The world was a blur until that first sip of Yellow Honey, a medium-roast coffee with mellow fruit flavors that, curiously, did not contain any honey. Suddenly, everything came into focus, and I could see a land very far away, the lush volcanic highlands of Chinchontepec, El Salvador.
That is a place dear to Abby Rivera, owner of Rivers Cafe, a small Salvadoran coffee shop in Floral Park and the first stop on my international coffee tour of Long Island. Rivera’s father, Santos Rivera, a trucker by trade, purchased three plots of farmland there in 2015 so he could support future generations of his family with a coffee business.
Sitting by the door of her café and waving to every customer who walked in, Rivera was as affable as she was knowledgeable about her family’s coffee. Wearing a visor with her name written in large letters, she explained the term “Yellow Honey” refers to a sticky substance left on the bean when it dries in the sun, giving the final product a sweeter mocha flavor.
Rivera, who came to New York at the age of 14 to escape gang violence in El Salvador, isn’t the only vendor on Long Island with a direct relationship to their coffee. At the Kennedy Plaza Farmers Market in Long Beach, for instance, former military general Carlos Soto sells vacuum-sealed bags from his family farm in Ahuachapán, El Salvador. (In the winter, when the market shuts down, he makes coffee deliveries.) As in other coffee-growing regions, Salvadoran coffee farms are graded by altitude, and Finca La Fortuna lies more than 4,500 feet above sea level, putting it in the highest-quality category.
This abundance speaks to the richness of Long Island’s Latin community, with many members from countries in Central and South America. There, coffee is not only a primary export, but a way of life. On the fringes of East Patchogue, a strip-mall joint, Coffeelombia, sells the short cups of Colombian coffees called tintos alongside Colombian burgers and hot dogs piled with potato chips and pink sauce. The smaller the coffee, the thinking goes, the more you can drink throughout the day. “How many cups of coffee do I drink a day? I don’t even count them. I drink more coffee than water,” Rivera said.
For Rivera and many of us, coffee is more than a drink. It’s an essential element of humanity, a substance so intrinsic to our personalities that it flourishes in almost every country, despite where the plants are grown. How we drink coffee says something about a person or a population’s taste, and their relationship to their food.
To provide a little context, let’s address the land of Dunkin’—a.k.a. New York City (since 1958). The Big Apple still harbors an anti-snob approach to coffee that’s best embodied by the late chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain, who once declared, “There are few things I care about less than coffee. I have two big cups every morning: light and sweet, preferably in a cardboard cup.”
Nowadays, of course, coffee in many parts of the city (and across much the continental United States) is often a hipster affair: bright, minimalist cafés full of people on laptop computers. Long Island? Not so much. There’s Flux in Farmingdale (which serves a citrusy espresso tonic, a Swedish drink), numerous locations of Southdown (for those fancy pour-overs, invented by a housewife-turned-entrepreneur in Germany) and For Five in Manhasset and Garden City (the owners are of Greek descent, but the stuffed cookies are completely American).
The marketing terms you may see in newer coffee shops—“direct-trade” and “single-origin,” for instance—attempt to provide moral compass points to a capitalist process on the other side of the world. Coffee is generally believed to have been discovered in the Ethiopian highlands in the ninth century and perfected as a drink by the Arab world, which mainly abstained from alcohol and thus embraced the coffee house as a cultural and intellectual gathering place.
As coffee spread from Yemen to Syria, Persia, Egypt and Turkey, people began referring to cafés as “schools of the wise.” One recent evening, I could see this ancient sentiment on display in Great Neck, at the Turkish spot Okuz Burgers. There, a group of men sat by the wall, chatting and playing card games while they drank strong cups of Turkish coffee and occasionally headed outside for a smoke.
Over by the counter stood a long-handled cezve, or Turkish coffee pot. After I finished my cheeseburger and superbly crispy seasoned fries, co-owner Hatice Doyuk appeared with a tray holding a quaint coffee cup and a couple of sugar-dusted cubes of Turkish delight. The coffee was incredibly strong and bitter, producing a feeling so intense that, even though she left me to enjoy my coffee alone, I felt like I’d shared a special moment with her.
Arguably, no single country has left a greater mark on contemporary coffee culture than Italy, which claims the espresso, macchiato, cappuccino and a new creation, the shakerato — espresso shaken up with sugar and ice like a cocktail. You’ll find a small but mighty delicious shakerato garnished with orange peel at Druthers in Stony Brook. Iconic Italian coffee brands Illy and Lavazza can be found all over the Island at gelaterias, restaurants, markets and bakeries. But being on the East Coast, Long Island also has a rich tradition of Italian coffee bars where patrons can enjoy a cappuccino in the morning and an espresso in the afternoon. (No cappuccino after 11, they say.)
Glen Cove has a sizable selection of these establishments, but I found the quintessential experience at Caffé Gondola in North Massapequa. The 20-plus-year-old business shares a block of North Broadway with an A&S pork store and Saverio’s Authentic Pizza Napoletana. An empty front patio was scattered with tables and inside, the earth-toned café had a homey feel to it, with checkered tile and a wall featuring photographs of deceased family friends. A vintage bar with a mirror-lined backbar commanded the room. (The custom in Italy is to stand at the bar while you down your morning coffee, then head off to work.)
