Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“And the town lit up.”
-Tom Petty (from “Learning to Fly”)
The Narcissus in East Van is a new café that is hidden – but not in the sense that it’s the middle of nowhere. Quite the opposite, this coffee stop is centrally located in a neighbourhood thousands probably pass through daily.
It should ring a bell if you know that long narrow snaky road. Familiar to impatient commuters, truck drivers, hot-dogging cyclists – here you’ll find a sneaky alternate route to traffic-choked Hastings – a seam that slices through the Downtown Eastside and Gastown, landing at the back door of downtown.
But there’s more to Powell St, if you take a second glance. Barely visible at the corner of Powell and Commercial Drive, you’ll find The Narcissus in Port Town.
Look for them on the ground floor of a tall building called The ARC (Artist Resource Centre). Just months ago, the daughter of an close friend of mine moved out of her parents’ house – for the very first time, no less – to live here. This woman is a talent that recently graduated from Emily Carr.
Her boyfriend and her share a loft, living in what must be some kind of twenty-something bliss, hanging out with other young and like-minded friends in this artsy utopia/laboratory, expressing creativity in The ARC’s many activity-specific rooms (ie. darkroom, metalwork, kilns).
But way back, this area looked different. Some might say it was an industrial wasteland; though I’d describe it as a place to make a blue collar living.
When Mike was younger, his mom headed here daily. This woman slid her handbag over her shoulder, pulled the door shut behind her, then began a journey on foot of over thirty blocks, beginning from their Vancouver Special in East Village.
Those feet did not stop until they reached a nondescript concrete building, a clothing factory. There, she pulled out a chair behind a sewing machine. She grabbed a piece of fabric from the pile, laid it into position, then placed her foot on the pedal.
If you asked them, that roomful of immigrant ladies might say that each day looked the same. And it did, for decades. That is until one day, the owner announced, effective immediately, everyone was laid off. What else? The business was packing up and heading to China.
On Stop 132 of our Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, we drive these blocks and glimpse new restaurants, breweries, stores. That clothing factory was torn down a long time ago.
We finally stand in front of a pinkish red building, scanning for an address and any sign of The Narcissus. On our first try, we yank a door facing Powell (also the foyer entry into The ARC) and it’s locked.
Don’t give up. If you see striped awnings, you’re in the right place. Head to the far left of the building. You’ll see The Narcissus’s main entrance – go up a few stairs and pass a small outdoor seating area – then enter directly into the cafe.
We step in and this place really surprises us. Modern with homey little touches, like old fashioned lamps, plants in cups at tables. A long oblong room with brightness from morning light, rays falling from large windows, casting shadows like black piano keys.
We head to the counter where there’s two staff, a young woman and the owner, Simon.
You’ll find a neatly typed beverage menu at the counter. Choices are simple with current offerings being drip and espresso (one size available). At $2 to $4, prices are on the mark. If you’re thinking pour over, Simon tells us there are plans to add it to their lineup later on.
Mike orders an Americano ($2.50) and I have a latte ($4). When we ask which coffee they serve, we’re told it’s Strathcona’s Agro Roasters and they just got a fresh delivery of a few different bags of beans. Our drinks will use Agro’s Equinox Espresso.
We keep Agro beans in rotation at home and we recommend trying them. They’re consistently good. It’s also easy to buy their beans at East Village’s Donald’s Market. If you like medium roast, Equinox is a rich blend of beans from Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia.
This early, there’s an ample selection of pastries from Powell St’s Cadeaux Bakery: cookies, scones, croissants. We order one of each – an oatmeal raisin cookie, cheddar herb scone and butter croissant. They’re plated, not heated.
The barista promptly finishes making Mike’s Americano, then begins my latte. Their Victoria Arduino White Eagle espresso machine, with layers of white and mirrored chrome, is eye catching. She methodically pulls the shot, steams the milk, pours the latte art.
They use notNeutral cups, which are the best in our opinion. They keep drinks hot, whereas cheaper mugs sometimes don’t, and are also ergonomic.
My latte is perfect with velvety mouth feel, the coffee flavour delicious with some brightness. Mike really enjoys his Americano, which he remarks is well balanced and only slightly acidic. And when we hear they are going to serve local craft beers here, we like that too.
The baked goods are remarkably good. Mike’s favourite is the croissant, plain but with perfectly simple flakiness. I really like the cheddar herb scone which tastes fresh with intense buttery flavour. After our visit, they introduce sandwiches (including hot) to their menu, for broader choices.
And if you head here, look up to the high ceiling. Tell me if I’m wrong, but your eye will stop at the bonus upstairs space. We ask Simon if we can get a closer look.
He nods, but warns us, it’s not huge. A humble thing to say: get to the top, it’s actually a cozy nook, some spare tables, a private oasis.
I tell my friend later that The Narcissus just opened here. She asks the usual questions: is the coffee good and is it a nice place? There’s more that I could say, though I don’t. How can I explain, that some things bloom in the unlikeliest places.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: Agro Roasters’ Equinox Espresso
Origin: Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia
Location of roaster: Vancouver, B.C.
Brewing method: Americano
Roaster’s tasting notes: “Blueberry, cocoa, cookie dough, with a velvety body and juicy finish.”
Mike’s comments: Well balanced with a slight acidity that was not overwhelming. I was ready for another one when I was done, which is a sign of a coffee I really enjoyed.
- The most surprising location, hidden on a very central and busy road.
- Eye candy space with a bonus second floor.
- They serve Agro, a reliable roaster. There’s no excuse for not trying them: drink prices are reasonable.
- Delicious pastries made fresh, just blocks away.
- No lows: lots of potential here and anticipating great things.
Seating availability: 4.5/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 4.69/5
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Want to visit?
Unit 109, 1701 Powell St (at Commercial Dr)
Soft opening operating hours currently: 8am-7pm Tues-Sun. Follow their Instagram for updates.