Garden Vietnamese, Harrisburg, is one of those odd kind of restaurants that I love to recommend. Painted mint green and positioned just on the edge of Midtown, the Garden looks just as unassuming as its Harrisburg reputation is omnipresent. When we moved to Harrisburg five years ago, the Garden was one of the first restaurants that we were recommended, and it remains one of the only restaurants that I legitimately miss from Pittsburgh. It’s also one of the only restaurants at which I like my favorite dishes so much that I barely ever want to order anything different.
Skip the soups with the chicken or shrimp (which is often too tough or rubbery) and go for authentic.
Begin with spring rolls — shrimp, vermicelli noodles, fresh basil, and mint tightly bound in rice paper and served with peanut sauce.
Next, order a pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) or the sweet, slightly charred slide pork with a fried egg roll, vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, ground peanuts, and a tangy sauce.
On Fridays and Saturdays, go for the specials. Above is the beef soup: a sweet, savory, yet slightly-spicy broth of ginger and green and white onions, dunked with chunks of beef, carrots, and your choice of egg, rice, and vermicelli noodles.
Finish with a cup of Vietnamese coffee pressed into sweetened condensed milk.
And then you tell me what intrigues you here — the hearty portions, the noodles that slurp, or the blend of fresh and flavor that evokes both home and places far away.
304 Reily Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
This season is best shared with surprise, generosity, and streetside tunes.
Known as the Princeton, this drink is the downtown cousin (only available on weekdays) to the Uptown Ginger Brown at Little Amps, Green Street.
It’s a cappuccino featuring a shot of espresso pulled into honey then graced with lemon zest and ginger. (The Uptown Ginger Brown swaps in brown sugar and orange zest).
On this December day, the bright citrus dances through the foamed milk and rich espresso, more reminiscent of ocean shores than snowdrifts on Second Street. Well worth a semester’s wait.
Little Amps Coffee Roasters is humming smoothly as I push open the door. Two men are bent over a single laptop, each cradling a cup of French press. Another customer is digging through the collection of for-sale vinyls and occasionally sipping a cold jar—the shop’s famed shot of espresso poured over ice and shaken vigorously with brown sugar until frothy.
A brightly colored mural of a Mediterranean villa graces one exposed brick wall, and light from the wide windows pours over the polished tables and wooden floorboards at the Olde Uptown location on Green Street. The high, tinny grind of the espresso machine rises above the murmur of voices, and, from behind the bar, barista Allie Schuh waves at me and says, “I’ll be with you in just a second.”
A connoisseur of cozy spaces, I am familiar with this lifestyle, but Allie has promised to show me the side of the coffee trend that I don’t know about—that of the world behind the bar.
According to author Merry “Corky” White, American coffee culture has experienced three major waves: one post-World War II with the introduction of instant coffee, another with the rise of Starbucks and its emphasis on coffee origin and brewing technique and the third with the “refinement of coffee culture” that emphasizes detail and ceremony. With such a refinement, coffee has emerged into the American conscience as a beverage that is both private and public, cult and caffeine. But that is only the story from the front side of the bar.
Allie detaches herself from the espresso machine long enough to give me a hug. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asks, handing me a cup of today’s roast: a sweet, fruity Honduras E.V. Perez with flavors that remind me of blueberry and peach.
Allie’s smile is contagious, as is her expertise. Her personal interest in coffee began as a passion for meeting people in intimate spaces. It transformed into a profession when she graduated from college and found that many traditional businesses are currently unable to invest in young people, but coffee shops are.
She has been a barista for nearly two years, beginning in a small coffeehouse in San Francisco and then working at Midtown Scholar Bookstore when she moved to Harrisburg. She joined Little Amps in 2012. “A good barista is worth his weight in gold,” Allie says. “The profession of coffee is filling a niche for young people.”
Allie smiles at a client over my shoulder, and I’m reminded she’s still on the clock. “For you, Nevin?” she asks and drifts away.
