What should I order at Starbucks?

Jun 27

This has to be the #1 question I've been asked over the years. People walk into Starbucks, see the unfamiliar terminology on the menu boards, get overwhelmed and feel completely lost. That's one of the reasons I started a website waaay back in the early '00s with drink info on it, to help people navigate the menu.

The problem is, “What should I order?” is a hard question to answer without context. It's like “What should I order at McDonald's?” or “What book should I buy from Amazon?” To give a useful answer, you need to know the asker's preferences and what they're in the mood for. I'll list some of the more common things people have in mind here and my suggestions for what to order. And remember — when in doubt, ask the barista.

I just want a coffee. Go ahead and order a coffee, that's totally allowed. If they're in the middle of brewing a new batch, or if they've stopped brewing the coffee you want for the day, they may offer you an Americano, a French press, or a Clover brew. All of those are pretty good options.

I want something kinda sweet but not too expensive or fancy. Try the vanilla latte. It can be made hot or cold, depending on what temperature of drink you're in the mood for.

I want that thing that's like a coffee milkshake. That's a Frappuccino. The most popular flavor is usually the Mocha Frappuccino, followed closely by the Caramel Frappuccino.

I need something with a lot of caffeine to wake me up. Try a venti (large) vanilla latte with an “add shot”. That will get you three shots of espresso in a moderately sweet drink. If you want to up the ante more, make it a quad (four shots). Careful not to overdo it, though — know your caffeine limits. If you need a lot of caffeine but don't want it to taste like coffee, get a venti white mocha with an addshot instead. It will be more expensive, but the white mocha syrup is very sweet, to balance out the espresso.

I want something with no coffee at all. There's lots of options. Want a hot drink? Try a hot chocolate or a chai latte (this has tea in it, so there's still some caffeine). Want a cold drink? Grab a passion tea lemonade, a vanilla bean creme Frappuccino, or one of their new Fizzio sodas.

I'm a tea drinker. You can get a regular tea (there's several varieties to choose from) or a regular iced tea, as well as a line of tea lattes and chai if you want something more than just tea.

I want something caramelly! For a hot drink, get the caramel macchiato (mah-kee-AH-toe) and make sure you stir it well before drinking. For a cold drink, get the caramel Frappuccino.

I need to get something for my kid. The pastry case usually has some milks and juices to choose from. You can also get a kid's hot chocolate (it's an 8 oz cup, and not steamed as hot as adult drinks), an apple juice, or a vanilla bean creme Frappuccino (this has a lot of sugar in it, however). If your kid wants something different, ask the barista if they can make it with no coffee, or at least decaf. Be aware that decaffeinated coffee is not caffeine-free, so it's best to avoid coffee-based things entirely later in the evening.

I'm vegan/lactose intolerant. Most espresso drinks can be made with soy milk. Be aware that the basic flavoring syrups such as vanilla and hazelnut are made with sugar, so if that is an animal product concern for you, avoid these. Seasonal syrups such as pumpkin spice may contain milk products; check with your barista to be sure. When I worked for Starbucks many ages ago I was told that the mocha syrup was vegan, but I don't know if this is still true. Your barista should be able to check the ingredients on the package or syrup bottle if you have questions. If in doubt, stick to simple drinks like coffee, tea, or the juices in the pastry case.

I'm diabetic/on a diet. Plain coffee and tea are extremely low in calories and sugar-free. However, if you need more sweetness in your drink, sugar-free syrups such as sugar-free vanilla are available. Most Frappuccinos can be ordered Light, which reduces the calories and sugar by about half. For more detailed information, check the nutrition info on the Starbucks website.

That covers the most common “what should I order?” questions I get. If you've got a request that's not on the list, leave it in the comments and I'll make a suggestion. And like I said before, you can always ask the person behind the register for advice. Be ready to give them a rough idea of what you like (hot/cold, sweet/not sweet, coffee/tea/neither, etc). And if you don't like what you get, let them know and they'll probably be willing to make you a replacement drink! (Just … don't drink the whole thing and then claim you didn't like it and demand a new drink. They may humor you but they've seen that con game before.)

