Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“No reason for emptiness.”
-Exposé (from “Seasons Change”)
Driving to downtown’s new Railtown Café at Granville and West Hastings, we’re talking hijacking – in literal terms. In a bad customer service experience, it can feel like a heist of sorts. That is – a robbery of your time, of whatever positive feelings you have inside you that day, of your sanity.
Example, this action-thriller weekend I was literally kidnapped by my dealership. After dropping off my car, I joined two other customers who needed a ride home in the shuttle.
My unassuming hijacker was a silver-haired man that was also our driver. (Hey I never compared this story to the movie Speed.) He just joined the company a few weeks ago but told us he was leaving for another job next week.
From my seat in the back of the van (another customer sat in the front and a second client sat to my right), I patiently waited while he wrote down each of their names in a notebook and inputted the addresses in the GPS.
Listening to the addresses, it was evident the woman in front lived the farthest (30 min), the man to the right of me was the next closest (15 min) and my destination was the shortest (less than 10). I spoke up and politely pointed this out to the group. It was my assumption the nearest customers should be dropped off first.
To my surprise, the driver collected the addresses of both customers, then promptly started the engine and never asked my destination. I piped up again and explained he forgot to get my address, which I repeated was the closest.
His response: Oh sorry dear! and no address was collected. An hour later – after the lady who lived the farthest was dropped off first, then the gentleman next to me – I was the last one delivered home out of the group.
Fortunately, horrible experiences in Vancouver’s competitive coffee scene come rarely. Businesses are at higher standards and the pickiest of us don’t have a lot of complaints. Seriously, the auto industry deserves way more criticism.
On Stop 137 of our Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, Railtown Café’s bright corner location shines, wrapped in tall glass windows. Steps from the entrance of Skytrain’s Waterfront Station and surprisingly, the new Quantum Coffee.
Though practically elbow-to-elbow, don’t expect these two cafés to be arm wrestling for the same customers. Just because these suddenly-neighbours couldn’t be more different in their target market.
Quantum Coffee has an emphasis on specialty coffee. Railtown Café, on the other hand, is coming from a different direction, as a restaurant first. Which is not a bad thing. Some days you don’t need high brow, reaching-for-the-skies coffee. Consistent java and a satisfying meal are enough.
You may be familiar with Railtown Café’s story. In 2012, two chefs first opened Railtown Café in the Downtown Eastside at Railway St and Dunlevy Ave. Before long, they were no longer newbies on the scene, but running an award winning catering operation.
Their philosophy? Healthy, local, organic comfort food made from scratch. With multiple café openings over the years, their longevity shows they’ve found a concept that resonates.
The newest Railtown Café is their fourth location. As veterans of the restaurant scene, Railtown Café gets their downtown customer: the hungry office worker, on the clock, looking for a healthy and affordable lunch option. So if you’re heading here, keep in mind they’re closed on weekends.
Like a handwritten cookbook, Railtown Café’s windows are covered in sketches of food and tips on food preparation. How to avoid having sticky buns stick to your pans, or how to store chocolate in your fridge without absorbing odours. Food is their passion and expertise.
With a choice of two entrances, a side one on Granville or a front door facing West Hastings, we step in the front. Immediately we’re facing their long counter. Just behind is an open doorway, where we glimpse a profession kitchen with stainless steel finishes, a blur of staff darting in and out with prepared food.
Railtown Café has a clean modern design. The graphic pattern on the floor is eye catching. Lacquered red steel chairs and dark wood throughout are lively, inviting.
To the left is a separate counter with a scarlet espresso machine and dedicated barista. It’s quiet this early morning with a handful of customers. But don’t be deceived. Lunch is their peak hour and when you’ll find this place filled to capacity.
In fact, the most impressive thing about Railtown Café is their extensive food menu. With three chalkboards overhead, it’s a generous selection. You can also check their online menu. In a world where websites are not being set up by businesses anymore, amazingly, they update their online menu almost daily.
Pick from six sandwiches ($9-11), six salads and a massive selection of build-your-own-salad options ($10-16), six sides ($4.50-7), fifteen pastries ($2.75-4) and five breakfast options ($3.25-8). Prices are remarkably good for downtown, especially considering they make everything from scratch (even bread).
