Cacao Chocolate Shop

By Cuisine Bonne Femme and Joanna Miller
There are shops that sell chocolate and then there are Chocolate Shops. The latter, if they are first-rate, can inspire even the most hardened and cynical among us. Take this recent email for example:

To: Cuisine Bonne Femme
From: Food Dude
Marked: URGENT!!!!

Drop everything! Are you into chocolate? I just went to Cacao over on SW 13th. It’s the chocolate shop Portland has been waiting for! These people are passionate about the 200 or so bars they carry and their drinking chocolates will astonish. I went in with a completely empty stomach today, had an eight pack of Fran’s smoked salt caramels (the salt is smoked over Welsh oak), and 8 ounces of the melted stuff. Now I’m giddy as a schoolgirl. Cuisine Bonne Femme, are you interested?

Shop

Food Dude, “giddy as a school girl”? Cacao clearly must be something worth our attention. Serious enough anyway, to warrant not one, but two reporters for further journalistic investigation. That’s when Joanna entered the scene. A chocolate lover and recipe tester for the Paris based cookbook author David Lebovitz and an enthusiastic food blogger herself, the woman knows good chocolate. After one quick phone call with the simple words “new chocolate shop, hurry,” we hauled our derrieres downtown, driven by a pre-Perestroikan fear that the shelves might be swept clean before our arrival.

The first sign that Cacao (pronounced Ka-Cow) is like no other chocolate shop in town is seen with one glimpse of the artful window display which is filled with large cacao pods. Pushing our way through the unassuming entrance, we were rendered momentarily breathless. Cacao looks more like a petite boutique in Paris than a store that is located just off of west Burnside Street. The space’s elegance lies in its simplicity and earthiness, allowing the exquisitely packaged products themselves to be showcased as the central design element. It is the chocolate, after all, that is the true star and raison d’etre of this establishment. Cacao is understated and comfortable, with high ceilings, a long curving marble topped counter, a pale Tiffany-blue and cocoa brown-themed decor, and a grouping of tiny cafe tables next to the window, beckoning customers to linger with a hot beverage and their new purchases before rushing out the door. Yes, this is chocolate that deserves some quality time.

Oh yes, and what about the chocolate?

Mariebelle ChocolateThe amount and variety of chocolate at Cacao is astounding and includes long walls of tall shelves filled with chocolates, two large display tables stacked high, and a museum-quality display case of carefully chosen individual mendiants, truffles, and other tasty chocolate-covered bites. While Cacao does stock a variety of brands that one may find in other stores around town, including Valrhona, Fran’s from Seattle, Chuao, and Vosges, we also saw names that have yet to show up in Portland en masse – you know, ones that our friends still fill their suitcases with upon return trips from Europe and New York. In other words, you will not find these chocolates in the candy aisle of your local Fred Meyer, or even any of Portland’s best neighborhood gourmet shops.

These are special and much coveted chocolates, such as Mariebelle, La Bonart, and Cafe Tasse. Off-beat items include an absinthe infused chocolate bar as well as Rabitos Royale fig and dark chocolate bon-bons from Spain.

By now, we were swooning with delight, and just when we think it can’t get any better, we turn around to here these seductive words:

“Would you like to try a sample of our drinking chocolate?”

Drinking Chocolate

Cacao draws a clear distinction between hot chocolates and drinking chocolate, as very well they should. For the uninitiated, drinking chocolate is an ancient, heady, and deliciously thick concoction generally served in small portion sizes; for a little bit goes a very long way. These are the drinking chocolates that are most typically served in Barcelona, Belgium and other parts of the old world and are an intense, deep, and very adult drink. Even if you are someone who does not usually get excited about chocolate beverages, do not skip this special treat. Joanna, for example, had convinced herself that she was a chocolate eater, not drinker, claiming, “I want the flavor to linger, and when it’s liquid, the experience is just too rushed!” But there is not one thing Nestle-Quick about this unearthly nectar. Linger this chocolate does, and in the best way possible. Long after the velvety-smooth richness finally and regrettably left our palates, the mere memory of the moment made us smile for days.

Cacao’s hot chocolates are also quite pleasing, and far above average. These are made with a 50% milk to chocolate ratio which is just the right amount of chocolate punch without being too heavy. They are lightly frothed, and come in either a dark 72%, or a lighter 65% cacao variety. These are the perfect reviving agents for a brisk autumn day.