I trail behind her and enter the space behind the bar, a chest-high hallway narrower than a church aisle. Tucked out of the sight of clients are plastic bins of freshly roasted coffee lined in neat rows, brown paper bags, an array of spices for specialty drinks, a digital scale and glassware. Mason jars are being chilled in the fridge for the cold jars. A red step stool is just behind the counter so that one can stand at the proper height to execute a pour-over—a style of coffee made from pouring a thin stream of water in a circular motion over a filter of precisely measured grounds. Everything is so organized that I’m afraid to touch anything.
Allie offers to show me how to pull an espresso, and I eagerly step forward. The act of standing before a massive machine and coaxing out a tiny cup of black liquid has always seemed so magical that I can’t decide if it will be harder or easier than it looks.
It’s both. Allie’s lesson comes with a list of warnings: tamp too hard and you’ll break the grounds, making it more difficult for water to seep through. Pull a shot too short, and it will be bland. Pull a shot too long, and it will be bitter, like over-steeped tea. Allie rinses the heavy port-a-filter with hot water and holds it out to me. “Ready?” she asks.
She shows me once, and then I try to imitate: grinding the espresso into the port-a-filter while rotating it to get an even fill; leveling the grounds with my finger and tapping the filter once to settle them. I gently nestle the tamp into the grounds to evenly distribute its weight; then I press down with my best guess of what 30 pounds of pressure should feel like. Finally, we lock the filter into the espresso machine.
“Go ahead and pull the lever,” Allie says, and I yank down with the same amount of upper body strength that I’d use for an exercise at the gym. The lever reluctantly gives way, and, for nearly half a minute, it releases as espresso pours in delicately colored streams into a waiting cup below: a dark body, a light crema.
I’m staring at the cup reverently when a wave of customers appears before us, and Allie sets my espresso aside. By the time I finish fudging my way through a French press, it’s been a few minutes, and Allie informs me that my espresso is too old to give a clear indication of my failure or my success.
Outside of Harrisburg, in Linglestown, the lunch rush is just beginning, and the line for coffee is nearly out the door at St. Thomas Roasters. Barista Andrea Musselman is standing at the front counter with her curly auburn hair held back with a bandanna and her fingers poised over the register keys as she takes a customer’s order.
Beside her, owner Geof Smith is singing “one is the loneliest number” and greeting every customer by name. Laughter mingles with the sound of grinding espresso. Past the serve counter is St. Thomas’ Diedrich roaster, surrounded by canvas bags of coffee and white buckets of freshly roasted beans. Nearly 20 loose-leaf teas and 20 in-house roasted coffees are available for bulk purchase, and the aroma of the coffee lingers everywhere: in the coffeehouse’s dark green walls, the well-loved sofa next to the back entrance and local artwork that adds to the room’s intimacy.
By the time the crowd dies down, Andrea has already served me two house blend espressos: one straight and another poured over ice then strained back out so that I can taste the difference that the temperature makes. She is knowledgeable and moves fast—stepping purposefully to keep up with the speed of the orders.
Her life’s first coffee was a Sheetz cappuccino that her father allowed her to sip. “It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,” she says. “I drank it all, but I don’t think I was supposed to.” After college, she took a job at Panera Bread that helped her realize that her interest did not just lie in drinking coffee but also in preparing it.
From her standpoint, the modern hype over coffee is not just a fad—it’s valid.
“There are 130 flavor components in coffee,” Andrea explains. “So much of a flavor depends on the complexity of the soil the coffee was grown in, how the coffee was processed, if there was a bug on a bean that fermented or how the coffee has been roasted. The product itself is really exciting and always changing.”
She is drying glasses as she speaks and deftly moves to stir flavor syrups into buckets of fresh beans: hazelnut, vanilla, cinnamon sticky bun. Behind her, Geof has begun the day’s roast, and the bitter aroma breaks into the air with the popping sound of cooling coffee.
Being a barista seems to be equal parts science, art, people and sheer physical labor, but at least, according to Andrea, all the days are different. “It’s paninis today,” she notes, then she laughs. “I sometimes try to predict a busy day. If it’s sunny out, you’d think everyone would be out getting coffee, but that sometimes means everyone’s doing something else.”
Andrea records the date of flavored beans on a clipboard in neat little figures then turns back to me. “Have you ever made a latte?”
