FIZZ IN THE JAR A soda from Vena’s Fizz House.
Photo by Tyler Kidder
The most heartwarming scenario in American entrepreneurialism is a couple opening up a quaint little shop. In current times this spectacle takes on deeper resonance. Sociologists suggest that marriage and other pair relationships have been deinstitutionalized, with a new ambiguity around roles and social norms. This uncertainty introduces anxiety and scrutiny into our relationships, creating a colder, harsher domestic environment. One ingenious solution to the cooling influences of deinstitutionalization is to actually create an institution as a couple — one that is warm and welcoming. A new West End café and Old Port soda shop show us just how it might be done.
The young pair Katie and Naomi run Omi’s Coffee Shop, tucked away on the quiet end of Brackett Street. The shop, like the couple, might be described as alt-cute. The front is mostly open space, with two tables nestled up to pillowed window seats. The back room, sunny with walls of bright red, favors comfy armchairs over tables. Milk and cream live in a vintage orange cooler. There are handsome wood floors, and bright colors everywhere. The vibe of the place, along with fresh issues of the New Yorker magazine, invites you to set work aside and relax.
And you can do so with a terrific cup of coffee — among the best in Portland. They brew with beans from Seacoast, roasted here in Maine. The Italian was rich, dark, and roasty without any of the bitterness dark roast often brings. It was smooth and a touch chocolaty. A cappuccino had the same virtues but intensified. Omi’s also offers teas from the wonderful Homegrown Tea here in Portland. Naomi once baked at Two Fat Cats, and the homemade cookies reflect her expertise. They often serve quiche, and sell local bagels from Union, with lox if you’d like.
Across town at Vena’s Fizz House the proprietor-couple has dug farther back into traditional Americana, and the result is something that feels both oddly new and deeply comfortable. The shop is named for the Prohibitionist ancestor of co-owner Johanna. Nonetheless customers pass through a lovely retail space where they sell high-end syrups, bitters, and tools for cocktail making, and enter a space that looks more like a bar than a soda-shop. And husband Steve seems more bartender than soda-jerk, in that he is very thoughtful about the mixing of these drinks. He was a teacher for many years, and there is a Walter White quality to the earnest intensity he brings to the science and art of mixing sodas. He fills he big chalkboard behind the bar with his latest fruit fizzes, herb elixirs, and other concoctions.
The results are pretty fantastic, and what initially seems like it will be a bit of a hoot ends up as a revelation. The sodas look gorgeous and taste like nothing else in town. For a ginger julep, fresh ginger and spearmint are muddled and mixed with a root soda. The first sip sends an explosion of ginger through your head, filling your sinuses and tickling the front of your brain, while the spearmint spice lingers on your tongue. A cider bite also gets a head-filling heat from ginger, but mellows it with apple and clove rather than an intensifying minty spice.