Cartel Coffee Lab, Tempe

A one and one (otherwise known as a split shot), beautifully presented on a wooden tray with a glass of soda water at Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe, Arizona.Along with Press Coffee, my chance discovery on my first visit to Phoenix, the other big name in Phoenix coffee is Cartel Coffee Lab. Another roaster/coffee shop chain, Cartel has six branches, including (like Press Coffee) one at the airport. In a departure from the Coffee Spot norm, my introduction to Cartel was a visit to its first ever branch, which is also the roastery, in downtown Tempe.

A large, sprawling spot, Cartel consists of multiple, connected spaces, which betrays its roots, since Cartel started in just one small part of its current home, slowly expanding to incorporate the additional spaces over the years. Further expansion is in the pipeline: the roastery (currently along the left-hand side in the front part of the store) will soon be shifted into the adjacent building at the back of the store.

Cartel, which never roasts blends, has six single-origins, including a decaf. All are available as filter through Aeropress, V60, Clever Dripper and Chemex, while one (plus the decaf) is available as espresso. There’s also a daily option on bulk-brew, cold brew and, if you’re hungry, a small selection of cake. If you don’t fancy coffee, there is a small tea selection too.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • The Ash Avenue entrance to University Square, home of Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe.
  • Cartel is at the back, on the left in this picture.
  • From out here, it really doesn't look like much.
  • There is another entrance, by the way, down the right-hand side, in the mall's parking lot.
  • A helpful sign confirms that you have come to the right place.
  • Entering from Ash Avenue, here's the view from just inside the door. It goes a long way back!
  • The view looking back towards the door. The seating is in two rows of tables...
  • ... although there's an eclectic collection of seating, including this bench, to the door's left.
  • One of the (rare) unoccupied tables. This one is towards the back on the right...
  • ... beyond which is the counter, which at first seems to be at the back of Cartel.
  • However, look to the right and there's more seating in this aera.
  • Meanwhile, this is the view back towards the front of the store as seen from the other side.
  • That's not all. Looking beyond the counter to the left, there's more seating...
  • ... starting with these round tables and a bar against the left-hand wall.
  • Another view of the tables/bar, this time seen from the back.
  • Opposite this, Cartel keeps on going as the counter wraps round with more seating beyond.
  • Looking back at the counter, with seating on the left and on the opposite side.
  • Opposite the counter, against the back wall, are these seating bays, with padded benches.
  • Finally, in the back right-hand corner, beyond a pair of tables, is the other door.
  • This is the view if you come in this way...
  • ... while on your right, just inside the door, is Cartel's cold brew facility.
  • The other part of Cartel is the roastery, which, for the time being, is on the left-hand side...
  • ... and houses this small San Franciscan roaster.
  • Another view of the San Franciscan. It really is quite dinky.
  • The obligatory shot of sacks of green beans. These are at the front on the left.
  • Cartel has some interesting lighting features. This one is made of bicycle wheels.
  • Quite what this many-armed beast is made of, I don't know, but I liked it.
  • Obligatory exposed light bulb shot, complete with reflection.
  • One of the works of art that hang on the walls at Cartel.
  • As I have said, the counter is at the back, opposite the door, espresso machine to the fore.
  • To the right is the cake display...
  • ... while the menu boards hang above the counter...
  • ... with a list of the beans, plus prices, is next to the till.
  • You can also buy bags of beans to take away with you from the retail shelves to the right.
  • The massed ranks of beans. Each comes with a free elastic band!
  • Cartel also produces this handy brew guide for each of the methods it supports.
  • The business end of the La Marzocco Strada which occupies the front of the counter.
  • The counter is a large affair, almost an island. The rear part is devoted to pour-overs...
  • ... seen here in action
  • The pour-over section of the counter.
  • However, getting back to espresso, check out the latte art. It wasn't mine though.
  • This was mine: a beautifully-presented one and one (split shot).
  • I'll leave you with this, a parting gift from Cartel.
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Cartel is in University Square, a small mall on the corner of Ash Avenue/West University Drive. Depending on which door you use (it has two, one on Ash and the other down the right-hand side in the parking lot), your initial impressions of Cartel will be quite different. I entered what I consider to be the front door on Ash, although the other door was actually the original entrance.

Based on the shop front on Ash, there doesn’t look to be much to Cartel. However, step inside and your perceptions soon change. For a start, it goes a long way back. It’s also wider than the small window to the left of the door would suggest.

Two rows of tables run back towards the counter. The right-hand one is against the wall, but on the left, Cartel currently has its roastery, starting with the sacks of green beans at the front and ending with the small, red San Franciscan roaster at the back. The second line of tables therefore runs along the divider separating the roastery from the coffee shop.

This puts the roasting at the heart of Cartel, particular since the barrier is only a metre high. This will be lost when the roastery is moved to the rear of the store (an essential step since the San Franciscan is already at capacity), although there are plans for a window in the back wall so you can still see the roastery.

Before the left-hand row of tables gets going, there’s an eclectic mix of seating, including a window bar, tables, a bench-seat and a sofa. It’s busy in the front part, with a very student-looking crowd (the university is across the road) and a high proportion of laptop users.

When you reach the counter there’s a surprise in store. To the right, a deep bay contains more tables, while the counter carries on beyond what I took to be the back wall, wrapping around to almost form an island. On the left, beyond the roaster, is more seating: round tables and a bar against the left-hand wall, while beyond the counter, Cartel stretches out to the right, providing a quieter, more relaxed space. A row of padded benches lines the back wall, arranged into three bays. You can also sit at the counter itself, watching the pour-overs being made. Finally, to the right, past the counter, is another pair of tables beyond which is the door to the parking lot.

Cartel has six single-origins, one of which (the Carmen, a washed coffee from El Salvador during my visit) is on espresso. Cartel buys coffee in lots of in varying sizes and when it’s gone, it’s onto the next one. The espresso usually lasts three to five months, while there’s something new on the menu every month.

Spoilt for choice, I went for espresso, my barista recommending the “one-and-one” (otherwise known as a split shot). This is served as a single espresso/piccolo, beautifully presented on a wooden tray with a glass of slightly-sparkling soda water as a palate cleanser. Although I didn’t have one, I was pleased to see the same high standards being applied to pour-overs, which were served in carafes with a cup on the side.

Back to my one-and-one. The espresso was a little old-school, but in a good way. Well balanced, with just a hint of bitterness, it went down very smoothly. In milk, it was even better, the milk complementing the coffee, neither component dominating. The milk really brought out the espresso’s chocolate notes, while a piccolo was the perfect size/ratio to highlight the coffee.

225 W UNIVERSITY DRIVE #101 • TEMPE • PHOENIX • AZ 85281 • USA
www.cartelcoffeelab.com +1 480-621-6381
Monday 07:00 – 22:00 Roaster Cartel (espresso + filter)
Tuesday 07:00 – 22:00 Seating Tables, Counter, Bar, Benches, Sofa
Wednesday 07:00 – 22:00 Food Cake
Thursday 07:00 – 22:00 Service Counter
Friday 07:00 – 22:00 Cards Amex, Mastercard, Vida
Saturday 07:00 – 22:00 Wifi Free (with code)
Sunday 07:00 – 22:00 Power Yes
Chain Local Visits 15th January 2017

You can see what I made of Cartel’s branch in downtown Phoenix, which I visited the following day.


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