I want to impress Andrea with my espresso skills, but this machine is different, and I do not know which buttons to push. Instead, she grinds an espresso and tamps it with a crisp tamp, tap, tamp, tap—and pulls the espresso into a cream-colored mug with green stripes. “To steam milk,” she says, handing a cupful of 2 percent to me, “you have to hold the cup a bit to the side with the steam wand inside, like this, so the milk will swirl.”
With the sound of a long, tight slurp, my milk spins in a vortex and rapidly jumps to 160 degrees: too high. “Now drop the cup down to get some foam,” Andrea instructs. I follow, but I drop too far, and the milk coughs out. I quickly take it off the heat.
To make latte art, Andrea tells me to pour the steamed milk slowly into the espresso, beginning high above the cup then dropping closer while swinging the stream gently from side to side. This technique results in a mug that looks like it’s been topped with a white, coffee-rimmed blob.
I’m staring at it, thinking mud puddle, when Andrea’s co-worker Jessica Janze walks by and cheerfully congratulates me on making a sun.
I’m further behind on my coffee career than I thought.
For both Allie and Andrea, both sides of the bar—that of the barista and that of the customer—have their merits.
“The best part of [my job] is really getting to talk about coffee and connect with people,” Andrea says. “When someone comes back in and says, ‘the coffee you recommended was perfect,’ that’s really satisfying.”
Allie would agree. “As a barista, you really get to know the customers you serve. Even though you’re interacting with people just minutes every day, there’s still time to invest in relationships.”
But the other side of the bar is equally satisfying. “In a coffee shop, you get to know your community, meet your significant other here, make friendships,” Allie says. “I’m a barista, and I still enjoy going to a coffee shop after work. This is where it all happens.”
She chuckles. “And on that side of the bar, my feet don’t hurt as much.”
Little Amps Coffee Roasters
1836 Green St., Harrisburg
133 State Street, Harrisburg
St. Thomas Roasters
5951 Linglestown Rd., Linglestown
My students at the University of Pittsburgh recently asked me what an authentic crêpe was like, and I realized I have no good answers. I only have impressions. In my head, it goes like this: a crêpe must have a simple batter made of flour, eggs, milk, and occasionally some sugar, vanilla, or salt. The filings may be sweet or savory, but the crêpe must be folded in a triangle. I’m willing to admit that crêpes are versatile and easily made American, especially when they’re done well, but I’m least skeptical of crêpes when they harken back to Avignon, France, in 2005 when I was taught to flip crêpes by holding a coin in my left hand for luck.
Due to my dealing only with impressions, Au Bon Lieu in Harrisburg, PA, strikes me as the real deal, offering crêpes that are actually hearty, elegant, and soul-friendly. (No ham and provolone crêpe here — that’s for the deli down the block.) The batter is made daily out of unbleached flour, and many ingredients are organic, including many of those pictured above — artichoke hearts, plump olives, basil, fresh tomato, a freshly-fried egg, and herbed feta cheese.
What do I look for in an authentic crêperie? A savory crêpe that is less about avocado and more about shrimp. Sweet crêpes that are less about Nutella and bananas (although definitely include Nutella and bananas) and more about powdered sugar, jams, butter, and honey. (Our dessert was a crêpe with organic honey and pine nuts; also on the menu were sweet crêpes featuring chestnut paste and Belgian chocolate.)
Eating on the sunny front patio facing Third Street, I assert that Au Bon Lieu felt juuuust about right.
Au Bon Lieu
1 North Third Street
You’re a young adult (whatever age that means), and you’ve been told to “get out there.” See the world. Experience new things, and become a better person because of it.
I absolutely agree with this philosophy, for it was definitely applicable to me. Before going to college, I had only met a handful of people who had been born outside the U.S. I had never seen a bagel or eaten granola, and I laughed awkwardly at jokes that contained pop culture references I’d never heard of. Before studying in France, a glass of wine in my hand was evil, not a sign of sharing; before visiting my family in the Netherlands, I laughed at adults who rode their bike to work instead of driving a car. (Bike rides were for kids. Real adults owned four wheels.) In the decade since I’ve left my hometown, I have learned to ask questions about other people’s beliefs instead of recoiling in disgust when our opinions don’t match. I learned that humanity is more beautiful than I had thought. I learned that I have a place when I create one, and yes, that I am capable of drinking espresso, using chopsticks, and driving aggressively in heavy traffic, as I had once thought growing up should entail.