As we drank from the tiny cups filled with the warm oozing liquid, elation washed over us, and we were in orbit. An extraordinary chocolate buzz had set in. Suddenly we were firing-off questions with a hyperactive, sugar and caffeine-induced fervor, oohing and ahhing over the glass-covered displays, and whispering and giggling to each other like we were teenagers on a class field trip.

The owner Jesse Mannis however, took it all in stride, placating us with more chocolate samples, and patiently answering all of our questions. Without a trace of condescension or l’ennui, he appeared delighted and amused at our enthusiasm; this is clearly a man who has followed one of his life’s greatest passions. We also suspect that he may be accustomed to this kind of light-headed and woozy effect that Cacao has on otherwise rational and calm adults.

Jesse (who cut his chops at Fran’s chocolates for over 10 years) and his business partner Aubrey Lindley (an interior design professional and native Oregonian), just recently moved from Seattle and opened Cacao in September. They are thrilled at their location, rave about wonderful people they have met in Portland, and possess a unique welcoming esprit that makes this a warm, comfortable and delightful atmosphere.

Cafe Tasse Chocolate

Cacao will soon become a regular food and gift destination for Portlanders, as though it’s been here for years. We think it is a fantastic spot for a rendezvous, platonic and romantic alike, and is a refreshing change from the typical routine for the office worker’s mid-morning or afternoon coffee break. Cacao is currently keeping only daytime hours, however expect to see these extended in the near future. They are also planning on adding additional offerings such as champagne, wine and other beverages. Rumor has it they working on a salted butter caramel hot chocolate, and perhaps one with a bit of chili to keep us hot-blooded and vital throughout the rapidly approaching winter months. We can’t wait to try them.

There are so many things that Cacao does right that it is hard to list them all. Despite the fact that these are expensive chocolates, anyone with a bit of extra pocket change can find something satisfying and delicious to buy. There are chocolate tablets of all kinds that are just the right size to satisfy a craving, fine chocolate covered and nut-sprinkled toffees for just over a dollar, and unsuspectingly superior Celtic salted butter caramels displayed next to the register for 50 cents apiece. In their subtle packaging, these could be easy to miss, but do yourself a favor and don’t pass them up. They are addictive.

Specialty chocolatiers seem to be popping up as fast as mushrooms in the wet autumn woods; even the local newsstand seems to suddenly be selling upscale confections. It may seem that newcomers such Cacao are encroaching on the past work of others who have pioneered chocolates in Portland. We don’t think so. Sahagun for example, is 4 blocks away, but we simply would not dream of substituting one of Elizabeth Montes’ other-worldly creations for anything else. Cacao compliments local artisans by providing additional products, helps educate the public about great chocolate, and provides a different kind of retail experience altogether. Besides, there is always room for more chocolate.

  • Phone: 503-241-0656. Heathman: 403-274-9510
  • Location: West End: 414 SW 13th Ave, Portland, 97205. Google Map, smaller shop at The Heathman – 712 SW Salmon St, Portland, 97205. Google Map
  • Website: CacaoDrinkChocolate.com
  • Hours: main shop: Monday -Thursday 9-8, Friday – Saturday 9 – 10, and 11-6 on Sundays. Heathman: Mon-Sat 8am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. mczlaw says

    Was in last week. This is the real deal. It is to the walk in trade what Chocosphere is to internet/wholesale buying. The salon atmosphere is very attractive. Reminded me of Cocoa Bella in SF.

    We chatted with Aubrey–clearly a drooling podhead ;-). It will be fun to see how Cacao evolves. It will also be interesting to see how it endures the construction of a 21-story building next door.

    –mcz

  2. Debbie P says

    Wow! I got a headrush just from reading the review. Can’t wait to actually go and taste the chocolates. Thanks!

  3. Mary Ann says

    Great article ! I am saving my money to fly to Portland to visit the chocolate shop and the speciality shop that sells salts that I had never heard of before reading the article written by Cuisine Bonne Femme.

  4. Vicki says

    On the strength of the above review, and despite the fact that I’m diabetic and probably shouldn’t eat/drink such things, I popped in yesterday afternoon and ordered a cup of their European hot chocolate. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. All I can say is, it’s a good thing I don’t live too nearby or I’d be tempted to have a cup at least once a day, which would surely bankrupt me quickly at $4 a pop. Still, it’s worth every single penny. I didn’t even want a sip of water afterwards, just wanted to keep the mouth feel of that incredibly thick, smooth, not-too-sweet dark chocolate there for another few hours.

