Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“Tryin’ to stay hip.”
-Billy Idol (from “Eyes Without A Face”)
The new Alchemy Coffee is in a part of North Van that’s very familiar. Just across the street, I used to exhibit and rent out my paintings for years at this beautiful little art gallery. For some reason, days that I was scheduled to drop off art were always pouring rain. That meant I would carefully wrap my canvases in a tarp, then hurriedly dodge traffic to cross busy Lonsdale Ave.
Another thing I remember about this neighbourhood is the discouraging parking situation. Prepare yourself to circle these blocks, and if Lonsdale is full, try the blocks just behind. But you should know that most spaces are strictly residential parking, since this area is densely populated with apartments.
Maybe because of all those distractions, I never noticed a café here before. Before Alchemy Coffee opened in this space, it was a place called Puchi. This cozy place had welcoming owners, a massive coffee menu (scribbled on a blackboard) and good paninis. From what I hear, it was a well-loved, Italian-style neighbourhood coffee shop.
It’s obvious that Alchemy Coffee has a huge opportunity here. There’s a massive contingent of coffee drinkers on the North Shore, who aren’t interested in heading to the Starbucks just down the street, and only care to support local. So while downtown Vancouver is reliable for good coffee, not everybody has the time or energy to leave their neighbourhood to get it. Fortunately, with so many options these days, nobody has to anymore.
On Stop 141 of our Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, we spot potential when we see the sandwich board outside Alchemy Coffee. It informs us they are renovating and announces, “All our coffee is fair trade, organic and locally roasted.”
We step through the door, and early as it is, there’s already a few customers here meeting up with friends. Throughout our visit, business is surprisingly steady and that’s proof that word has gotten out.
Comparing old pictures of the previous resident, the biggest transformation in Alchemy Coffee is the expanded seating options. The addition of a built-in banquet that wraps the walls, plus some individual tables and counter seats, makes an efficient seating plan for a pretty small footprint.
A young woman behind the counter looks up when we enter and pleasantly greets us. There’s some cardboard boxes stacked on the counter, which suggests the owners are still unpacking in their transition phase. (Like a lab experiment, they describe this process as “transmutation”.)
Another element of Alchemy Coffee’s transition phase is their coffee program. The day we visit, they serve ReSIProcate Coffee: if you haven’t heard, it’s a coffee that’s both socially conscious (proceeds go to charities) and environmentally aware (organic and fair trade). It’s also roasted by Burnaby’s Canterbury Coffee.
The staffer tells us they are planning to switch their coffee offerings to include Timbertrain Coffee Roasters, Agro Roasters and Pallet Coffee Roasters. Those are local favourites, but not widely offered in North Van, so it sounds like they have done their research.
Their coffee menu shows they offer drip, espresso, AeroPress and pour over (Hario V60). However, we’re told they aren’t serving AeroPress and pour over just yet. We’re disappointed, but our impression is that at this stage, staff are still in the learning how to make coffee. We order an Americano ($2.90, 12 oz) and latte ($3.70, 8 oz).
Another thing we conclude is that the owners have a desire to retain the business of old customers, and not change too dramatically. The new coffee menu looks similar to the old, with multiple sizes offered. Regulars will recognize legacy items like the Yerba Mate Latte (3.95-$5.10) – even the familiar panini – on the menu. As a plus, prices are now generally a few cents lower than their predecessor’s.
For food, the Alchemy Coffee menu lists breakfast sandwiches ($4.25 – $4.95), butter croissant sandwiches ($3.95) and panini ($8.95 – $9.95). There’s also a selection of pastries on the counter: vegan banana loaf and breakfast cookies, scones, muffins and biscotti.
Their Instagram, as of late, has been posting teasers of mouthwatering, double baked almond croissants from Edgar the Breathtaker. Sadly there’s none here this morning. So we order a berry scone ($2.75) and Ham, Swiss & Egg Breakfast Sandwich ($4.95). We’re told they don’t have any more ham, so they will substitute it with bacon.
Another thing that doesn’t escape our attention is a second employee, a fellow who spends most of his time sitting in a corner, studying his phone. Occasionally, he reluctantly heads behind the counter to help out the young woman when the lineup builds, then quickly returns to his seat to stare at his phone. Sad to say, that poor girl is the lone employee putting in a huge effort to make this work.
The woman slides a plate across the counter, which has our giant berry scone. We head to a table to try it. It’s chilled and an unpleasantly doughy texture. When she comes to our table, I ask politely if it’s possible to get it warmed. Heating it up won’t fix it, but it will taste more bearable.
Kudos to her, she smiles, not bothered, and says that’s not a problem. She slips the scone in their small toaster oven while we have our drinks. The Americano has low acidity with chocolaty milk and nutty flavour. Mike comments the temperature is not quite hot enough, which maybe shows their inexperience.
My latte doesn’t have milk foamed to the right texture. The coffee is flavour is on the darker side, but comes across as one dimensional. If there were other roasters offered, I would have picked a different coffee.
The woman returns to our table, carefully carrying the scone and breakfast sandwich. Shyly, she presents us an Alchemy Coffee coffee card. She explains how it works – buy any 9 drinks and get the 10th free (it already has two stamps for our drinks) – and that strikes us as thoughtful service.
Although the scone is warm, it’s still bland. And unfortunately, the breakfast sandwich is even worse. Mike says the egg – pre-cooked, then warmed up – is flavourless. The bacon is soft, soggy and under cooked.
As we’re leaving, we clear the plates from our table. Arms full and hovering near the counter, we don’t see an area to put dirty dishes. Finally, I turn to the guy in the corner and ask him. Remaining seated, he points to the side of the counter and says that will do just fine. Though really, he couldn’t be farther from the truth.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: ReSIProcate Coffee (profile not available)
Location of roaster: Burnaby, B.C.
Price: $2.90 (12 oz)
Brewing method: Americano
Roaster’s tasting notes: n/a
Mike’s comments: Chocolaty milk and nutty flavour. Low acidity, easy drinking. Temperature wasn’t quite hot enough.
- Discovery of a North Shore cafe that will be featuring a variety of local roasters and brewing methods.
- Surprisingly efficient seating in a cozy space.
- Service can be either friendly or indifferent: it depends on who you get.
- Staff try hard to get their drinks right, but they’re not there yet.
- Food wasn’t fresh and was treated like an afterthought.
Seating availability: 4/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 3.94/5
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338 Lonsdale Ave (at East 4th St), North Van
Operating hours are currently 8am-5pm daily. For updates, follow their Instagram.