Yesterday, while the Ravens were busy beating the 49ers in the Super Bowl and Portland was busy beating Seattle in the Northwest Regional Barista Champion (though to be fair, it was a very close race on both accounts), the day continued as usual at Aster Coffee Lounge. Families stopped in after shopping the Sunday farmers market, regulars filled the window seats to clickety-clack on their laptops, and hungry patrons ordered a bowl of homemade soup with their lunchtime lattes.
In Ballard, Aster never stood out as a destination. And to folks in the rest of the city, it may still not--despite the fact that the cafe was recently taken over by a couple passionate to create the sort of neighborhood coffeehouse that leaves attitudes, long lines, and store-bought muffins at the door. But to locals who live in the handsome Craftsmans and modern condos within walking distance, Aster is just the kind of place the neighborhood needs.
Rachel Welker, with her husband Shawn, bought Aster in the fall. There's been no grand remodel--they didn't even close a day to get their bearings. The place looks the same as the last time I was there, a couple of years ago, but the feel is different: homier, more comfortable, more familiar, though maybe that's just the homemade, still-warm applesauce bread talking. Welker is coming off a 10-year career at PCC Cooks, so she knows her way around a kitchen, even if previously it's been in a more theoretical sense. And though she says Shawn had to initially talk her into the idea of running a cafe--she knew it would be hard work, and she wasn't wrong--she's found her stride as Aster's baker and resident morning person, turning out cupcakes, muffins, croissants, and a daily pot of soul-warming soup.
"This is Latte Town, not Jet City," Welker says, when I ask her what to try. It's a good latte, too, made with Olympia Coffee Roasting's Big Truck espresso blend and filling the cup so perfectly I have to take a hasty slurp to avoid sloshing it on the way back to my chair. Big Truck's notes of cocoa are so bold and distinct that the latte nearly doubles as a mocha.
Besides the espresso drinks and scratch-made pastries, Aster features fresh-brewed Clover coffees, movie nights ("Pee-wee's Big Adventure" coming Thursday, Feb. 7!), live music, wine and beer, and more. It may not be the kind of place that will draw patrons from across town, but with all the local love, Aster doesn't really need to be anything else.