  5. Food Dude says

    I went by there yesterday. That drinking chocolate on a rainy day was just perfect. They do carry some lower end chocolates, but I sat there and wondered if they would manage to sell enough to pay the rent. Let’s hope so!

  6. ker says

    I love Cacao.

    Correction: I love Cacao. The atmosphere is amazing, the selection is mind-boggling, the chocolate drinks will change your life.

    Aubrey is an absolute darling – he could sense my passion for chocolate and gave me free samples. He also told me that they are working on tasting notes for all the chocolates that they will have out sometime in the near future.

    My only complaint – and it is a small one – is that they seem just a bit too elitist in their selection. Yes, it’s amazing chocolate, but they just seem to take themselves a bit too seriously at times. I’d like to see them have a little more fun – maybe carry some stuff that’s a little less chichi and a little more different.

    That said, the only reason I’m not in there every day is that my wallet can’t take the expense and my heart can’t take the caffiene…

  7. extramsg says

    When I talked to them, they said they want to be open later. They get a lot of requests for it. I think it’s a matter of being able to hire someone. For some reason they don’t want to work 14 hour days.

  8. Flask Mama says

    I went to Cacao on Saturday largely based on everyone’s effusive reviews. I was not dissapointed. The guys were friendly and happy to talk shop, the dark drinking chocolate was great: cured my headache, cramps and any lagging sour demeanor I had. How can anyone drink more than two ounces of that stuff!!!

  9. James H says

    I stumbled on Cacao last week, and was pretty blown away. The owner (jesse?) was really nice and also told me about Portland Food and Drink, which was really helpful for finding restaurants in Portland, a town I dont know much about.

    I think Cacao they must put a controlled substance in the drinking chocolate as I certainly had quite a buzz when I left.

    I had never spent any time in Portland before, was in town on business in Oregon from california, and thought it might be a hick town. but between Powells Bookstore, a really great dinner at Park Kitchen, and other little shops, I have been pretty impressed. I love the no sales tax thing and the streetcar!

  10. Jonathan says

    Wow. After reading a great write-up in the Willamette Week, I instantly decided to check them out. Funny enough, I thought their address was in the Pearl district, thinking NW, but no, they’re South of Burnside just next to American Apparel.

    Walking in, the place is impressive and overwhelming. This proves to be no problem at all as Aubrey, one of the owners, was all too happy to show me around, asking me about my chocolate experience to point me in the right direction. (…and so many directions)

    I have to say that they house some of the most, if not the most beautiful, chocolate I’ve ever seen.

    Please, do yourself a well-deserved favor, and visit Cacao.

  11. Jeremy says

    I could not agree more with everyone. This place is fantastic and has found a perfect home here in Portland. There really is nothing else to say that hasn’t been said already in singing the praises of this new outfit. So I am reluctant to make a request of them. I have to agree with FD in that I hope they can sell enough to stay in business. So here is my convoluted request as follows. I lived in Spain -the culture there is one of bars, nightlifes, restaurants etc. One of my fondest memories was walking home from nightclubs (not all that much different from the ones found around 13th and S. Burnside) at around 3 in the morning (adjust to 2am for the time clubs close in PDX) and being somewhat inebriated – feeling very hungry. You know what quenched those pains (no, not more cowbell) drinking chocolate AND CHURROS. yes my friends, please, oh please, give me an extra ounce of that lovely chocolate and so that I can dip a delectable churro in it. And not one of those wanna-be churro sticks like they sell at sporting events – make the real ones, in a big circle that aren’t completely covered in disgusting bland sugar that takes away from the delicious chocolate. my mouth is watering….

  12. Food Dude says

    Hmm. I wasn’t all that impressed by their toffee, but that is something I am very picky about. I allow myself one pound a year from my favorite place in Colorado. I’ve loved everything else though! Oh, I also liked the chocolate caramels from Sahagun, better than the Franz.

  13. Susan B. says

    One of the best things about Cacao? Jesse will put together a tiny gift box with 6 or so of their unbelievable gems and ship them anywhere, complete with a description of what the recipient has in store. It’s not really a fair thing to do because then the recipients become addicted, too.

