Boulder might have the most coffee shops per square mile of any town in Colorado, so a review measley shop might seem a little unnecessary. When I am in Boulder (infrequently, because I always feel like I'm interrupting someone's photo shoot everywhere in that town), I usually just stumble into the first one I see. Considering how many coffee shops there are in Boulder, they are surprisingly uniform: heavily tattooed hipsters act as mildly annoyed baristas, twenty-something customers rock brightly colored skinny jeans and oddly lumpy knit hats, and the coffee is always strong (that part I like). But I wanted to try Boxcar for two reasons: 1) Food & Wine Magazine makes a big hairy deal out of them, and 2) they seem to operate on a slightly different agenda, which particularly peaked my curiosity given the aforementioned monotony.
The Boulder store is located at 1825 Pearl St. There is also a Denver location at 3459 Ringsby Ct., though they are closed (?!?!?!) on the weekends, which seems like it should be illegal for a coffee shop. The Boulder location shares space with Cured, a high-end meat, wines and cheese shop. There are a few tables scattered around the shop and counters on either side, one for coffee, one for the deli. It has a terrific old, small-town market feel to it, and the atmosphere is bustling. It was quite possibly the loudest coffee shop I have ever encountered in quiet, slow-moving Colorado. I kind of dug it.
Boxcar Coffee Roasters is definitely for coffee nerds. The coffee is roasted in small batches using a classic Ideal Rapid coffee roaster that was built in Germany in 1929, which Boxcar claims keeps the roasting temperature extremely stable. They also employ the “cowboy coffee” method, which allows them to steep the grounds at 203 degrees to mitigate the problem of Boulder's high altitude, where water boils at a lower temperature and coffee and tea can be said to suffer.
We tried cappuccinos made by each of their two espresso varieties, "Stella" and "Bare Knuckle". Both were delicious. Despite the names, Stella was the more assertive of the two; it was full-bodied and rich with a little spicy bite at the end. The Bare Knuckle was similar, but finished smooth and creamy, and sort of dissipated as soon as I swallowed it. Neither was highly acidic or sour. You can read the details of both roasts here; the drinks--and the beans themselves, which Boxcar sells in-store and online--are a bit pricier than most, but true coffee connoisseurs can definitely tell the difference. Even I can tell the difference, and I usually drink World Market Coffee at home.
And on the other end of the spectrum, there is Conor O'Neill's, an Irish-style pub just south of the Pearl Street Mall on 1922 13th Street. Yes, it is part of a chain (the only other location is in similarly hip and overpriced college town Ann Arbor, Michigan), but they do a great job of feeling local by creating a worn, patched-together aesthetic inside and also by hosting a full compliment of live, local musicians on a rather dense rotating schedule. The menu is filled with Anglo favorites like fish and chips, shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, and even Scotch eggs on the happy hour menu. The presentation of the food is just a little bit "dressed up" in an '80s sort of way: my mashed potatoes (a ubiquitous side item on the menu) came piped out of a pastry bag, but they tasted real enough. Portions are large and the food is pretty authentic to Irish and English pubs. The curry and chips from the appetizer menu is a beautiful rendition of a mild, creamy, sumptuous English curry served alongside battered golden potato wedges--I could have been happy with it for my meal. However, I was also quite happy with the homey (and enormous) pub pie made of a flaky, golden crust and filled with smokey sausage and mixed vegetables. I was impressed by the level of colorful flavors packed into this pie! And, just like Mom would make, it came served alongside a big pile of steamed (unseasoned, but still bright green) broccoli and mashed potatoes. Well, Mom probably wouldn't have made the potatoes all fancy-like, but you get the idea.
The Chicken Cordon Bleu was a little surprising because it wasn't breaded--it was merely a sandwich of sort, with thin slices of charred grilled chicken breast on either side of a slice of gooey cheese and some pretty flavorless ham. The chicken was great, actually, and again, laudably flavorful. The ham could have just been omitted based on what it added to the dish, but of course, it is part of a traditional Cordon Bleu. Better to up the ante and find some better ham.
Conor O'Neill's offers a menu of what could easily be quite bland, gut-busting food, but they manage to take great care with preparation and seasoning, yielding instead a wonderfully modernized version of old English/Irish classics. In this way, I guess they're not so traditional. The taps featured a couple of local beers, but focused mainly on what you might see in the UK: Murphy's, Guinness, and Bass were front and center. The pints were generous Imperial-sized. And the vibe was not so much like the rest of downtown Boulder these days: friendly service, grungy digs, and reasonably-priced, heavy, homey food. I think I've found my new post-hike place for lunch.