And the award goes to …
Our food and drink critic highlights the crowning achievements of downtown’s coffee renaissance
Vegas isn’t known for its coffee, but we’re fueled by it. There’s a reason we’re second only to Seattle for most Starbucks per capita: We’re a city that never sleeps and it takes a lot of caffeine to keep us that way. But downtown Las Vegas doesn’t attract the chain coffee shops. We don’t sip mocha frappes as part of our morning commute. Downtown is home to the greatest concentration of independent coffee shops in Vegas, each one with a distinctive approach to drinks, service and atmosphere.
When I moved from Tucson to Las Vegas in 2011, the independent coffee options were limited, especially in downtown and especially for an experienced barista moving from a city that was overflowing with specialty coffee shops. I knew nobody in the city at the time, was miserably alone and always wondered, Without independent cafés where could people meet? How could community be formed or new friends made? Sure, there were bars, but what about the tame, the early birds or the under 21? There was Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, but where were the places for the independently minded?
I showed up in the early stages of the downtown revival, at about the same time The Beat Coffeehouse & Records opened, which ushered in a new era of downtown coffee culture. A lot has changed since then. The coffee tastes much better and the community has become more vibrant. Having worked as a downtown barista and being a café-fly myself, I can say with certainty the culture is alive and well. These awards highlight the crowning achievements of the downtown coffee renaissance:
Best Place to Socialize
If downtown Las Vegas is the heart of the city, this café has positioned itself as the heartbeat. It seems like all of downtown congregates here: business owners grabbing coffee before opening shop, local artists finishing projects, city employees or workers from the El Cortez. Surrounded by the massive zine library and the racks of records, there are plenty of conversation starters here.
Best Pour Over
Pour over is possibly the most refined approach to brewing a single cup of coffee. So crafting great pour-over coffee requires the highest quality beans, which PublicUs has no shortage of. PublicUs orders beans directly from farms worldwide and has them roasted by specialty roaster Velton Ross specifically for their Kalita Wave brewers. To showcase coffees from around the world, they rotate their bean selection and pour-over offerings ($5 to $6 depending on origin) regularly.
Best Cold Brew
Makers & Finders
There are two approaches to making cold brew: ice towers and infusion. The former drips ice water through a bed of coffee over a period of several hours, resulting in a concentrated, flavorful cup. The latter seeps grounds in water for nearly a day, which makes a lighter, more refreshing cup. I used both methods at various cafés I barista-ed at, but Makers & Finders is the first place I’ve seen that combines both methods for a refreshing, sweet and complex iced coffee ($4 for 16 oz., $4.50 for 20 oz.). In fact, they’re the only place in Vegas to prepare their cold brew this way, and of the hundreds of cafés I’ve visited worldwide still the only one that combines both methods.
Best Drip Coffee
If you’re on the go or just saving money, nothing beats drip coffee. Just add a dash of cream, maybe some sugar, and you’ve got the perfect morning kick-start. And no place does drip coffee better than The Beat ($1.99 for 16 oz., $2.49 for 20 oz.). It uses locally roasted Mothership beans from Sumatra and Nicaragua for a gourmet, on-the-go beverage.
It looks like an atomic bomb, but that chromed piece of machinery sitting on the PublicUs counter isn’t a weapon. It’s a Spirit Triplette espresso machine, one of the most powerful coffee machines available, and in the hands of Cole McBride, an award-winning and nationally recognized barista, this machine pulls some of the best shots and steams and some of the creamiest milk you can find in the country. To add to the quality of their hardware and their barista’s skill, PublicUs only uses organic dairy milk and house-made almond milk for their hot or iced lattes, or Pretty Coffee ($4.50) as they call it.
Best Ice-Blended Coffee Drink
The Bronze Café at The Center and The Market
Vegas summers are grueling, so it’s not surprising that ice-blended drinks shaped the growth of chain coffee shops in the city. But Bronze Cafe’s blended Dirty Bird ($5.75 for 16 oz., $6.45 for 24 oz.) far outranks any chain blended drink. With cozy spiced chai and two shots of espresso to wake you up, this is a real summer refresher.
Best Sweet Tooth Coffee
Sweet and frosty with chewy boba pearls, the best iced coffee ($5 for 16 oz.) isn’t even from a coffee shop. ChillSpot, the downtown masters of cold and sweet located in The Container Park, give us this unique summertime beverage. To make it even more exciting, ask them to add cream, condensed milk and cinnamon for a Thai-style iced coffee. Oh, and it’s organic!
James Collins is a Las Vegas-based writer and a bookseller at The Writer’s Block. Before becoming a writer, he was a barista at various independent coffee shops in Tucson, Los Angeles and Vegas.