    And a word to the wise for those who have inexplicably NOT YET made it to Cacao: do NOT drive while eating one of their toffee bars. Either the milk chocolate or dark chocolate covered. It makes no difference. The proprietors will not be held responsible when you drive off the road because your brain cannot grasp something that tastes THAT good!

  14. Jill-O says

    Hey FD, would that be Enstrom’s? A friend from Chicago introduced me to them years ago and they are still the gold-standard for me where toffee is concerned. Best toffee I have ever had anywhere, ever.

    The stuff Alma makes, especially her ginger toffee, is really good. I like the dark chocolate and the ginger cutting through the sweetness of the toffee itself.

  15. Food Dude says

    Jill-O: Yup; Enstrom. Reminds me I need to order some… er… for the holidays of course. Not for me. The stuff is addictive.

  16. Food Dude says

    mczlaw, I have. Didn’t even compare. (after the comments, I postponed my diet and ordered a 2lb box from enstrom)

  17. mczlaw says

    Dude & Jill:

    Have either of you had the toffee from Tom & Larry’s in Seaside? it has been my gold standard since I was a wee one. Tom & Larry’s has been in the same spot on Seaside’s main drag for more than 50 years. It is incredible for longevity alone. Of course, I’d love to try some fancy stuff from elsewhere in a side by side.

    Tom & Larry’s also makes some unbelievable chocolate and maple fudge. Impossibly smooth and creamy. If I could inject it, I probably would.

    Any other lifers know what I’m talking about?

    –mcz

  18. Doctor Stu says

    This place is fantastic, but it is way too expensive to make an everyday thing, like Pix.

    If you want a chocolate rush cheap, get one of the 500 gram bars (over 1 pound) of Trader Joe’s Belgian dark chocolate in the red wrapper (higest cocoa content) for about $4

  19. Jill-O says

    I prefer the 3 small bars of dark Belgian chocolate packaged together (lavender colored labels) for $1.29 at TJ’s for my cheap chocolate fix (they’re Callebaut). They are often found at the racks next to the cashiers.

    I also like the dark Chocolove bars which can be found at New Seasons (the ones with the candied ginger in them are very tasty).

  20. Doctor Stu says

    I think my favorite chocolate is a Valrhona bar that they have at New Seasons that is something like 86% cocoa butter.

  21. ellie says

    Stu –

    I’m guessing you mean cocoa liqueur (solids) rather than cocoa butter… man I’d hate to taste chocolate that was 86% cocoa butter!

  22. Doctor Stu says

    Yes, of course you are correct. The bar I’m speaking about is what I would call slightly bitter, not bittersweet, but exceptionally creamy. I’ll have to get the exact Valrhona name for the bar I’m speaking about.

  23. Doctor Stu says

    This is my favorite chocolate bar. It is Valrhona, and New Seasons carries it…

    ABINAO (85% cocoa) :
    Exceptional bitterness.
    This sophisticated bitter chocolate is the result of a blend of the finest cocoa beans from Africa. Its strong flavor has a powerful lingering intensity.

  24. Dissapointed says

    The Disneyland of chocolate shops. Very mediocre with a definite California feel.

    Perhaps I hit a bad day, but in my opinion this place lacks the charm and flavor of Sahagun.

  25. says

    Wow, I could not disagree more. The owners are so darn friendly, and knowledgable; we were there last week and they could not open enough samples for us, to compare. The stuff we brought home was, as usual, outstanding.
    As for Disappointed choosing to not use his/her name, or any name: I do not understand this penchant for posting anonymously. How can someone write, “in my opinion,” and then stand behind a blank persona? What is this all about?

  26. Food Dude says

    I think everyone here loves Sahagun (see this review). They are two very different shops, and I think there is plenty of room for both of them. I tend towards Sahagun, but that’s because her caramels bring me to my knees.

  27. Hunter says

    Now Nancy had that same criticism come from “Joe” or “Louise” would it really make a difference? To some degree, we all have some level of anonymity here unless you choose to surrender it.

  28. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    I love Disneyland!!! They have that old fashioned chocolate shop on Mainstreet USA with chocolate sundaes and chocolate covered strawberries, they also sell beignets in the New Orleans Square, and some pretty damn fine corn dogs that they hand dip and fry to order.

    Dissapointed, Awesome comparison between Cacao and Disneyland!

