North Allen Street runs for a few short blocks in the heart of Madison's near west side Regent neighborhood, and is easy to miss. The fifteen-minute walk from campus puts it mostly beyond the wandering range of the college crowd, and it's easy to pass by for commuters zipping to or from work on Regent Street or Old University. But I stumbled across it several months ago and discovered a hidden gem of a coffee shop: The Froth House.
Maybe it's the fact that it's tucked neatly away down the street from the Regent Market Co-op (worth a visit of its own) in an area of ethnic and economic diversity, but each time I walk down Allen towards the coffee shop, I feel for a minute as though I'm in San Francisco. Even the barista displayed an aura of West Coast cool on my most recent visit, when she encouraged me to take my time deciding what to order. "I'm in no rush," she said. "It's too early in the morning to be in a rush."
If you're not in a hurry, you're in luck, because The Froth House's homey interior is the perfect place to peace out for couple of hours. The sunny, warmly-painted interior, and the array of professors glued to their laptops, make it a cheery place to enjoy a cuppa -- if you don't mind the mid-morning rush of babbling teens on their way to neighboring West High School. Large plants and an inviting display of local art complete the setting.
At $1.75 for 12 ounces, it's hard to go wrong with Froth House's drip coffee. Made with beans from Belleville, Wis.-based roaster Viamo, the medium roast packs just the punch a coffee-drinker demands at 8 o'clock in the morning. I later regretted I didn't order a latte or a cappuccino -- this is the Froth House, after all. My cup of loose leaf, fair-trade, organic iced Earl Grey, made with leaves from Madison-based Cha Cha Tea (also $1.75) was the perfect strength, not always an easy thing to come by for iced tea brewed in individual servings.
Skip the smoothies -- they're made from real fruit and Sugar River Dairy yogurt, but my strawberry blend was more like an ICEE. Smoothies are only available in a 20 oz. size ($5), a serving you have be really thirsty for to polish off successfully.
The café's menu of six sandwiches, a house salad and a soup includes classics like a B.L.T. and an egg sandwich. Or try a creative option like the Ben Franklin ($5.85), a sandwich made with turkey -- the bird this Founding Father supported as a national symbol over the bald eagle along with red onions, tomato, romaine lettuce, dijon mustard, herbed aioli, and provolone cheese. Served warm an on a fresh baguette, the mustard and aioli really made this sandwich a winner. The g'Bonzo ($5), a pita filled with homemade hummus, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and locally-made feta cheese is another good option. The pita and the hummus are on the dry side, but the sandwich is delicious if for nothing other than the feta, made fresh by the Klondike Cheese Company in Monroe, Wis.
The Froth House also offers fresh pastries from the La Brioche Bakery and ice cream from the Chocolate Shoppe. If you're ordering anything other than drip coffee, though, make sure you have a minute. The baristas like to get it right rather than get you out the door.
The café is powered 100% by wind power purchased through MG&E. The kitchen staff composts the food waste and distributes the spent coffee grounds to local farmers. Most of their sandwich ingredients are purchased through a Milwaukee-based natural foods distributor.
The Froth House closes at 2:30 p.m. daily in the summer, but frequently re-opens at night for special events. In years past, the café has hosted live performances and poetry readings, during which the full café menu is offered with the addition of wine and beer. It also hosts occasional wine or coffee tastings, and encourages book clubs and other local groups to inquire about hosting their event at the space.
Everything The Froth House embraces -- good food, standards of sustainability and a sense of community are cliché for something you'd find on the West Coast. But I think I'd be kidding myself not to say that it seems perfectly fitting for another great city -- ours. You just have to take a step or two off of State Street to enjoy indulge in this bit of serenity.