Abraço, East Village, NYC

Posted on by snoffeecob


I suspect that every columnist writing about this café probably feels obliged to say something worldly and cultured about its name, "Abraço". Meaning literally "(a) hug" in Portuguese, as far as I know it can also be used as a warm way of signing off a note to a friend, a bit like Anglos might sign off with “hugs and/or kisses”, or tell a friend to “pass their love along to so-and-so”, if we weren’t generally as uptight as we are about expressing platonic affection.

Feeling compelled to continue eking mileage out of their memorable name, I would go as far as to say that on my walk to work (Tue-Fri only, mind—they’re closed on Mondays!), yearning for a bit of caffeine, entering this café and getting an espresso is indeed a bit like a nice warm hug, punctuating an otherwise-bleak start to a weekday morning.

Immediately, on my first visit already, they gave me a strong impression. As is usual in American establishments, the servers have no clue what I’m saying to them, even though I nominally speak English and they do too. After using hand and feet signals to indicate my need for an espresso, I am warned that they only serve “to stay” (American for “in a real cup”). This is good news to me, and tells me they are a cut above some of the lesser cafés nearby, where one will often only be able to get a paper cup, from which to cheerlessly drink your cardboardy espresso. I try to intimate to the server that this is great news to me, and brings me joy, not sadness. I am not understood, I think, judging by the baffled slightly angled head-bobbing with a furrowed brow, but the barista nonetheless commences preparations.

My one small critique is that they store their ceramic cups in a heap on the counter, not on the coffee machine, so they are cold. It gives a bit of whiplash, smelling the coffee, but putting your lips to a cold cup, before drinking the warm espresso. One has to drink espressos fast at the best of times, this only serves as a reminder. Another thing I’ve found surprising in American espresso bars more generally, is they will very often have a manky little measuring cup into which they’ll brew the shot, then pour it out of that into your cup. I presume this is to avoid splattered espresso droplets on the white porcelain, but really, mishandling the crema that way (especially if the receiving cup isn’t warm!), mixing your fresh coffee with whatever stale stuff is in the little jug, just baffles me. This is probably the one thing I will not miss when I’m back in Melbourne, a place where coffee generally Sucks Less.

Apart from that minor missed point, they use what looks like a 3-group La San Marco Model 80, with manual levers, to good effect. For whatever reason I’m often a bit suspicious of coffee shops with manual pull espresso machines, I suppose because often a machine is better at producing a consistent result than a teenager who would rather be doing whatever it is teenagers do these days. The coffee Abraço serves, however, is simple, straightforward and consistent espresso—not horrifically burnt, but also not watery fruit juice like most hip places. Just right for me.

Something I’ve found surprising in New York is how hard it is to find decent coffee. I’ve been mostly looking in the Downtown Manhattan and Williamsburg areas. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of fancy-looking coffee places (Devoción and Swallow come to mind) but their swill is, I’m sorry, barely drinkable. I would write an entire blog post on each of those places just for the satisfaction of giving them 1 star each, but I don’t know if I can face it. The reasons for disliking most of the cafés I come across (and no, I’m not referring only to Joe’s or Starbucks) is because they invariably insist on serving you espresso in a paper cup even when explicitly asked (I’m looking at you, Irving Farm), and when they don’t, the coffee is either just super bitter burnt swill with no other flavour (Elsewhere Espresso) or a pretentiously-presented watery tea-like drink (Sey) or indeed the usual fourth-wave favourite of citrussy-sour orange juice drink (La Cabra and Devoción).

Compared to that backdrop, Abraço has been a breath of fresh air among a surprisingly bad crop of espresso joints. One star deducted for cold cups, but more than made up for by quality relative to the competition, and the refusal to deal in paper cups.