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Recipe: Instant Dirty Chai

May 27

All right, recipe time ladies and gents! Today I’m gonna show you a little recipe I call “oops there’s no milk in the house and I let my wife take the last of the espresso”. Or, if you want a slightly more useful name, the Instant Dirty Chai. A dirty chai is chai with an espresso shot added. An instant dirty chai is laziness with ingenuity added.

This is a good emergency-caffeination drink because the ingredients are powders with a super long shelf life, you only need hot water to make it with, and you avoid that instant coffee taste you get with a regular “coffee from a powder” drink. Please pardon the photos on this post, I took them somewhat groggily with my cell phone camera with no caffeine (because that was my morning caffeine in the pictures).

Step 1: Boil some water. No photo here, use your favorite water-heating method.

Step 2: Place one serving of instant chai powder into your mug. I use Trader Joe’s chai mix, so one serving is one scoop.

Happy sun mug optional.

Happy sun mug optional.

Step 3: Mix in one spoonful of espresso powder. This is a little trickier to acquire, but specialty kitchen shops and grocery stores with a good baking aisle may have it. I use King Arthur brand, which is available on Amazon. Take a nice sniff of the jar when you open it, it’ll help you wake up enough to finish the drink.

Mix mix mix.

Mix mix mix.

Step 4: Add boiling water. You could measure out the correct amount of boiling water according to your instant chai package, but in my opinion the correct amount is always “one mugful”.

Happy sun mug approves.

Happy sun mug approves.

Step 5: Stir stir stir.

Smells like victory!

Smells like victory!

Step 6: Enjoy! Or be like me and drink it before it’s cooled off at all, so some of your tastebuds die a fiery death while you enjoy.

Between the strong flavor of the instant chai, and the fact that you’re using espresso powder instead of regular instant coffee, you get a delicious drink without that annoying taste of the coffee gods being disappointed in your laziness. You could even mix the powders together ahead of time, so when you’re sleepy and uncaffeinated all you have to do is pour powder and water, and stir. Great for camping or hotel rooms where you don’t trust the coffee machine!

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Review: Oprah Chai Loose Leaf Tea (Starbucks)

May 20

In my review of the Oprah Chai Tea Latte, I mentioned that the Oprah chai is also available as loose leaf tea. Since every Starbucks seems to have a big shiny display of the tea for sale, I figured I should grab a box and give it a shot. Here’s my review of the loose-leaf variety of the Oprah Chai.

The tin and the box it came in.

The tin and the box it came in.

Now, I don’t normally include “unboxing” photos with my reviews, but something needs to be said about the packaging here. You get a sizeable, pretty, sturdily-manufactured box, with the logo and the color scheme and blurbs about the charities and a description of the tea. Inside that box is a tin — you’ve probably seen tea tins like this before, it’s pretty standard packaging for tea. The tin is also pretty and well-made. So far, so good.

That's a lot of air.

That’s a lot of air.

When you open the tin, there’s a plastic bag inside with the tea. This helps keep the tea fresh, and helps contain the tea’s aroma (more on that later). But when you open the plastic bag and empty the tea into the tin, you’re faced with a little over an inch of tea in the bottom of that big tin. Depending on whether you’re more eco-conscious or cost-conscious, your first thought will be either “that’s a lot of wasteful packaging for such a small amount of tea” or “that’s all I got for fifteen bucks?!”

Setting aside the question of the packaging, let’s move on to the tea itself. The smell is very strong and quite nice, although it only seems to smell of one or two of the ingredients, instead of the whole balanced blend as the tea latte does. Well, when you’re dealing with the actual plant material rather than a premade syrup, these things happen. I advise you, if you buy this tea, to keep the tin tightly shut and inside the box if you don’t want your whole kitchen to smell like it.

