Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak’s Sunset Limited to Tucson, Day 1

The track disappearing behind Amtrak's Sunset Limited just after departing Beaumont, Texas, on its way to Los Angeles.Welcome to another Travel Spot post and what is in effect the final two-part instalment of a trip I took in 2018, which back then went under the provisional title of Another Grand Adventure. There are actually two more posts in the series, about my adventures on my flight home, but these are the last two posts to be written, hence the “final instalment” tag.

They detail the journey that I took in March 2018 on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Tucson, Arizona, itself the final leg of a much larger train journey. I’d started in Providence, Rhode Island, in the teeth of a New England winter, and travelled down via Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to Manassas just south of Washington DC, then carried on to New Orleans on Amtrak’s Crescent service.

After a weekend in New Orleans, I was on my way again, departing at nine o’clock on Monday morning. The train took roughly a day and a half to cover the 2,400 km through Louisiana, all the way across Texas (which took almost a day!) and then along the Mexican border through New Mexico and Arizona, arriving in Tucson just after sunset on Tuesday evening.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: A Weekend in New Orleans

Traditional wrought iron balconies in the French Quarter of New Orleans.The first time I visited New Orleans was in 2010, when I took travelled on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, an overnight service from Chicago. This covers the 1,500 km route, which roughly follows the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, in around 20 hours. It was therefore fitting that my return to New Orleans, in March 2018, was also by train. This time I travelled on the Crescent, another overnight service which starts in New York City, although I picked it up at Manassas, just south of Washington DC.

This was part of a much longer journey which had seen me start in Boston, before taking a series of trains down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Providence. Swapping a New England winter for the spring-like weather of the Gulf Coast (it was 25°C!), I spent a weekend in New Orleans before catching another train, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, to Tucson, which marked the end of my train travel for the trip. Ideally, I’d have taken the train to Phoenix, my final destination, but sadly it lost its passenger service long ago, so instead I drove the last leg. From there, I flew back to the UK, making my final way home.

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Cherry Coffee Roasters

A cortado, made with a single-origin espresso, and served in a lovely glass at Cherry Coffee Roasters in New Orleans.On my first visit to New Orleans in 2018, I visited Cherry Espresso in the Uptown District. This was the second Cherry Espresso, the original having opened inside Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street in 2013. In many ways my timing was poor since the Stein Deli espresso bar was in the process of closing, Cherry opening a second outlet in the Lower Garden District, midway between Uptown and the French Quarter. Not only that, it had just started roasting (as Cherry Coffee Roasters).

Therefore, on my return earlier this year, visiting the new Cherry Coffee Roasters was a priority and I was delighted with what I found. Whereas the Uptown location is, in my words at the time, a “typical American coffee shop”, the Lower Garden District outlet is totally different: long and thin, with several small, self-enclosed areas, it has the feel of an elegant New Orleans mansion.

The coffee is roasted in-house, with a house-blend and single-origin on espresso, plus various iced and batch brew options. You can have pour-over, but it’s not a regular option. Best of all are the espresso and beverage flights. There’s also a concise breakfast/lunch menu, smaller than the offering at the Uptown location.

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Willa Jean

The Willa Jean logo, taken from the coffee menu.Willa Jean, in New Orleans’ Central Business District, is many things to many people. It was recommended to me as a brunch place, although I ended up going there for dinner, where there’s a choice of full table service, or, if you’re dining solo, a spot at the counter or window-bar, where you can order anything from snacks to full meals. It’s also a lunch spot and a bakery with a fantastic range of cakes. And some awesome pies, all baked in-house.

Oh, and then there’s the coffee, which I discovered on my first visit. Willa Jean uses Chicago’s very own Intelligentsia, with options on espresso and batch-brew, plus a pair of single-origin pour-overs through the V60. Good restaurants, even those with more of a café style such as Willa Jean, rarely have really good coffee, so I felt obliged to pop back two days later to try it out.

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Stumptown Coffee, Ace Hotel (New Orleans)

A beautiful, colourful bag of coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters which I swapped for a copy of my book, The Philosophy of Coffee, at Stumptown's New Orleans branch in the Ace Hotel.On one level, Stumptown, the US coffee shop/roaster chain that was founded in Portland, Oregon, needs no introduction. In particular, its partnership with Ace Hotels is well known, with Stumptown’s coffee shops gracing four of Ace’s US hotels. It’s therefore surprising that, prior to today’s Coffee Spot, I’ve only written about two Stumptown branches, both in New York City, one its flagship West 8th Street branch and the other inside the Ace Hotel.

Stumptown’s sole New Orleans coffee shop is one of the four co-located with Ace Hotels. In this case, it’s in the heart of New Orleans’ Central Business District, the coffee shop, a beautifully-appointed, elegant space to the right of the hotel lobby. There’s minimal seating, the hotel lobby providing ample overspill seating.

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to coffee, with the ubiquitous Hair Bender blend on espresso, joined by a guest espresso, which changes every few days. There’s also a batch-brew option, which can change several times a day, while in the morning, the staff will often have two options on at a time, giving you contrasting options. Finally, all four single-origins are available as pour-over using the Modbar system and Kalita Wave filters.

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Congregation Coffee Roasters

A mug of the Gelana Abaya Ethiopian single-origin batch-brew in an alligator mug at Congregation Coffee Roasters in Algiers Point, New Orleans.I spent last week exploring New Orleans’ small but vibrant speciality coffee scene. Most of the places were known to me from my previous trip, but there was one standout that came as a pleasant surprise. When I was last in New Orleans in early 2018, I noted that there was very little speciality coffee being roasted locally. Back then, Cherry Espresso Bar had just got going and was on the verge of opening Cherry Coffee Roasters, but that was about it. Or so I thought.

