Written by Grace Miller, Editor-in-Chief. Photographed by Xiaoyue Pu.
At first glance, Porter, located in a station on the train tracks at 640 W. Washington Avenue, is a cozy, secluded cafe who takes their coffee very seriously. I walked in and was greeted by the strong, bitter scent of ground beans mingling with a sweetness in the air from latte cream and caramel syrups. The lighting is dimmed in Porter, but the yellow bulbs hanging from the ceiling were overpowered by bright bursts of sunlight streaming in through the station windows.
One of the first things I noticed was the lack of laptops. Though the cafe is admittedly a bit further off campus, I think the lack of working or studying was mainly an effect of Porter’s ambiance: soft, cozy, and welcoming. Friends chatted, coworkers took a break from their hectic days, and lone coffee-drinkers read quietly at small tables. Xiaoyue Pu, an undergraduate art student at UW-Madison and photographer for The Dish, raves about Porter’s interior design, even attributing her loyalty to the cafe directly to the space.
“This is the place I went every day last semester. The interior design here is really artsy, and I love how they change the floral arrangements constantly. I’ve never seen any coffee shop on campus that does that, so it’s very appreciated.”
Another thing that sets Porter apart from other coffee shops is their dedication to a pure, craft brew. I met with Amy Arenas, the manager of the cafe, to talk about Porter’s caffeinated vision. She said they serve Counter Culture Coffee from North Carolina, a coffee roasting company dedicated to social, fiscal, and environmental sustainability throughout the coffee supply chain, and feature a full espresso bar, rotating drip coffees, single origin pour-overs, and espresso. When discussing why Porter mainly serves light-to-medium bodied roasts, Amy explained that the nuanced flavors in the brew emerge more notably in those than in darker beans.
I enjoyed a light, fruity Nicaraguan blend, brewed as a pour-over at Amy’s suggestion, and she taught me her trick to really tasting the subtle notes of the coffee.
“Try and drink the coffee audibly, then you’ll be able to pick out different flavors. Slurp it like soup.”
But, Porter does much more than great coffee. They also offer delicious, healthy breakfast and lunch options that put the spotlight on fresh, local flavors and innovative pairings. Plus, most of what you see on your plate is made in-house. All of the sauces, including the roasted red pepper aioli and the pesto, which is the shining star of the mozzarella panini, are made in Porter’s open-plan kitchen, as well as almost all of the bakery items.
“We have a baker who comes in and preps our bakery items, and we finish baking them each morning. Even the granola in the parfait is made in-house, as well as the mozerella, the soups, and some of our teas.”
And what they can’t make themselves, they buy local. When the farmer’s market is in session, Porter ferries veggies and fresh flowers from local farmers, and they purchase bread from Stella’s Bakery and Stalzy’s Deli and Bakery. Plus, all of the locally-sourced meat and cheese that is used in your favorite sandwich you can buy by the pound right in the cafe.
For my brunch, I perused the menu and was drawn to a few items, but as a Millennial, I couldn’t not get the avocado toast. And, I have to say, I have never seen a more beautiful pile of avocado.
It arrived on a thick slab of toasted rye bread laden with an entire avocado. Pink and white radishes come next, sliced paper thin and arranged like a flower on the top of the spring green bed of healthy fats, and it was all topped off with lemon zest, sea salt, scallion, and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil. Honestly, I’m not usually one to choose avocado toast on a menu because I can make a pretty mean one at home, but Porter’s offering was delicious on a whole different level.
After brunch, I was happily caffeinated, fed, and almost ready to step back out into the blustery autumn afternoon, but I still had one more question for Amy: what’s the story behind the name?
“So, the idea behind the name “Porter” comes from its meaning back when train stations were really a thing. The porter was the person that would help you get your last minute stuff and get on the train… Every item on the shelves is for sale, and we want to have all of the odds and ends available so you’re good to go on your way.”
And Porter truly carries all the odds and ends: pasta sauce, wines, a small liquor selection, olives, anchovies, bruschetta, and much more. So, next time you’re around the train station, stop in and let Porter pour you a steaming cup of coffee, grab a fresh pastry, and peruse their eclectic selection of foodstuffs.
Visit porter-coffee.com for menu, hours, and location.