Like many people, I’ve developed a habit for Starbucks – you could even call it a mild addiction. I’ll probably never give it up, I enjoy their awesome rewards program too much – rewarding me for my years of selfless loyalty (and the snazzy gold card tells the world that I’ve arrived).
Starbucks is great in the sort of reliable get-in-and-get-out caffeine pit stop way. You know, the future that was promised to us years ago in countless commercials advertising that you don’t even need to pull out your wallet or tell the cashier what you want to order. Somehow, in the future (now), the technology will be so advanced that your daily coffee run will be like a well-oiled machine requiring no pesky human contact (it just gums up the works anyway – like a fair-trade tower of Babel).
Until then, we have to deal with the little annoyances. For example, baristas are always getting my name wrong – “Stu” is often spelled out “Stew”, and when scribbled on the side of a venti cup it looks a lot like “Steve”. So, while the latte specialist is barking for Steve in that familiar, shrill, it’s-too-early-for-this tone, I’m standing there, thinking, “If Steve doesn’t pick up his drink, I’m gonna take it.” There are also too many babies, although I’m not really sure why I feel this way. Somehow, Starbucks has turned me into a person that asks, “Who in their right mind brings a baby to Starbucks?!” As if Starbucks was an R-rated Quentin Tarantino movie. And then there’s the music. If they just played a little less “She” and more “Him”, it wouldn’t be quite so painful.
I actually like to sit around with my coffee and do the whole “coffeehouse” thing: read a little bit and people-watch. And for this purpose, I go exclusively to Cafe Dulce in Japanese Village Plaza. A lovely, quiet morning spot that is located smack in the middle of two obscenely-busy Starbucks stores in Little Tokyo. The capacity in the cafe is very low (about a dozen bar stools facing the plaza), but there are twice as many seats and tables outside, within petting distance of some of the most adorable dogs you can find this side of Japan.
The coffee itself is above average, sure, but the increase in price is substantial (we’re talking “Pour-Over”, high maintenance java here) but you are getting what you pay for – so to speak – with the improved ambiance. What keeps me coming back are the delightful little spirulina rolls and tapioca rolls – chewy, nutty balls of deliciousness that pair amazingly with coffee – and their donut holes topped with Fruity Pebbles. At just $1-$1.50, these balls won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
The regular sandwich menu is also great, featuring some inventive combinations (spicy korean cheesesteak with kimchi), but Cafe Dulce is better as a strictly morning spot. The quiet Japanese Village courtyard is so “zen” before the stores open, it almost makes me forget all about the hectic mornings spent at Starbucks, worried that someone was gonna walk away with my drink. If Cafe Dulce would just do something about their lack of frapuccinos, I’d be in heaven.