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In Montana, Bean There, Done That

Sunday, September 4, 2005

As anyone who's ever driven from sea to shining sea knows, one of the great challenges of cross-country travel is finding a decent cup of coffee. Oh, it's fine within a few hundred miles of either coast. But as my husband and I discovered during two long round trips, the 2,000 or so miles in the middle are a dry gulch. Dishwater-weak or overboiled and bitter, flat or sour, the coffee disappointed us from diner to drugstore to hotel.

We found unexpected salvation in Montana. Missoula, home of the University of Montana, sounded suburb-size to us, but in fact it's the state's second-largest city, a mountain-ringed hub of collegiate culture -- and, it turns out, an oasis in a coffee-addict's desert. The day we arrived last fall, we discovered an Internet cafe called Liquid Planet. Expert espresso! Aromatic americano! Creamy cappuccino! I was home.

Well, not exactly home, because in the District the caffeine scene is dominated by Starbucks, Cosi, Caribou. Tiny Missoula, in contrast, teems with proudly independent java joints, all of them at least very good, some serving locally roasted coffee. And there's nothing in Washington that compares with the roadside flights of fancy Missoula's brew inspired: a gaggle of cheerful, idiosyncratic, free-standing coffee huts. We found them on side streets, in mall parking lots, next to gas stations and grocery stores. They had distinct personalities and funny names -- our local favorite was the Grizzly Bean, though on the road we were charmed by Pony Expresso. Some had been creatively converted from old rail cars or trailers, and they were decorated for Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Nobody in Missoula seemed to think the huts were at all unusual or charming. But we truly miss them now that we're back East. There's nothing wrong with the half-caff-skim-venti latte I get from the franchise at 15th and K, but I loved it more from the Loose Caboose.

-- Nancy Szokan

For general info on Missoula, Mont., contact the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-526-3465,http://www.missoulacvb.org.

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