But there is another side to this story. On May 2, NPR interviewed comedian Jim Gaffigan about raising five kids in Manhattan. Of city-dwellers, he said, “They’re well-adjusted. They’re not freaked out by two men holding hands. They’re not freaked out by socio- or economic or cultural differences, and that’s, I think, an important gift to give children.” Gaffigan’s point jives with me, whose process of “growing up” and “getting out there” entailed directing my footsteps toward cities of various sizes. Cities expose you to others’ differences, whether you find them at the laundromat or sitting next to a stranger on a bus; cities present you with an array of experiences from the Peruvian restaurant down the street to the political rally of a cause you’ve never heard of. For me, cities around the world have succeeded in giving me the chance to broaden myself, to expect change, and to be unafraid of other people. Like Gaffigan, I’ve viewed living in cities to be a gift.
However, what Gaffigan is missing is an acknowledgement of the countryside and the importance of coming home.
Cities are not the only place in this world that have something to offer. Having come from a family farm in Shippensburg, PA, I assert that there’s something to be said about being “well-adjusted” to the depth of a truly black night sky. It’s extremely important to me to not be “freaked out” by spiders, of the smell of sweat, and the satisfaction of heavy labor. Exposure to others’ differences is a gift, but so is the ability to wave at your neighbors (I do this in Harrisburg, whether I know them or not), to run through cornfields, and to be embraced by the absolute sense of knowing where you’ve come from. For me, the countryside is an anchor to where I’m going, and this gift is not at all less than teaching children to not be startled by the sight of the homeless or of a hijab worn in a grocery store. The countryside, like the gift of a city, is a tool that must be used wisely.
Many of my friends, like me, have grown up in small towns, and have found ourselves at any given moment traveling or living across the state, across the country, or across the globe. Many twentysomethings have responded to the call of “getting out there,” whether to a city or not, and we’ve looked at our fresh perspectives and new stories with a certain sense of satisfaction. However, after these weeks, or months, or years away, there’s a point in time where many of us, with some awkwardness, find that we are back in the same town or state in which we started, and find this return viewed (by ourselves, if not others) as a backslide, a giving-in, a choice we are supposed to defend.
If I could change the call to our young people, I would first explain that it is important to get out of one’s comfort zone and to see other places. For those of us born among mountains and rolling fields, it may be important to spend some time in bigger places, but for many others, leaving comfort zones can mean camping for a weekend without showers, or learning to respect that truck-driving neighbor who never finished high school.
But after this experience, I’d explain to our young people that it’s okay to return home — with new perspectives, new distance, and new understanding. Returning home, if only temporarily — to re-find the place where your heart was, to where familiarity upholds, to where your new point of views can really make an impact — is just as much of a gift as being able to leave it.
The “Uptown Ginger Brown” ($4.25) — a not-too-sweet cappuccino from Little Amps in Uptown — is made with ginger, fresh orange zest, and brown sugar. The first two ingredients bring a subtle brightness to the rich coffee, a tartness hidden in the rich and foamy mouthfeel. As for the third, owner Aaron Carlson prefers brown sugar over white sugar because it’s not as “clawingly sweet”; the molasses in the brown sugar better complements the espresso.
This drink for me is the brightness of summer enrobed in the coziness of winter.
(Plus, it’s worth it just to hear Aaron announce, “Uuuuptown ginger brown!” as he pushes your drink across the bar.)
1826 Green Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
For my boyfriend Jon Hoey, a sales representative for Troegs Brewing Company, Hershey, culture can be as evident in a beverage as it is in food. This means that an international meal can be complimented by much more than regionally-grown tea or a local beer; it can include mango lassies, yogurt drinks, bubble teas, Shandy of Trinidad, bottled juice of aloe vera, and more. For me, I’m constantly surprised by how variant and creative beverages can be; the daughter of a dairy farmer, I am still just shocked to be reminded that people routinely drink more than milk.
