It used to be that the mark of a good coffee shop wasn’t so much the quality as the quantity. It was a place where the cups were “bottomless,” and the clientele didn’t mind if the coffee ranged from boiled and bitter to weak and watery. Just as long as it kept coming.
Today, however, coffee shops are about quality first and foremost, as roastmasters and baristas work to create blends and brews that wring every micron of aroma and flavor from the humble bean known as Coffea Arabica.
While Seattle-born Starbucks is credited with creating today’s “coffee culture,” Tulsa was home to several establishments offering carefully crafted, artistically served coffees long before Starbucks shops first began popping up around town like dandelions in the early 2000s.
And the city’s coffee scene continues to expand and elevate, with local shops providing a wealth of wonderfully caffeinated concoctions to appeal to almost any palate.
Coffee with a history
Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge
10 N. Greenwood Ave., 539-867-2477
Guy Troupe is making sure that the walls of his new coffee shop will talk.
In January, Troupe and his wife, Yvette, opened the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge just south of the intersection of Archer Street and Greenwood Avenue. While the building that houses the shop is practically new, Troupe wanted to make sure that people would see a bit of the neighborhood’s history wherever they looked.
“We’re doing a mural on one of the walls that will be like a Mount Rushmore of people from Greenwood’s history,” Troupe said. Framed headlines from the Oklahoma Eagle, the city’s longest-lived Black-owned newspaper, line another wall.
“Most people know only one thing about Greenwood — the massacre,” he said. “But there is so much more to Greenwood and Black Wall Street than that one thing. I’m hoping people will learn a little about the real history of Greenwood when they come here.”
That history is even a part of the menu, with specialty drinks named for such people as O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford, who were instrumental in establishing Greenwood as a thriving Black community.
The shop also gets its coffee from Roots Java, a local coffee wholesale company led by Tulsa author and entrepreneur Clifton Taulbert that specializes in coffees grown in Africa.
Troupe, a Tulsa native, has spent much of his life working with college and professional athletes as an authority on athlete development — namely, the skills a player needs to be successful off the playing field, from behavior management to financial literacy and career transition.
“I still do that work,” he said. “But my wife, who’s also from Tulsa, and I wanted to do something local. Coffee is something just about everyone loves, and we both have a passion for it, so we decided a coffee shop was the thing to do.”
The shop opened in January; two months later, much of the city was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know that business is a series of peaks and valleys,” Troupe said. “We happen to be a pretty major valley at the moment. But I know that if we can hold on, we will be fine. Business has been pretty good in spite of the pandemic. Right now, we’re just trying to understand and deal with this ‘new normal.’”
Coffee on the move
4201 S. Sheridan Road, 918-960-3121
While coffee shops traditionally have been places where people linger, not everyone in search of a latte wants to hang around once they have their coffee in hand.
That was one of the reasons why one of the city’s oldest gourmet coffee shops, Café Cubana, decided to leave its long-established digs on Cherry Street and head southeast.
“The way people buy coffee these days has changed completely from when we started in the 1990s,” said James George, owner of Café Cubana. “It’s more geared toward convenience, of people getting what they want and getting on with their day.”
So George began looking for a new location, one that would have a drive-through window, ultimately finding a place on Sheridan Road. The new location opened in late 2019.
“Not long after we moved was when Cherry Street more or less shut down because of construction,” George said. “So our timing was pretty good as far as that went.”
Having the drive-through window also was beneficial when the city shut down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We kept our front of the house closed all this time,” George said. “Our business has been strictly through the drive-through for most of this year.”
Café Cubana first opened in 1999, and developed a loyal following through its years in midtown Tulsa.
“I figured that we would be starting over from scratch when it came to our customer base because a good portion of our customers at the midtown location came from about a 5-mile radius,” George said. “What’s been the most pleasant surprise is that I’d say about 30-50% of our business now is people who were regulars at our old location.”
George credits that loyalty in part to Café Cubana’s commitment to quality.
“Coffee is an ever-changing organism,” he said. “It’s a hand-crafted beverage, and there are a lot of details you have to pay attention to to produce and serve a good cup of coffee.”
Café Cubana gets its coffee from a roaster in Portland, Oregon.
“He’s there in the epicenter of the coffee world, and he is able to access some beans that most people can’t get,” George said. “We like our coffee to be on the fuller-bodied side — a robust coffee with some depth to it.”
Coffee with a cause
Fair Fellow/She Brews Coffee House
1 N. Lewis Ave., 918-933-5070
The coffee shop in the center of the Kendall Whittier neighborhood underwent more than a change of gender-specific names, when Fair Fellow Coffee Roasters became She Brews Coffee House.