Pushing a button on the chic black Wega machine and pouring me an espresso, manager Angela Ventimiglia said that Italian coffee culture on Long Island is deeply connected with the many Italian American citizens clubs in the area. As she spoke, a couple of older gentlemen went in and out of a side room, which had a football game on TV. At first, Ventimiglia seemed a little gruff—she chuckled when I butchered the name of the espresso they serve, Miscela d’Oro—but I quickly realized she had a wicked sense of humor, bantering with her father’s friend Angelo, who kept going behind the counter, pouring himself shots of espresso and piling on the sugar.
And she didn’t seem to mind if I sat down at one of the tables to sip my moderately sugared espresso and eat my Italian cheesecake. But then again, there was so little liquid in the cup that it went down fast, the heady black brew filling me with vigor as I ventured into the vintage pork store and bought $20 worth of provolone. The whole thing felt like an experience, like a little trip. Not sure if it was to Italy, the suburbs of New York City or what …. But you know? That seems to happen a lot around here.
The most intriguing new fads in coffee culture seem to be coming out of Asia these days, which is especially surprising when you consider the region’s emphasis on tea. But the Robusta species of coffee bean has been used to prepare sweet, bold Vietnamese coffee for more than a century, and just this year, several national publications (including Saveur and The Atlantic magazines) declared Robusta the new “it thing.” While this species has traditionally been considered lower quality than your typical Arabica, it’s hardier, thus more adaptable to climate change. And now entrepreneurs like Sahra Nguyen of Nguyen Coffee Supply in Brooklyn are bringing artisanal beans and canned cold brew to a Whole Foods near you (Westbury, Massapequa, Manhasset).
Japan, which has the highest consumption of coffee in Asia, also boasts some interesting TikTok trends, such as an iced coffee in Kyoto that’s served inside a gigantic block of ice. (You drink it with a straw.) And then there’s Korean dalgona coffee, which achieved TikTok fame during the pandemic. Dalgona is a honeycomb toffee confection that was a popular Korean street snack back in the ’60s and it was also featured in the Netflix drama “Squid Game” in 2021.
Croffle House in Great Neck, which specializes in the Korean croissant-waffle creations called, yep, croffles, also sells a jacked-up version of this dalgona coffee. The barista pours a couple of shots of espresso over a cup of iced milk and tops it with a boatload of dalgona cubes, which have a deep, almost bitter, roasted flavor. (Between the sugar and the caffeine, this one rocked me.)
On the other end of the Asian coffee spectrum, my curiosity was piqued when a colleague suggested I try Indian coffee. I’ve been eating at Indian restaurants since I was a little girl but have only ever consumed spiced chai tea and an occasional Taj Mahal. But it turns out that filter coffee, or kaapi, has been a South Indian tradition since the 16th century, when, according to legend, the beloved Sufi monk Baba Budan smuggled seven raw coffee beans in his beard after a holy pilgrimage to Mecca.
Kaapi is prepared by filtering the coffee in a two-chambered stainless-steel vessel to create a “decoction,” and then frothing it to perfection by pouring it from high in the air. Although I’ve seen the drink called Madras coffee on some menus, it goes by the name Chennai coffee at the Hicksville restaurant Chennai Dosas, where Indian families gather over gigantic rice-flour dosas. I was just there for an after-dinner coffee and a little snack, so the server recommended pairing the Chennai coffee with a small bowl of payasam, a devilishly sweet rice pudding studded with tapioca balls and vermicelli noodles.
The coffee was prepared in the back and served in a small stainless-steel tumbler that sat inside a larger, shallower container. (Traditionally, these cups are used to pour the milky coffee back and forth until it becomes light and airy.) Both cups were so hot to the touch, it was a little unclear how to pick them up. The server brought over a paper cup to pour it into, but I soldiered on anyway, wanting to have the “authentic” experience.
The sweet pudding was a fine contrast to the bitter coffee, which was laced with chicory. The drink had all the milkiness of chai, with an even more robust and comforting flavor. By the time I got back in the car, I had a wicked coffee buzz that heightened my powers of perception. Staring out at the Catholic church across the street with its towering steeple that seemed to reach to heaven, I thought about how the cultures of the world have more similarities than differences. We share a love of coffee, the drink that makes us feel more alive … and sometimes, even a bit spiritual.
CAFFE GONDOLA 917 N. Broadway, North Massapequa; 516-797-2091
CHENNAI DOSAS 128 S. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-681-5151, chennaidosas.com
COFFEELOMBIA 711 Medford Ave., East Patchogue; 631-569-2380, coffeelombia.coffee
CROFFLE HOUSE 42A Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck; 516-304-5554
DRUTHERS COFFEE 1113 North Country Rd., Stony Brook; druthers.coffee
FINCA LA FORTUNA (Carlos Soto) 516-343-7292, lafortunaorganic.com
FLUX COFFEE 211 Main St., Farmingdale; 516-586-8979, fluxcoffee.com
FOR FIVE COFFEE ROASTERS 292 Plandome Rd., Manhasset and 147 Seventh St., Garden City; forfivecoffee.com
OKUZ BURGERS 348 Great Neck Rd., Great Neck; 516-217-3706, okuzburgers.com
RIVERS CAFE 304 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park; 516-502-2500, riverscafeusa.com
SOUTHDOWN COFFEE Glen Cove, Huntington, Northport, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and Patchogue; southdowncoffee.com