    So, If Cacao was Disneyland it would be the It’s a Small World After All ride where people would ride those little boats on a river of pure dark 70% Cacao drinking chocolate and tour the wonderful world of chocolates. First stop Mexico where we see the Aztecs offering xocolate to the gods, then Spain for some hot chocolate and churros, then France for some choclate covered caramel sprinkled with fleur de sel.

    Sahagun would be Snow White’s Castle with Elizabeth Montes as Snow White offering the little singing birds and 7-elves tasty tidbits of her chocolates while she whistled while she worked. Of course her prince charming is Rodney from Podnah’s.

    All sounds good to us.

    And Fee-Fie-Foe-Fum, it reads as if Dissapointed has an agenda, hmm? Hey does anyone else remember that Disney story of the Troll that lived under the bridge? For some reason I am suddenly reminded of it…

  29. Nikos says

    Cacao is outstanding! It combines Paris/New York chic with personal warmth and passion by the owners. The seletion always changes. Their drinking chocolate is hard to find anywhere else. I disagree with the Disneyland comparison. I think they are the Disneyworld of chocolate(the one in Florida). Better than California! You cannot possibly have a chocolate love affair and NOT like this place! If chocolate was sex this would be Heffner’s Penthouse! (top that one for analogies)

  30. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Thanks Nikos. Just more proof that Portland is becoming a burrough of Manhattan. Is this like the 6 time in two months Portland has been written up in the Times for food, arts, culture, etc.

    Good for Cacao

  31. SaltyCod says

    Ah, but Mademoiselle, Manhattan does not have Cacao!
    I’ve been to Max Brenner’s attempt, and it does everything wrong that Jesse and Aubrey do right. They are still here in Portland, and are rumored to be opening another Cacao inside the Heathman. So I guess perhaps in this case the East Village will grow up to become a hot new neighborhood in the Pearl?

  32. Nikos says

    I thought Cacao was perfect from day 1, but they are getting better all the time! New interesting chocolates every time I visit! Don’t give them any ideas SaltCod, they will move to Manhattan (good think real estate is so expensive there!)
    Rumor has it the Heathman location is opening early June, that’s a superb location, lots of visitors will carry the word around the country (I see a Bon Appetit magazine write up in their future in my crystal ball.)

    As for a chocolate fix in Manhattan, I go to “La Maison du Chocolat” (ok it has become a bit coprorate, but their single origin dark squares are to die for) or Kee’s Chcolates in Soho.

  33. heartbietz says

    My wife and I visited Cacao today with our 2 year old grandaughter. She was given a sample of my drinking chocolate with one of their lovely little ceramic spoons and she immediately responded “Chocolate Soup!”. Now we will be taking her there for chocolate soup whenever Bibi and Babu (Swahili for grandmother and grandfather) have the pleasure of daytime babysitting! And if you want samples! Go in with a beautiful 2 y.o. blond child!

    Bibi and Babu

    • gallinaciega says

      cacao is happy to give samples to other folks than two year old blond children. that’s what i appreciate about the place is the ability to taste before dropping 6-12 bucks on a new chocolate bar. love you boys!

  34. brewmaster says

    I’ve made a recent discovery: Cacao drinking chocolate. It was a rainy Friday, and I was feeling the Portland funk: that lethargic agitation that arrives with the November rain. I was on my way to Stumptown for a mocha, and it started pouring. I ducked into the lobby of the Heathman, where as greeted by a friendly girl who enthusiastically suggested a warm beverage. She read my mind. I ordered a large drinking chocolate.

    Now, I’ve been visiting Cacao since I moved here two years ago. I buy chocolate from them probably once a week. But for some reason, and despite recommendations from my friends, I had never tried the drinking chocolate. Two words: Holy God! It’s as if I had found Jesus for four bucks. There is nothing on a rainy Oregon day that competes with this stuff. This is the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tried. It’s thick, and one can actually taste the characteristics of the chocolate. I feel like I just made a major discovery, and since last Friday, I’ve been three times. Now I wonder if we could get the city to build a pipeline of Cacao chocolate from the Heathman hotel to our kitchen faucets. Mayor Adams, are you listening?

  35. JD says

    Cacao must be out of Shangri-La. The folks there have an amazing knowledge of their product, are friendly and provide the best hot chocolate for adults on the planet!

  36. pdxyogi says

    Best HC on the planet? Have you ever tried Sahagun? I’m adult in some ways, and find it to be a revelation. Best I’ve ever had.

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