She Brews started out in 2012 in Claremore, founded by Rhonda Bear as a way to help women trying to re-enter society after struggling with such challenges as drug addiction and incarceration — things about which Bear knew first-hand — as well as providing the community with a top-quality coffee house experience.
She Brews operates two locations in Claremore, and the success of the coffee house and the cause was such that the decision was made to expand into Tulsa.
“The program’s success rate at helping people make that successful transition is 90%,” said Chris Guy, director of development for She Brews. “The thing is, a lot of women want to stay on with the company, and there simply wasn’t enough positions for them.”
Guy said the company looked at a number of potential locations in Tulsa but found they were either prohibitively expensive or lacked the traffic needed for a successful coffee house.
“Then my daughter said she had seen on social media that Fair Fellow was thinking of selling,” Guy said.
Partners Andrew Unruh and Jeff and Kaitlyn Pelt opened Fair Fellow in 2017 as a micro-roastery specializing in direct trade, single-origin coffee.
“The owners wanted to go on to other things,” Guy said. “And because of limitations on businesses because of COVID-19, I knew the price would be so low that, because of the Fair Fellow reputation, it would have sold in an instant. So I arranged a meeting that day, a Friday. By Tuesday, we had a letter of intent, and 10 days later, we opened under the Fair Fellow name.”
And while the name and business model may have changed, a lot of things people grew to love about Fair Fellow remains.
“We want to continue the quality that people expected from Fair Fellow,” Guy said. “We also plan to continue offering some of the special blends they created. The original owners spent a month with us on site to train our people.
“After all, people will probably come the first time because they know they are helping a good cause. But they’ll only come back if they enjoy your product.”
More coffee shops
8156 S. Lewis Ave., 918-671-6673
Nordaggio's is one of Tulsa’s oldest coffee businesses, dating back to 1998, and one of the first to begin roasting its own beans. The shop created special blends for some of its corporate clients and for other local coffee shops, and for a time, one could purchase bags of its “CEO Mom” and “Rocket Man” blends at Sam’s Club.
The shop sources its coffees from around the world but relies on local businesses such as St. Amon Bakery and Big Baby Rolls & Doughnuts for some of its noncoffee offerings.
100 E. Second St., 507 S. Boston Ave.
Topeca, which bills itself as the country’s first “seed-to-cup” coffeehouse, prides itself on carefully and responsibly sourcing its coffee. Much of its products are made from coffee beans grown in El Salvador by members of owners John and Margarita Gaberino’s family, although the company also obtains varieties from Ethiopia, Columbia, Haiti, Brazil and Kenya.
Wherever the beans may start from, they first must pass through the company’s roasting house on Admiral Boulevard. Topeca supplies coffees, including special blends, to area restaurants, and a range of whole bean and ground coffees can be found at most local markets, such as Reasor’s.
Topeca also has two downtown locations — one on Boston Avenue and one within the Hyatt Regency Hotel — that offer traditional coffee drinks, as well as seasonal specialty concoctions, such as the Almond Joy Latte, a variation on a café mocha made with almond milk, and coconut and almond syrups.
Cirque Coffee Roasters
1317 E. Sixth St., 918-933-4489
When a coffee shop labels its signature blend as “Weirdo,” one can be fairly certain this is not a conventional coffeehouse. The owners of this Pearl District staple have been following their own path in how they blend and roast coffee, and in the four years since it opened, Cirque Coffee Roasters has attracted a devoted following for its “wild coffee.”
In addition to its unique coffees, the shop also offers a full cocktail bar in the evening hours, with more than 60 creative libations on the menu — including, of course, a number of coffee-based drinks.
Foolish Things Coffee
1001 S. Main St., 918-857-2326
The philosophy at Foolish Things is to give people a place where they can slow down, enjoy a finely crafted beverage and savor a moment or two of peace. That may be a lot to ask from a coffee break, but Foolish Things delivers.
It offers the usual array of traditional coffee preparations made from beans sourced from throughout the world, as well as an excellent cold-brew coffee and a rosewater lemonade for those seeking refreshment without the caffeine.
In addition to its flagship store on Main Street, Foolish Things also has two more food-oriented locations in popular Tulsa neighborhoods: Foolish Things Bar & Biscuit in Brookside and Foolish Things High Dive near Church Studio. Both these locations also feature craft cocktails.
Shades of Brown Coffee & Art
3302 S. Peoria Ave., 918-747-3000
This cozy Brookside coffee shop takes the “art” in its name seriously. The walls and shelves are filled with examples of works by local artists and craftspeople — even the mugs and plates in which the shop serves its beverages and light refreshments are artisan-made by owner Melinda Curren and her mother, Marcia Borum.