The next step is to brew it. The instructions say 2-3 minutes so I gave it just under three, to get as much flavor as possible. The strong scent is still there after brewing, so your drink will have the pleasant-but-somewhat-overpowering aroma of … chicory, I think. And rooibos.

The brewed tea, as only the Happy Sun Mug can model it.

The brewed tea, as only the Happy Sun Mug can model it.

After all this powerful, delicious smell, I was ready for a tea full of flavor. What I got was … well, kind of medium-to-weak tea to be honest. The spices are not very strong at all in the brewed tea. It tastes okay, and quite smooth, but in a word: underwhelming. All of that beautiful marketing and packaging and spiced aroma led up to a decidedly unimpressive cup of so-so tea.

I’ll brew a few more cups over the next week or so — gotta get my fifteen bucks’ worth, I guess — but all in all I just can’t recommend this tea. It’s too much money for too little tea with too little flavor. If you want to taste this chai in a far superior form, go for the Oprah Chai Tea Latte at your local Starbucks.

For each 2 oz package of this tea purchased, a dollar goes to Oprah’s charities. You would be far better served to find a different loose-leaf chai you like, buy two ounces of that, and send the money you saved directly to the charity of your choice. Less waste, less disappointment.

  • What: Oprah Chai loose leaf tea
  • Where: Starbucks stores (and possibly Teavana stores?)
  • Verdict: Overpriced, wastefully packaged, and completely underwhelming when brewed.
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Review: Oprah Chai Tea Latte (Starbucks)

May 04

Frappuccino season is back, but the return of the mocha crumble frap isn’t what’s dominating the ad space and sales floor right now — it’s the Oprah Chai.

Born of a partnership between Starbucks’s recently-acquired Teavana line and Oprah Winfrey’s charity work, the Oprah Chai blend is available as a loose-leaf tea or a tea latte made at your local Starbucks. This review focuses on the latte version of the drink — I haven’t tried the loose leaf tea itself yet. (Edit: Bought some, tried it, here’s the review)

This is the first Starbucks drink I know of with a person’s name attached to it. It’s literally referred to as the “Oprah Chai” on the menu boards, and that’s how you order it. Like the regular Starbucks chai, it’s a sweetened tea-based drink with your choice of milk. It can be made hot or iced, which in the warm summer months is a blessing.

A tall Oprah Chai.

A tall Oprah Chai.

The regular Starbucks chai is quite sweet, and the Oprah chai follows that trend. Where it departs from your garden-variety Sbux chai is in the blend of flavors. The individual spices are much more noticeable, particularly the cardamom and cloves. You can also clearly taste the rooibos in the blend, giving it a taste that kind of lingers on your tongue. The overall taste is harmonious, with no one flavor overpowering the others. The advertising copy will tell you it was personally developed by Ms. Winfrey and Teavana’s “lead Teaologists”, and while I can’t tell you how exactly that works I do feel like a lot of thought went into balancing the spices, rooibos and tea against each other.

Overall, while this is not the best chai I’ve had, it’s head and shoulders above the original Starbucks version. If you normally order a chai at Starbucks, give this one a shot and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you’re pickier about your chai, this one may or may not fit the bill.

If you’re interested in more information about the tea and its connections with Oprah Winfrey’s youth education charities, here’s the details.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Teavana Oprah Chai Tea Latte
  • Where: Starbucks and Teavana stores
  • Options: hot or iced, your choice of milk
  • Verdict: An improvement over Starbucks’s original chai, with a well-balanced blend of flavors
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Review: Massetti Caffé Mobilé

May 02

Usually in the past my reviews have been of individual drinks. Today I’m doing something a little different, though. Today you get a review of an entire coffeeshop, because I’ve enjoyed their drinks so much I feel like it’s only right.