What I hadn’t realised was that just across the Mississippi in Algiers Point, Congregation Coffee Roasters was cooking up something special and just about to celebrate its first birthday, having opened in March 2017. On this trip, Congregation was recommended to me by both Mammoth Espresso and Revelator Coffee, so I took the short ferry ride across the river one Sunday afternoon to see what I could find.

My reward was a lovely coffee shop, serving some fantastic coffee on both espresso and batch-brew, all roasted on the 12 kg Probat at the back of the store. There’s a great selection of cakes, plus, at weekends, a concise brunch menu available until three o’clock.

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Revelator: New Orleans

The front of Revelator on Tchoupitoulas Street.Revelator Coffee, the roaster/coffee shop chain with big ideas, started life in 2014 in Birmingham, Alabama, spreading rapidly across America’s southern states. These days there are also outposts in New England, courtesy of Revelator’s purchase of Wired Puppy in Boston/Cape Cod, while this summer will see Revelator reach the West Coast with a branch opening in Los Angeles. The subject of today’s Coffee Spot, however, is Revelator’s first New Orleans branch, which, since it opened on Tchoupitoulas Street in 2016, has been joined by three more.

All the coffee is still roasted in Birmingham, although a move to Atlanta is being mooted. There’s a single option on espresso, usually the Petunias blend, but if the manager finds a single-origin that he likes, it goes on instead. This is joined by a pair of fortnightly single-origins on pour-over through the Chemex. There’s also a batch-brew option, the Lonely Hunter blend, plus cold brew, hot chocolate, chai and a selection of teas. The commendably concise coffee menu has espresso (black) and just three espresso & milk options: 4, 6 and 10oz. Meanwhile, if you’re hungry, there’s a small selection of cakes and pastries with empanadas and quiche for those looking for something more savoury.

March 2020: Revelator has consolidated its operations in New Orleans, with Tchoupitoulas Street its sole remaining location. The coffee is now being roasted in Brooklyn, although the move to Atlanta is still on the cards.

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Mammoth Espresso

The Mammoth Espresso logo from the sign hanging outside the shop in New Orleans.Mammoth Espresso is a small coffee shop in New Orleans, serving the Midwest’s finest, Madcap, on espresso, with filter provided by the automated Seraphim pour-over system. There’s a bespoke espresso blend and a daily single-origin option. This, plus two or three more single-origins, are available on pour-over through the Kalita Wave. If you’re hungry, there’s a selection of cakes/pastries, prepared in-house, plus breakfast burritos.

A seven-minute walk from the station and towards the southern edge the Central Business District, Mammoth is a little off the beaten (tourist) track, but well worth seeking out. I first popped in during my visit to New Orleans this time last year, when it was my final stop before catching my train to Tucson, providing me with a fitting send off to New Orleans.

On my return this year, I made it a priority to revisit Mammoth since I didn’t have time to write it up the first time around. It was therefore fitting that my first action on my first morning after flying in the night before was to take the short walk along Baronne Street from my hotel to Mammoth for my first coffee of the trip. Such symmetry pleases me.

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Cherry Espresso Bar, Uptown

A lovely Burundi single-orign espresso from Ruby Coffee Roasters, served as the guest espresso at the Cherry Espresso Bar in New Orleans.Cherry Espresso Bar opened towards the end of 2016, although it’s been going since 2013, operating inside Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street. This branch, in the Uptown district, west of the Lower Garden District, is a bit of a trek, but well worth the effort. Occupying the ground floor of a lovely, sunny, south-facing building near the river, it’s very much a neighbourhood spot, but with multiple options on espresso and pour-over, plus full breakfast and lunch menus, served until three o’clock.

In many ways, I picked a poor time to visit. I arrived shortly before Cherry Espresso opened another location in the Lower Garden District, midway between Uptown and the French Quarter, at the same time closing its original location. Cherry Espresso has also started roasting (as Cherry Coffee Roasters), with plans to move to its own coffee on espresso, but retaining a guest roaster on the second grinder.

For now, however, Portland’s Roseline provides the house espresso, while there is a rotating weekly guest single-origin on the second grinder, which was from Wisconsin’s Ruby Coffee Roasters during my visit. There are also two single-origins from Roseline available through the Chemex while Cherry’s own coffee is on the bulk-brewer.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak’s Crescent to New Orleans

A portion of Amtrak's national route map, showing my route on the Crescent service from Washington DC to New Orleans highlighted in blue.Welcome to this instalment of what I have somewhat ambitiously called Another Grand Adventure, part of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. It follows my second long-distance American train trip, which saw me travelling from Boston, in New England, to Phoenix, in the south west, by train. Well, almost.

I actually went from Providence to Tucson by train, driving the first and last legs. If I’d had the courage of my convictions, I’d have carried on from Tucson to Los Angeles so that I could have completed my second coast-to-coast train journey. However, given that I actually had to be in Phoenix for work, this would have required me to turn around and come straight back again once I got to LA. That would have been rather extreme, even for me.

The trip started with my flight to Boston, while the second instalment covers the series of short journeys I took along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Providence to Manassas, south of Washington DC. This instalment takes us from Manassas to New Orleans, travelling on Amtrak’s Crescent Service, while the remaining instalments cover my weekend in New Orleans, the Sunset Limited, which took me from New Orleans to Tucson, my flight back from Phoenix and my final return home.

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