The artistry continues in the shop’s menu, which includes the expected variations, as well as such offerings as the decadent Prague Mocha, and the shop’s seasonal menus usually feature cocktail-inspired (yet nonalcoholic) creations, such as a coffee version of an Old Fashioned, or the Santa Paula, which combines a dark chocolate mocha with orange zest.
Coffee House on Cherry Street
1502 E. 15th St., 918-779-6137
The atmosphere at the Coffee House on Cherry Street is decidedly bohemian and slightly whimsical, with libations bearing such names as Chipmunk, Bumble Bee and Honey Badger. The shop’s patio, facing Cherry Street, is rarely empty during business hours.
The shop touts its support of local businesses, such as Lomah Dairy, Fisher Farms and Farrell’s Family Bread, as well as its array of gluten-free baked goods.
DoubleShot Coffee Co.
1633 S. Boulder Ave., 918-280-9243
If there is one word that might be used to sum up DoubleShot Coffee Co., it would be “fresh.” Owner and roastmaster Brian Franklin roasts his coffees in small batches twice a week to ensure that customers — whether in a cup at the shop itself or in bags to take home — are getting the freshest, most flavorful coffee possible.
The care that goes into the roasting means that you won’t find a great many creative drinks on the menu at DoubleShot — flavorings are limited to chocolate and a homemade concoction called “panela.” You’re here for the coffee, after all.
The shop’s new location, known as The Rookery, was constructed out of wood reclaimed from a 170-year-old barn, as well as bricks from a Muskogee Coca-Cola plant. The new space also houses a bakery that produces a range of homemade baked goods, including the English muffins used in its breakfast sandwiches.
Gypsy Coffee House
303 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 918-295-2181
The Gypsy Coffee House has been a part of the Tulsa Arts District landscape for some 20 years, and in that time, it has fulfilled the role of a traditional coffeehouse, with live music, spoken-word and poetry readings, and other performance events.
The coffee served here is from Nordaggio’s in Tulsa, with specific blends changing regularly. The shop also serves a wide variety of Misty Peak loose leaf teas, for those seeking something other than coffee.
2446 E. 11th St., 918-949-3221
918 Coffee prides itself on serving fair trade coffees and teas, as well as a wide assortment of vegan and gluten-free food items and beverages, from milkshakes to vegan “chicken” and waffles.
One distinctive thing about 918 Coffee is how it creates its cold brew coffee. The shop uses a glass drip tower, in which cold water is released drip by steady drip into ground coffee to create the finished concentrate. The whole process takes about eight hours to complete but is certainly worth the wait.
314 S. Cincinnati Ave., 918-582-5716
This downtown coffee shop, located in the space that for nearly half a century was home to the Triangle Blueprint Co., recently expanded to include a kitchen space for a limited menu of sandwiches, pastries and other such items.
But coffee is still the focus of the business. Currently, the shop is using beans it gets from Onyx Coffee Lab, a Northwest Arkansas roasting company, and employing them in such creations as a coffee version of an Arnold Palmer, using a homemade lemon syrup, or its Strawberry Cold Brew Mojito, which mixes together cold brew coffee, seltzer water, house-made strawberry syrup and mint.
10139 S. Delaware Ave., 918-528-5692
Lulu’s Coffee is a relatively recent addition to the city’s coffee culture, offering a select menu of pastries, sandwiches and salad, along with a full range of coffee drinks.
One thing that sets Lulu’s apart is that one can sample Turkish sand coffee, in which ground coffee and water are quickly brought to a boil in a special metal cup called a cezve that is placed in a sand-filled copper dish set over a heat source. The finished coffee is then poured into a small cup for service. Those who appreciate assertive tastes should check it out.
Mecca Coffee Co.
1330 E. 41st St., 918-749-3509
Mecca Coffee Co. is one of the city’s oldest businesses, opening its doors in 1921, and it has become a go-to place for gourmet coffees and teas, specialty foods and spices, kitchen equipment and unusual gift items.
A few years ago, this Brookside staple moved a few blocks south to a new location, and one of the benefits of the new space is that Mecca was able to expand its coffee bar and let its baristas make use of the shop’s wares to create tasty coffee, tea and smoothie drinks.
823 E. Third St., 918-398-4470
Hodges Bend was co-founded by John Gaberino, owner of Topeca, so naturally, varieties of Topeca’s coffees are used throughout the establishment’s drink menu.
One can enjoy a traditional latte or Americano, or sample some of the more adventurous, and definitely adult, creations, from what some claim is the best Irish coffee in town to something called the Builder’s Brew, which combines espresso, cognac, cynar, vanilla, chai, whipped cream and nutmeg.
Hodges Bend also offers a full range of cocktails sans coffee, as well as sandwiches and dishes ranging from a gourmet take on the Canadian classic poutine to a vegetarian stroganoff.
James D. Watts Jr.