80 years ago, long before Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, or even the Smothers Brothers, Abbott and Costello popularized the legendary “Who’s on First” comedy routine in their live performances and radio show. The dialogue concerned first base in a ball game, but if one were to ask who’s first on First Street in Downtown Phoenix, the answer would be the office building with one North First Street as its address. This recently renovated structure is home to military recruiters, symphony offices, venture capitalists, and, at ground level, Cartel Coffee Lab.
Cartel has actually had three different spots in this building since expanding from its Tempe base to Downtown Phoenix. After two previous sites with extensive seating and kitchen space, Cartel has downsized to a smaller location adjacent to the building’s lobby. The spot addresses First Street with open windows (when weather permits) and an outdoor counter; the entrance, however, is reached by turning right after entering the building. Cartel’s indoor seating is another small counter and a collection of picnic tables, benches, and chairs within the building lobby.
During the short walk from any of the four light rail platforms nearby or the numerous bicycle racks installed along First Street, look for the sandwich board sign saying “not just about caffeine.” This slogan doesn’t mean a Starbucks-style assortment of sweetened drinks in seemingly infinite flavors. Instead, it means that at any time, half a dozen varieties of coffee are offered at market prices and described almost as if they were wines in terms of nuances of flavor. For those who just want a solid cup of coffee at a good price, the daily drip is probably the best option.
Espresso, cappuccino, and latte preparations are all available, but flavoring options are limited to two add-on syrups: vanilla and agave (somewhat like caramel in taste). For those who want to compare their coffee with and without milk, the menu lists a one-and-one, which is a plain shot of espresso served side by side with a second shot made into a macchiato. Teas are all loose leaf and are noted in terms of their origins and distinctive tastes. The changing selection includes black, herbal, and green teas, as well as specialized varieties such as jasmine silver pearls.
Cartel doesn’t have a kitchen beyond the simple area used for coffee and tea preparation, but it does have a pastry display and a refrigerated case stocked from nearby purveyors. Most of the sustenance available comes from the Phoenix Public Market Cafe, which has recently branched out into supplying pastry and grab-and-go items for coffee shops. Pastry choices include blueberry muffins, cheddar corn scones, and date zucchini bread. For lunch, salads such as the Chino are sold, along with fresh vegetable and fruit juices from Radish at the DeSoto Central Market.
Beyond sweet baked goods such as cookies, banana bread, and cinnamon oat scones, Cartel’s downtown site has one additional dessert from the Phoenix Public Market Cafe, a chia seed pudding with berry preserves and granola on top. Cartel’s newest location in Downtown Phoenix is smaller than the two sites that came before it, but with the limited space comes a tighter focus. One North First Street is not nearly as well known as the “Who’s on First” bit, but Cartel is puts coffee first — for its flavor and not just for the caffeine — on First Street in Phoenix.
1 N. 1st St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / 3rd Street and Washington / Central stations (westbound)
Jefferson / 1st Avenue and Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)