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Legit Coffee

The quest for enlightenment through coffee.

Category Archives: Reviews

mattbI think it’s important to start this article by mentioning a little about myself. I am one of those guys who enjoys walking into a shop and ordering “the usual.” I find what works, and I get it: Vic’s = Chicken Pad Thai (Mild) with an Extra Large Boba, Parks = 4 Chicken Tacos and a XX Amber, Work = 3 aspirin and a whole lot of interns shutting up. Every time I walk into a business I haven’t been to before, Cheer’s-like delusions fill my head.

So it’s no surprise to readers of this blog that my go-to drink is just coffee. Black. Adding cream or sugar is not an option, and flavored creamers turn my stomach in a way generally reserved for thoughts of catching one’s parents mid-coitus.

However, yesterday I finally made my way into Tiago off Hollywood Blvd. and La Brea. My friend Scott has been trying to get me to stop in there for nearly a year now, and I finally found myself on foot in the area (parking can be atrocious) so I was able to stop in. I walked to the bar and out of my mouth came the words, “Iced Coffee.”

I felt a shudder run through my body. Why had I said that? What was I hoping to accomplish? In my history (with very few exceptions) Iced Coffee means Cold Coffee, and that is a horrible thing tasting of rust and oil. Even worse, lots of places in Los Angeles can get away with it as the coffee culture here is only recently starting to bloom. It’s hot, and people want to cool down.

I handed over a couple bucks for a medium and made my way outside, and was halfway down the block before I even ventured a sip. I often make odd, spur-of-the-moment decisions, but I was afraid this would end up being one of my least favorable.

But I was wrong. Tiago’s iced coffee was good. I will even venture to say it’s the best iced coffee I’ve ever had. I will get it again. I will probably go out of my way to get it today.

It was obviously cold-brewed, smooth and packing a full mouth feel. Caramel tones formed a strong front to each sip, giving way to a mocha-like finish. It was so good that when I finished the cup, I called the store. They revealed to me that they use an 18 hour cold-brew process, which really helps bring out the flavors while taming the acidity that generally plagues cold coffee.

With their goods validated, let me elaborate on their store. Tiago offers plentiful seating (both indoors and outdoors) for people to sit and read or work on laptops. Back in the day, I recall an internet cafe in their location, which probably accounts for their plentiful electrical outlets (another rarity in coffee shops recently). Inside they offer an extensive menu of drinks and food, even carrying some coffee accessories such as Chemex’s and Hario kettles. The staff that I spoke with were friendly and knowledgeable, and warmly asked me right away when I inquired about their roasts if I was a “coffee nerd” (they currently carry both Handsome and Intelligentsia).

I highly recommend stopping into this location whenever you are in the area, you’ll see me there, typing away sipping on “my usual.”

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NathanSome years ago Starbucks had become such a behemoth that competing locations opened across the street from each other in lower Manhattan, and so it was that an older couple from a foreign country that escapes memory started “Mud Street Coffee” with the aim of taking back coffee from the Behemoth from the Upper Left. (By which I mean Starbucks, which is from the Northwest.)

Too bad street coffee sucks.

Last week found me in New York for work — and lots of “more please I’m jet lagged” espresso. I took the opportunity to investigate what appears to be a successful Northwest reinvasion, albeit a more understated, high quality type kind of reinvasion, featuring Seattle’s Caffe Vita and Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Day one had me headed to the Stumptown at the Ace Hotel (another new Portland institution) at 29th and Broadway, partly as a practical matter. My hotel was in midtown, and not having been in the city in ten years, I didn’t feel like dealing with the subways just yet.

The three-year old shop was a bit of a mixed bag for me, though possibly because the the vibe of the place — a strange blend of midtown suits and Portland hip, all in a bit of a physically awkward space that forced patrons to go into the hotel to sit down — wasn’t for me. On my first endeavor, I had a cappuccino with solid espresso but a thick layer of dense, overly sweet frothiness on top that took me by surprise. Subsequent macchiatos were smooth with a touch of chocolate, as they should be. Readers may be aware that I’m not a huge fan of Stumptown, but for those that are, I think you’ll be reasonably satisfied.

A slightly-out-of-focus Stumptown cappuccino in the lobby of the Ace Hotel.

By day two, I had a jones for some serious Seattle espresso — so much so that I took a cab to the brand-new Caffe Vita in SoHo, effectively paying thirty dollars for a cappuccino. My enthusiasm paid off. Low and behold, I walked in and there were Kelsey and John from Vita’s original Capitol Hill store, along with a roaster in the back of their tiny little shop on Ludlow Street. Kelsey pulled a great shot that to me was classic Vita: sharp, a touch sweet, and pleasantly strong. They’ve got a little bit to work out between the roasting, the new machine, and a spiffy new foaming tip, but they’re off to a good start. (Full disclosure: I got a couple free shots, apparently because Kelsey recognized me from Seattle. Also another barista hugged me. So I may be biased.)

Kelsey preparing espresso at the new SoHo Caffe Vita. Note roaster in the background.

The shop is pretty great, too. It’s tucked away on a side street a few blocks south of Houston Street — New Yorkers can take the M line to Delancey Street — and tiny, but with a cool little bar and a few seats in the window.

The view from Ludlow Street. Who is that strange man slouching in a three-piece suit?

Now, in fairness to Mud, I got it at some shop in the East Village where it had been sitting in a too-hot carafe for a while, and I had just come from Vita, so I was probably pretty predisposed against anything other than my one of my top-three favorite espressos in the world.

So, the Northwest may be taking over again, but before I close, I want to give a shout out to Birch Cafe in midtown, where I had a great latte with lunch Friday, and to the few other new shops that look like they’re giving serious coffee a go in The Big Apple. Keep it up!