Serving the downtown crowd is about speed and efficiency. So when we step in, the friendly cashier promptly greets us and takes our order.
For breakfast, we order a Veggie Quiche ($6) and Chorizo Burrito ($7). The best deal is the Hash Browns – one-piece-transportable, like the McDonald’s version – which is two for $2 with a breakfast order. You can also order it separately as $3 for two without breakfast.
For coffee, they offer drip and espresso. Mike orders a cappuccino ($3.50, small). I have a Matcha latte ($4.50 small). Latte fans take note: they usually carry a featured latte that’s limited edition and seasonal.
We’re told they’ll bring the food to us when it’s ready, so Mike heads to a table. I wait at the barista counter for our drinks. Another customer next to me also waits to pickup her coffee. She checks the time on her phone. People here this early are on their way to work.
The barista is pleasant. When I ask which coffee she’s using, she heads to a shelf and returns with a bag of coffee.
What’s neat is that they partnered with Moja Coffee Roasters. This Vancouver roaster makes them custom blends, packaged in a bag with Railtown Café’s own logo. The profile they’re serving is Estate Nicaragua. The barista provides her endorsement. She says this blend is one she enjoys and Moja Coffee Roasters makes good coffee.
The cashier helps out by starting the first part of the Matcha latte. He uses a bamboo whisk to stir the green tea powder and water into a paste. She steams the milk, pours the foam into a mug and stirs it with a spoon before presenting it to me.
Sad to say, the latte looks and tastes below average. The milk isn’t the right texture and the Matcha tastes bitter. For $4.50, this falls short.
She begins Mike’s cappuccino, pulling the espresso shot and pouring it into a mug. Then she foams the milk, pours it on top of the espresso, slides the cup across the counter and announces cappuccino.
I’m surprised because it doesn’t resemble a cappuccino because of the low volume. I’m looking at a small amount of drink in a largely empty cup. A cappuccino is generally a large drink matched to a big mug, so I don’t understand what I’m seeing.
Mike is mystified too, but gets up and says this isn’t right. He heads back to the barista with his drink. Politely, he says this isn’t a cappuccino, can you please make another one? She says it will take a few minutes, is that okay? He says that’s fine, and heads back to our table to wait.
Another staffer brings our food to our table. They don’t give us any cutlery. Mike heads to the self service area and returns with plastic forks. From an environmental point of view, it doesn’t add up, since they use real dishes that have to be washed anyway.
The highlight of our visit is definitely their food. The Veggie Quiche is surprisingly hefty. It’s filling and has a satisfying, meaty depth that actually comes from roasted vegetables.
The Chorizo Burrito is also very good, completely packed with fresh scrambled eggs. Mike comments on the sausage which has just the right amount of heat jumping on his tongue. The Hash Browns are crispy and buttery, a world away from the fast food version you’d find somewhere else. After a few bites, we’re already discussing friends who would love this place for lunch.
When the cappuccino do-over is ready, Mike heads to the counter and returns to our table. The drink still looks strange. The top of the drink is a few centimeters short of the lip of the mug. It’s not quite hot enough, plus the espresso tastes bitter, maybe from over-extraction. The ratio of milk to espresso seems off. And if you’re wondering, if something doesn’t look right, it usually isn’t.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: Moja Coffee Roasters x Railtown Café’s Estate Nicaragua
Location of roaster: Vancouver, B.C.
Price: $3.50 (small)
Brewing method: cappuccino
Roaster’s tasting notes: n/a
Mike’s comments: Two attempts to make a cappuccino. The do-over was bitter, with the taste of espresso over extracted. Ratio of milk to espresso seemed off and the temperature of the drink was not hot enough.
- Fresh food made fast – a recommended lunch stop – at prices that are very reasonable for downtown. Big menu.
- Use of a local roaster and a custom blend by Moja Coffee Roasters.
- Stylish decor that’s a modern addition to downtown. Central location next to Skytrain.
- Below average drinks on our visit.
Seating availability: 4.5/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 3.69/5
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429 Granville St (at West Hastings St)
Operating hours here.