Brew up the best java

While economists are saying we may be reaching the end of the recession, I'm still counting pennies, trolling for coupons and looking for ways to stretch the handful of dollars clinging to my wallet. Like a lot of people, I've altered my spending behavior, plucking only the necessities from grocery store shelves and vastly reducing my dining-out budget (Food Fight being the exception).

Another hibernating habit is buying java from corporate giants. So, I've been brewing at home or seeking out independently owned coffee houses. This week, I set out to find the best cup of joe in Burbank, Glendale and La Cañada Flintridge.

What I didn't figure was how hard it would be to choose just one. Perhaps it was all the caffeine, but I haven't done this much teeth gnashing and hand-wringing since my last standardized math test.

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Coffee Express

In the 700 block of North Glendale Avenue, this coffee house offers ample seating, and a parking lot for the few who can grab a space. You can always get a spot on Glendale Avenue. The owner's smile was the first thing I noticed. Although I'd never been to Coffee Express before, the man standing behind rows of freshly made and plastic-wrapped pastries welcomed me like I was a longtime customer.

The décor was inviting and familial. While I waited for my small latte with 2% milk, I thumbed through the business' unusual collection of books — sets of encyclopedias, Standard American and Britannica, from 1937.

Featured on a shelf lined with containers of coffee beans and grinders, the encyclopedias were an interesting juxtaposition to the numerous daily newspapers laying about. As I sipped my frothy beverage and nibbled on a cherry Danish, each delicious, the owner waved and said he hoped I'd be back.

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Zeli Coffee Bar

Perhaps the congeniality at Coffee Express set my expectations too high, because when I walked into Zeli Coffee on another day, I felt like Tie-dye in a room full of Chanel. Customers' lingering gazes prompted me to check for a stain on my dress or toothpaste on my lip. All clear.

Complete with padded stools, marble-topped tables and window benches, Zeli is aesthetically lovely and offers quaint touches like the store logo on items at the service bar. The coffee house is flanked by an empty store and Rite-Aid in the Plaza de La Cañada in the 600 block of Foothill Boulevard. Although independently owned, there is a second store in Pasadena.

The java house, which provides plenty of seating, was playing world beat music and smells like a mixture of the myriad herbs it offers for tea. The homemade bear claw tasted crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. And I enjoyed every drop of the sepia-swirled latte, I just wish the service had been as warm as the coffee.

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Priscilla's Gourmet Coffee, Tea & Gifts

This Burbank business bustles throughout the day, often sending patrons parking a block or so away. And it's worth it.

While the pastries are not made by the family-owned business, all the sandwiches are. I found the egg salad a bit bland, but the latte was the perfect mix of creamy and bitter.

This roasting house offers a convenient walk-up window, and plenty of tables inside and outside. The interior features wall murals and live plants dot many of the indoor tables.

Priscilla's, in the 4100 block of Riverside Drive in Burbank, sells coffee mugs and tea cups, greeting cards and shelves of used $1 books. Book proceeds go to the Ninos de Baja Orphanage.

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Decision

All three contenders offered tasty treats and scrumptious coffee. You won't be disappointed by any of these coffee houses. But the winner by a smile — Coffee Express.


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