Coffee Talk in the 'hoods

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Long ago, a certain South Side guy would do just about anything to woo a particular blond with a master's degree and pretty blue eyes.

He'd make up excuses to ditch his Budweiser-drinking pals at Kilroys in Lansing just to spend a few hours with her sipping mochas, making small talk and playing Scrabble at Uncommon Ground at Clark and Grace.

Chasing the blond of course was a complete waste of time. The only good that came of it was being introduced to the city's vibrant coffee shop culture -- easily missed from his south suburban barstool.

When you talk about grabbing a coffee these days, people usually think Starbucks or maybe some other chain that offers a quick caffeine fix. But it's the little coffeehouses all over town -- places like Humboldt Pie Cafe, Uncommon Ground, Cafe Luna and MoJoe's -- that you really feel the pulse of a neighborhood without feeling rushed.

If you're looking for the local controversy, the makings of a movement or a friendly place to relax, a good bet is to walk into an old-style coffee joint.

Yes, you're at California and Augusta in Humboldt Park, a thriving Hispanic neighborhood. And no, you're not mistaken, there's a white guy behind the counter at Humboldt Pie Cafe.

It's probably Nick LaRocco. He opened the joint after living in the Northwest Side neighborhood for three years without finding a decent place for locals to sip coffee or just sit for a while.

His place's comfy couch almost immediately became home to a running conversation about the growing pains of gentrification in a neighborhood slowly losing its vibrant Latino feel. LaRocco insists his place is common ground for the longtime residents, mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican folks, and newcomers moving in.

"It's not just white people, everybody from the community comes in here," he says. "That makes me proud. We know people by their name. People say, 'This is our little coffeehouse.' "

They casually stroll in, the artists and the young Democrats. Ald. Billy Ocasio and "his people." Real estate agents with clients. Cops and stay-at-home dads. A gay Hispanic group that meets there every other month.

They all stop in.

At coffee chains, when the girl in the ball cap asks, "What can I get started for you?" you're supposed to know the lingo.

Venti, doubleshot, skim, no foam mocha, no whip.

Then, she repeats it to someone called a barista, which seems like an overly fancy name for the hairy man making your espresso drink.

Besides the occasional pleasantry that's all you're supposed to get from Starbucks help -- it's fast food for coffee fiends. Owners of indie coffee joints want you to slow down and become part of the shop culture. Enjoy the atmosphere. Talk to your neighbor.

When you stop by Cafe Luna in Beverly, owner Famious Stephenson wants you to write a poem. "Or maybe a research paper," he says. "We want you to stay a while. Put your feet up. Take your shoes off."

Indeed, Stephenson cares about your comfort that much. But please keep your sneakers on. Seriously.

Uncommon Ground opened in 1991, before the Starbucks invasion. It started with 900 square feet of beat-up wood floors, exposed brick and a potbelly stove. The neighborhood was still part slum, and Southpost's now vibrant storefronts were boarded up.

"Open the coolest place we could, something like a friend's living room" -- was the goal, owner Michael Cameron says.

It started with coffee and comfort food. When, despite the Cubs, Wrigleyville became hip, Uncommon Ground bloomed like condos in decrepit apartment buildings. Now there's a banquet room and full bar, and a stage that's ground zero for local musicians.

And, long after the blond, the place is still special. Because every time you walk in, you can tell the bottom line never became more important than just being a cool neighborhood hang.

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I never seen you in Humboldt Pie Konkol. Ever. Nick is the best though. God love the California Pepper. His pie ain't so bad either. You could have mentioned the dough and sauce he buys from Armands.

Konkol: And I've never seen you at Humboldt Pie, Chuck. Never. Maybe next time.

Way can no weigh your all too weigh so weigh weigh weigh.

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Mark Konkol

Mark Konkol covers city neighborhoods for the Chicago Sun-Times. You can e-mail him or call (312) 321-2146.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Konkol published on April 6, 2007 12:14 PM.

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