percent Arabica” — and products that come with variations on the shop’s name, including Moon Milk (secret recipe). The five kinds of breakfast tacos usually sell out by 10 a.m., a Sunday barista told me, after which one can choose from three types of sandwiches or wraps, along with pastries and snacks. A few comfy chairs and meeting tables complement a fascinating staple-shaped laptop counter. I like that this place maintains a sense of humor, which is adopted without coyness by the young baristas. The stone and wood decor lend Summer Moon a sense of place, and although I can’t tell you why the fire roasting makes a difference, the coffee here is definitely superior.

Fair Bean Coffee

2210 S. First St. 512-444-2326, fairbeancoffee.com

6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Plenty of shared onsite parking. Wi-Fi, no password. Offers decaf (drip or Americano), teas, chai. Light, multi-lingual music. Only a few narrow tables outside.

When this large-ish cafe opened eight years ago on South First, fair-trade coffee was not yet ubiquitous in Austin. Fair Bean imports its precious products from all over. One recent day, bulk beans from Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Congo, Bolivia and Sumatra rimmed a baylike side counter. Another thing sets this place apart: Substantial food made on-site, including empanadas, cream rolls, subs and really hearty tortillas Española, in addition to more familiar coffee-shop fare like pastries, bagels, smoothies, etc. The coffee beans are also roasted on site. As is now the custom, Fair Bean offers multiple platforms for consumption: laptop counters, small meeting tables, some outside seating. Certain offerings stand out for the mixed-age crowd that surges in and out: French press (for two), freshly made gluten-free pecan bars, “grab and go drip coffee, cash only, $2 tax included.” The coffee, carefully prepared by what feels like a staff made up of family members, is rich and mellow.

Starbucks

516 W. Oltorf St. 512-534-6654, starbucks.com

5 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Not too much parking, plus a drive-thru ramp. Free, powerful Wi-Fi. Offers decaf (pour-over or Americano), teas, chai. Low music. Partially shaded outdoor seating set back from busy intersection.

Face it, this part of South Austin deserved a big, new, drive-thru Starbucks. Sometimes, that’s exactly the option you need. The location at Oltorf and South First streets takes the place of a defunct chicken joint. If you are driving there, enter via westbound Oltorf or northbound South First — don’t try left turns across traffic into the undersized parking lot. Do try the smooth-as-latte drive-thru. The interior is vast, enclosing with windows on three sides at least two dozen metal seats and two types of stools, some counter seating and also some lounge seating. The pristine wood, concrete and masonry finishes dampen the feeling of chain sameness. Partially shaded seating invites one outside, but only on the sunny west and south sides. Of course, there’s a dazzling array of espresso and cold brew selections, as well as bagged coffee beans, water, chips, juices, pastries and teas. A sign you’ll probably see more often: “Now serving almond milk!” The college-age baristas handle the traffic handily and happily. Despite all the hard surfaces, the place doesn’t sound loud, and there are plenty of spots to close those laptops to chat. Of course, Starbucks is a globally recognized way of life, not just a coffee shop, which you can take or leave at will.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Austin360 Eats

Turning a best-ever homework assignment into the best-ever granola
Turning a best-ever homework assignment into the best-ever granola

Last week, my first-grader came home with a school assignment that made my heart swell: “We have to make something together. You know, like cookies or something.” Avery, a 7-year-old who has struggled a bit recently with homework motivation, was obviously angling for cookies, but I’m not quite ready for cookie season to start. More...
14 upcoming galas: Close out 2017 with these winter fundraisers
14 upcoming galas: Close out 2017 with these winter fundraisers

Oct. 25 Whole Planet Foundation’s Party with a Purpose Benefit & Live Auction What: New to this year’s Poverty is Unnecessary Day is this evening of live music, small plates by local female chefs, complimentary cocktails and micro-credit client food trucks. Cost: $187 individual tickets; sponsorships start at $1,000 Where: Fair Market,...
To make this frittata, use your noodles
To make this frittata, use your noodles

Just when you think you’ve had every kind of frittata in the egg playbook, along comes yet another good one to tackle. This noodle version has ingredients that are standard issue at the supermarket these days, yet I had never had them combined in quite this way. The pasta invoked is a Chinese egg noodle, on the short side and at a medium width...
More events for Wednesday, Oct. 25, and beyond

Music Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at ACL Live. The fourth class of inductees into this esteemed honorary circle are the Neville Brothers, Rosanne Cash and Roy Orbison. Cash and two of the Nevilles (Art and Ivan) will be on hand, along with host Chris Isaak and a smorgasbord of stars who will perform in tribute to the inductees...
To remember what pumpkin tastes like, you must ditch pumpkin spice
To remember what pumpkin tastes like, you must ditch pumpkin spice

Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice has become the dominant flavor of fall. Amid hundreds of products and recipes using that unmistakable mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and allspice, we have forgotten what pumpkins actually taste like. A cousin to every other winter squash out there, pumpkins have a similar earthy sweet flavor. Some can be bitter and...
More Stories