Massetti Caffé Mobilé is a mobile cart-style coffeeshop located in the Corporate Center plaza on Lake street in Pasadena. I passed by it many times without trying it, because let’s be honest — coffee carts, especially those catering to the white collar office tower crowd, are rarely anything to write home about. I’ve had drinks from many carts, from college campuses to airports to venue lobbies, and they’ve all fallen into the “drinkable but not amazing” category. Another reason I often passed without partaking is that this particular cart is located just a couple blocks from two Starbuckses, a root beer float shop, an independent coffeeshop, a bookstore with a cafe, and a whole slew of restaurants. When I’m in that area, my beverage needs are never wanting.


A sign you’re at the right place

One day, I found myself near Massetti while it was open and I thought, “What the hell, I should at least give them a shot.” And man am I glad I did.

Massetti offers a wide range of coffee and tea drinks, including some that are hard to find elsewhere — such as cold-brewed coffee and a shaken espresso drink called the Shakerato. They have some pastries and paninis, plus a few types of soda if you’re not in the mood for coffee or tea. Their beans are roasted locally at Jones Coffee Roasters. Various types of milk are available, including soy milk; brewed tea is served with pyramid-shaped tea bags. They’ve got something for pretty much everybody.

The service is excellent. There’s often just one person taking orders and making drinks, so your drink will not appear at the speed of light, but it is absolutely worth the wait. Each drink is made fresh in front of you with care, and the barista will be happy to chat with you and answer any questions you have. They can always recommend you a drink to try if you can’t make up your mind. As I sit here typing this review on a bright, warm Friday afternoon, I can tell from the conversations the barista is having with various people walking by that this is a coffeeshop with many devoted regular customers. Little details like that can take a coffeeshop experience to a whole new level.

Every drink I have tried here has been delicious. The prices are a little higher than Starbucks but the quality is absolutely worth it. Here’s a few things I recommend:

Vanilla latte: When I try a new coffee place, this is usually the “test drink” I get. It’s like ordering pad thai at a Thai restaurant — if they screw it up, the place is no good. Massetti passed this test with flying colors; the latte was smooth, with just the right amount of vanilla, and really good foam. Unlike Starbucks, which has switched to push-button automatic espresso machines due to the sheer volume of drinks they make, Massetti uses a good ol’ La Marzocco, so pulling a good shot and steaming a good pitcher of milk take a certain amount of practice and skill. A good latte is a sign of a good barista.


Cold brew, easy ice, with some half-and-half

Cold brew: Cold-brewed coffee is brewed overnight in a fridge, instead of quickly with hot water in a machine or press. This results in a strong, less acidic cup of iced coffee that really hits the spot. I’m usually not big on cold coffee drinks, even in hot summer weather, but this is one drink I’ll make an exception for. In the picture you see a cold brew as I drink it — unsweetened and topped off with some half-and-half. It normally has more ice in it, but since it’s over 90 degrees F today and nobody remembered to tell the barista to bring extra ice on his way in, this is the last ice he had. Operating a cart rather than a full brick-and-mortar store does have its limitations.


Spicy chai with freshly steamed milk. Mmm.

Chai latte: This is available in two versions, sweet and spicy. The spicy version (that’s spicy as in regular chai spices, not as in peppers) is still somewhat sweet, and it’s the version I prefer. The flavor comes from powder, but it’s not as artificial-tasting as a lot of chai powders. It’s mixed with milk that’s steamed to about 140 or 150 F, so not too hot. Definitely tastes more like spices than like tea, but overall it’s a delicious drink. If you need an extra kick of caffeine, try the dirty chai — this is a chai latte with a shot of espresso.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Massetti Caffé Mobilé
  • Where: 251 South Lake in Pasadena, CA
  • Website: http://www.massettiespresso.com/
  • Serves: Wide variety of coffee, espresso, and tea drinks
  • Verdict: Well-made drinks and knowledgeable baristas, highly recommended
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