Two weeks ago I had a couch surfer visiting from Germany, and I wanted to show her as many Rhode Island things as I could in 24 hours. One of the things I knew she needed to experience was coffee milk, the state drink of Rhode Island.
After three failed attempts to locate this drink in my neighborhood, a startling discovery emerged: There are people in Rhode Island who don’t know what coffee milk is. Therefore, a new quest ignited: The Coffee Milk Quest. Not only is it my duty to inform you what coffee milk is — milk mixed with coffee syrup — but I must also tell you where the best varieties of coffee milk can be found. I’ve included five different options, and included coffee milk pairings where applicable.
To locals: I implore you to abandon the syrup in your cupboard and give one of these a shot. And to newcomers: Even if you don’t like coffee, even if you don’t like milk, give coffee milk a chance. It doesn’t taste like what you’d expect, and it’s the Rhode Island thing to do.
JP Spoonem’s – 1678 Broad Street, Cranston — This is the diner where I had my very first coffee milk, and for this reason, it holds a special place in my heart. They serve the most recognized and traditional coffee milk, made with Autocrat. I watched the waitress fill a glass with two inches of the syrup before adding milk and almost had a heart attack — think of all the high fructose corn syrup! — but I forgot the health crisis the instant it touched my lips. Sweet and delicious and classically good. Suggested pairing: Portuguese Sweet Bread French Toast
Louis Family Restaurant – 286 Brook Street, PVD – Louis upheld my honor and allowed my German friend to try coffee milk before she left. Unfortunately, we were in a hurry to catch a ferry, so we needed to order it to go. We stood behind the counter and watched the waiter make it.
“Is that Autocrat?” I asked, eyeing the familiar rocket-shaped brown bottle.
“No. We make our own syrup.”
“Nope. We brew five gallons of coffee, boil it with some sugar and vióla! We just store it in old Autocrat bottles. You’ll taste the difference.”
And with that, I had to order another one, for myself.
He was right — it’s distinctly different, much more subtle. There was just enough sugar to cut the bitterness of coffee, but not enough that the drink was sweet. I think this is a good initiator for those who are unsure about coffee milk.
Olneyville New York System – 18 Plainfield Street, PVD – I took a Canadian friend here, and we sat at the bar. I was mesmerized by the guy balancing hot dogs on his arm, so I completely missed the coffee milk preparation. My friend said it came from a steel well, much like those that dispense soft serve ice cream. “That can’t be,” I said. “They need to mix it!”
“I’m pretty sure…” she said, sounding less sure.
It turns out she was right. “We have a coffee milk guy who delivers it to us this way,” the waiter said.
“Really? They deliver it pre-mixed?”
“What kind of syrup do they use?”
“They don’t tell you?”
“It’s really good,” I observed. It tasted like a coffee milkshake: not too sweet, not too coffee-like, creamier than the others.
“You know how they say the secret’s in the sauce?” he said. “Here, the secret’s in the milk.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
Suggested pairing: Two RI wieners, all the way.
Julians – 318 Broadway, PVD – I remembered their coffee milk being distinct, so on a Thursday morning, I chauffeured a Ukrainian to Julians for an RI brunch experience. I ordered coffee milk, and he did the same. I explained that it wasn’t coffee — it was something else. The state drink of Rhode Island.
“Well then I must have it!” he said.
Upon first sip, he said, “This is the best!” And I will say, I drank it in a record two minutes. It’s perhaps the sweetest of them all, and the one that also gave me a slight caffeine buzz. “Do you make this yourselves?” I asked.
“Nah, we use Dave’s syrup,” the waiter said.
Ahhh, Dave’s Coffee Syrup, made straight from coffee and cane sugar. For those who want the pure stuff, Dave’s (and Louis) is the way to go.
Suggested pairing: Italian sausage hash, with eggs and toast.
Wayland Square Diner – 208 Wayland Ave, PVD – When I called to ask what coffee syrup they used, they said, “Only the best! Eclipse.”
Eclipse? I’d never heard of this before, but as I correctly guessed, it was Autocrat’s rival, first appearing on the scene in the 1930s. Upon first sip, I didn’t notice anything strikingly different about it, but the more I drank, the more distinct I found the flavor to be. More of an aftertaste, maybe?
I later learned that Autocrat bought Eclipse 25 years ago, and it’s likely that any differences I tasted were purely psychological. But people still maintain their loyalties, and so I will leave the decision of “the best” up to you.