Two weeks ago, I asked Cafe di Luna owner Ambreen Esmail what she recommended for a light, hydrating summer drink. She produced to me a cold herbal tea made of basil seeds suspended in a vibrant red syrup that was cut by a single ice cube. Made with pure cane sugar, this drink was extremely sweet and fragrantly perfumed, like bananas, flowers, or incense. According to Ambreem, basil seeds are actually considered to be holy in the Hindu faith and are widely used in Chinese and Thai beverages for their health benefits, which include regulating common digestion issues including nausea and constipation.
The drink was incredibly sweet to my taste, but I loved the rubbery, squeaky seeds, which could be slurped, chewed, or swallowed whole.
Imported bottles of basil seed tea can be also purchased at GM International Grocery on 3918 Jonestown Road as well as other local Asian and Middle Eastern food markets.
Café di Luna
1004 N. 3rd St.
Harrisburg, PA 17102
This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of TheBurg, greater Harrisburg’s community newspaper.
Hold on, biscotti. Take a back seat, pizzelle. And welcome a new international cookie, the stroopwafel, to central Pennsylvania’s confection scene.
A stroopwafel is a traditional Dutch cookie, literally meaning “syrup waffle.” The “stroopie” consists of gooey caramel syrup pressed between two pie-crust-thin, cinnamon-spiced waffles. Traditionally, the cookie rests on the rim of a hot cup of coffee for a few seconds before eating to soften the caramel—an ode to taking time to eat, to drink and to be.
“My customers keep saying, ‘Oh, they’re caramel! Oh, they’re Dutch!’” said Ambreen Esmail, owner of Café di Luna on N. 3rd Street in Midtown. Esmail has carried the cookies since late June to complement her array of small batch, independently made desserts and internationally inspired coffee beverages. “Not many people have heard of stroopwafels, but they’re delicious,” she said.
Domestically, Stroopwafels are made at Stroopies, a Lancaster-based company managed by a husband and wife team, Jonathan and Jennie Groff.
“We both grew up in small family businesses, and we wanted one of our own,” Jennie said, herself the daughter of a dairy farmer. Jonathan is the son of the founders of Groff’s Candies in Lancaster.
Owners Ed McManness and Dan Perryman founded Stroopies in 2008 to make cookies and provide jobs to underprivileged men and women. They operate a branch in, of all places, Moradabad, India, with six full-time workers. Jonathan and Jennie joined the company two years ago and wanted to market the cookies in Pennsylvania. Since then, laboring in the back room of Groff’s Candies, they have made every stroopwafel from scratch.
Four cookie-size balls of homemade dough are placed on an authentic Dutch stroopwafel griddle and pressed for 80 seconds. Each waffle is transferred to a cutting board, filleted in half and drizzled with house-made caramel syrup. The halves are then pressed back together, cooled and hand-packaged.
“Our very clean hands are all over the stroopwafels that you buy,” laughed Jennie.
In addition to traditional stroopies, the Groffs offer stroopwafels dipped in Wilbur’s dark chocolate from Lititz, PA. They are experimenting with gluten-free stroopwafels, fresh pecan stroopwafels and chocolate dipped stroopwafels that are sprinkled with locally roasted espresso from Lancaster’s Square One Coffee.
There’s a balance between keeping it simple and being creative, Jonathan said, “but I do think the espresso stroopwafels are out of this world.” The couple hopes to eventually introduce a new stroopie variety each year.
Like the India branch, the couple hopes Stroopies can provide employment opportunities to immigrants in central Pennsylvania. “Specifically, we see a need among refugees that the U.S. has welcomed,” Jonathan said. “Sometimes they have a hard time finding work. We love working with internationals, so to be able to provide work for people from other parts of the world would be an enjoyable privilege for us.”
That inspires Café di Luna’s Esmail. “I promote Stroopies’ cookies because they bring people together,” she said. “So much is lost these days with the way we rush. I believe we need to go back to our values, and I try to promote products that do the same.”
105 Old Dorwart Street
Lancaster, PA 17603
Café di Luna
1004 N. 3rd St.
Harrisburg, PA 17102