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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

NathanFive days, three cities, six-plus shops: Thursday through Monday; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland; Intelligentsia, Ritual, Four Barrel, Stumptown, and Oblique. In that time, some of the best espresso I’ve had, of the very worst I’ve ever had, and a few really disappointing cups from supposedly reputable cafes. Let’s go!

Warning: I get a bit snarky. Probably a byproduct of the fact I’m reviewing from memory six coffee shops sampled over the course of five days and three (so far) flights up and down the West Coast. Just so you know.

LA and San Francisco, Round One The quest began Thursday with Black Cat latte at Intelligentsia — while some of their offerings aren’t so great in lattes, Black Cat is generally robust enough to satisfy me — and continued with another latte the next morning at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. Both were competent, but then things took a turn. I had loaned a laptop charger to someone in need, who later bought me a cup of coffee. She didn’t ask what I wanted, but whatever it was, it was awfully light-bodied, to the point of being thin. Early on it had a pleasant-enough, citrusy taste that I sometimes like, but it went bitter so fast that I had to get rid of it. Not a good sign, Ritual.

Still, the coffee banshees didn’t start screaming until my friend Jim and I went to “it” roaster Four Barrel, residing just blocks from Ritual in San Francisco’s Mission District. Jim and I were horrified to find our macchiatos sour and flat, without any real flavor at all. Four Barrel, you blew it. Badly. I have to actively prevent myself from writing expletives. I’ve had to delete some that I did write down.

Also, your decor. You’re really trying too hard. Mounted boars’ heads? Really?

San Francisco redeemed itself with a late-night trip to Philz, an older-school kind of place with something like 19 coffees on the menu. It being late night, I had their Swiss water decaf: medium bodied, slightly chocolatey sweet, just how I like it. The opposite of the vibe at Four Barrel, too, though perhaps I could do without the 90s-coffee-shop broken furniture thing.

Other San Francisco shops worth considering: Caffe Trieste, the West Coast’s first espresso and famous Beat hangout; Bernie’s; Java Beach.

Portland Things tapered off somewhat by the time we got to my hometown. Theresa and I had Stumptown first at Besaw’s in Northwest and again at the Ace Hotel. Theresa had their chai, which she enjoyed. I had a cup of their Panama single-origin coffee, which like the Ritual cup started well-enough but got bitter. Especially odd considering that it was made via the Chemex method, which in past experience has somehow managed to prevent long-run bitterness. (The earlier cup at Besaw’s faired better, though I found it overly light-bodied.)

Fortunately, this was Coffee Land, and on the way to airport we had a different experience: Oblique Coffee Roasters. We talked to the owner about their Derailleur Blend espresso, and I have to say it was the way to go. Sharp without being bitter, rich, chocolatey, citrusy, a bit sweet, massively full bodied. I’m revealing my Northwest coffee roots (and bias), but it was delicious. A wonderful way to leave Portland. On top of that, Oblique is in a neat old building in Southwest Portland that used to be a grocery store or some such. Neat furniture, too.

Other Portland places worth considering: Urban Grind, Public Domain (great downtown espresso).

San Francisco, Round Two This morning I’m back at Ritual, sampling their Sweet Tooth La Piñona espresso in a macchiato. I find lately that these sorts of lighter-roast espressos actually require a bit of milk to achieve their potential. Without boring you with more chocolatey-ness, it was really quite good.

Later in the day, I’m going to try to get to Blue Bottle, and should that happen, I’ll update you. My previous least-favorite espresso was here, but in fairness I had been warned in advance that it was an odd one. I’ve had decent lattes made from their house blend.

Lessons learned? Coffee variety is good, and even as a fan of darker, fuller-bodied coffees, I like me some light roast. But no amount of tattoos and fancy espresso machines make up for excessively fragile coffees and poorly-monitored espresso shots. I’m on the quest for great coffee and espresso, and I take no prisoners.

Oblique, I’ll be back. You’re up there with the Three Vs of Seattle.

Four Barrel, you’ve got one more shot, and then only if I can get over the hokey decor.

Intelligentsia, you make light roast worthwhile, which is saying a lot from a guy who once declared the approach weak and pointless.

The rest of you, you have my respect, even if you’re not my favorite.

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