Extreme Caffeine: Progress, Rio Rita

 
Hot and cold shots of coffee along the East Sixth Street corridor from a bar, a trailer and one of “America’s Coolest Coffeehouses.”
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Waking | 11.11.11
 
Progress Coffee
500 San Marcos St., No. 105. 493-0963, www.progresscoffee.com.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday. 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
 
On the day after Travel and Leisure named Progressive one of "America’s Coolest Coffeehouses," I expected a kind of feeding frenzy, something to spoil everything that was cool about it in the first place, the same way that the second you call something “hip,” it immediately ceases to be hip. But no, Progress was the same as always, a space carved out of a loading dock with a view of the Austonian to the west and the lone smokestack of Austin Pipe & Supply to the east. Hungry for a taste of Austin activism? I was there the day a woman using a wheelchair drew the manager out for a dsicussion about the shop’s accessibility, a "discussion" she started by reaching in and turning out the lights.
 
Hot: The house cup should be enough, right? Progress Coffee. Sounds bold and thrilling, something to sip on the patio while you watch the well-intentioned but mostly empty Metro Rail go by. In the cup ($2.29/large), not so progressive. Ordinary, static, like the warming vessel could use a good scrubbing to wash away the Thermos-bottle taste. A refill with Italian roast wasn’t much better, and both reminded me of doughnut-shop coffee, something to fill space in the here and now rather than fuel the revolution ahead.
 
Cold: Iced Lightning ($4.50/large) lands a freshly pulled shot of espresso in milk with hazelnut syrup and chocolate, and the result is that all the coffee flavors express themselves up front, while the sweetness lingers at the back, and the balance leans backward. A hybrid called the Iced Thunder mixes cold-brewed coffee half-and-half with the Lightning, and that sounds more like a cup my speed.
 
Something extra: A jalapeño-cheddar biscuit with real backbone forms the base of a breakfast sandwich with melted cheddar and an unusual yellow puck of an egg ($4.19). The biscuit is like a savory scone, with a toasted cobblestone top and the density to tide you over for the day’s next struggle.
 
 
Rio Rita
1308 E. Sixth St. 524-0384, www.riorita.net.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday. 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday.
 
The smell of a freshly pulled espresso mingles dissonantly with the sight of liquor bottles above the bar glowing like potions in a Santeria shop: bourbon infused with clove, honey-thyme tequila, habanero-garlic vodka. Rio Rita is one of Austin’s quirkiest coffeeshops, in the sense that it can’t decide whether it’s a bar or a wi-fi park for the overcaffeinated. It solves that conundrum by being both.
 
But Rio Rita fits in with the do-what-you-want aesthetic of owners Randall and Donya Stockton, whose casual empire includes the Shangri-La dive bar, the music club Beerland, the hamburger joint called Sputnik and half a dozen others. Pardon our eclecticism; we’re under constant reconstruction.
 
Hot: November’s had its first freeze warning, so I’m using that to rationalize hot chocolate. The Spicy Mayan Mocha ($3.50/small) is more than that, really, with a shot of espresso to trouble the waters, plus chocolate and milk and ancho chile. It’s sweet as Swiss Miss for kids, cut with bitterness and a lingering burn for adults. Toss in some honey-thyme tequila, set it on fire and you could be in Playa del Carmen.
 
Cold: Toddy coffee over ice, cold-brewed black and strong overnight has become a canary-in-the-coal-mine drink for me, the glass that lets me know if a shop takes its icy obligations seriously. Iced coffee at Rio Rita ($2.50/small) takes on some caramel-colored liquor notes, likely the brain putting two and two together and coming up with Jack and coffee.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 
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