P.S. Kelsey reports that the Echo Park, Los Angeles, Caffe Vita is due to open in six months or so! Hurray!

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mattbNathan and I had made a day of coffee tastings, and Brū Coffee was our afternoon destination. We lapped the neighborhood a couple times looking for parking since it was a street-cleaning day, until Nathan ran over something in the middle of the street. It could have been a downed palm-tree or a hipster on a fixed-gear, but we didn’t look back.

After ten minutes in a holding pattern, we found that Brū had parking behind their shop. I highly recommend parking in that lot should you like convenience and a close proximity to your destination.

Brū had an awesome vibe- vaulted ceilings, a lofted dining area, and plenty of tables highlighted the shop, as well as a beautiful patio that was chock full of people on laptops. The people were diverse, ranging from scarf-wearing hipsters to a girl with green hair. I even bumped into an old friend. Other than being a victim of the “no outlet” epidemic sweeping coffee shops, it would be the perfect place to study, write, or take a date.

Now to the coffee:

Brū had a beautiful La Marzocco espresso setup as well as a full station for pour-over. Nathan and I both made pour-over selections from Brū’s 4 coffee menu, which offered a variety from San Francisco roasters, Ritual. Our barista freshly ground each of our beans and did a great job with the pour, allowing time for it to blossom.

I opted for a strong Honduran roast, Las Manos. It had a thick body, and a great aroma that kept my nose in the cup for longer than normal. The defining characteristic was a mango aftertaste, preceded by a hint of chocolate. As the coffee cooled, the mango subsided as flavors of old honey pressed through. As a morning to midday coffee, I highly recommend it.

Nathan had the Los Chacones Boutique from Costa Rica. He noted it as having a light vanilla scone flavor, but having a stronger “coffee” taste than our earlier offerings of the day. The coffee cooled into some nice candy-orange tones, and provided a rich, healthy body throughout. His description of it tasting like “coffee” lead us into a conversation that I’m sure we will chat about here later.

At this point I sent the following texts to my girlfriend, leading me to believe that my caffeine intake had maxed for the day. I won’t go into details of the car throwing,  but I think you probably know what happened…

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NathanAbout a week and a half ago Matt B and I ventured over to Echo Park and Silverlake, two well-established über-hip neighborhoods in Los Angeles, to check out the neighborhood in general and Intelligentsia Coffee in particular.

(Incidentally, the Echo Park/Silver Lake boundary has never been clear to me. When we went adventuring, I thought we were in Echo Park, but the Intelligentsia Web site claims their shop is in Silver Lake. So, yeah. Still not clear to me.)

Matt and I set out to get a sense of the complete experience, including atmosphere in addition to the coffee. For my part, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the coffee, though the latter really challenged me to think about what espresso ought to taste like — more on that in moment.

First, the atmosphere. Compared with their Chicago shops and the Venice shop, this edition of Intelligentsia felt a lot more homey. We sat at the bar in back, but there was a nice covered seating area, and there was more of an arts-and-crafts feel to place. There was a sort of living sculpture piece on the wall, which featured some sort of evergreen sprig collage. I can’t really do it justice without a picture, but it was pretty. While the baristas were definitely hip and frequently tattooed, there was less of the suspenders and premium-but-vintagey denim uniform you see at the Venice shop. I found the baristas a bit friendlier, too, though that may have been just a matter of who we happened upon that day. Overall a pleasant place to be.

Matt ordered a cup of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. I neglected to pay attention to its preparation, but the default at Intelligentsia is the Hario pour-over, which produces a lighter-bodied and crisper coffee than some methods. We detected definite floral notes —  I think the first thing Matt said was, “it tastes like flowers,” and we detected bluebells, violets, and lavender. We agreed it had a sort of tea-like body and flavor, a conclusion that was no doubt influenced by all the flowery tastes. As it cooled, we noticed a decidedly different profile, with more acidity and spices such as coriander emerging.

I inquired about the Kenya Gichathiani espresso and was told that it tasted of tangerine, and the gentleman barista was not kidding around. In fact, a tangerine flavor completely dominated, to the point where it was not totally recognizable as espresso. It had a spicy, nutmeg sort of flavor as well. Initially I thought this would be terrible with any amount of milk, but I now think it might make a decent latte or mocha espresso. Too little milk, though, and you might have a hot, thin tangerine milkshake. It was that powerful.

In the days after I had the Gichathiani, I kept asking myself whether I actually wanted espresso to taste like that — to taste like tangerines rather than some sort of Platonic ideal of espresso. I struggle now to find the right words to describe how I feel, but I can put it this way: after drinking it, I almost immediately fell off the single-origin, light-roast bandwagon. My Northwest-born soul couldn’t help shouting, “it’s tasty, but it’s not really espresso!”

I understand of course that it is, by definition, espresso, and I understand that as a single-origin espresso, it is meant to be idiosyncratic. And it tasted good. And I believe in coffee pluralism. Perhaps it’s good to have once in a while. Day to day, maybe, if it’s right for you.

For me…well, like I said, I struggle to understand. I suppose that’s okay. That way, the quest continues.

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NathanIn my previous post, I commented that I might visit Blue Bottle and might also return to Four Barrel to see what was going on. I did both, so here are the results.

Blue Bottle I may have mentioned that one of the worst espressos I ever had was at Blue Bottle, but that, in fairness, I had been warned it was a weird one. Rather syrupy, as in cough-syrupy. No biggie; it was an experiment. This time I had their house espresso roast in a macchiato and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Four Barrel Here’s the real story. Thinking I really should investigate, I went back shortly after writing about the awfulness I experienced here.

The weirdness, if not awfulness, continued. I watched the barista this time and learned a few things. One issue may have been that he seemed to be leaving grinds out for a while, including taking the excess from his portafilter and putting it back in with fresher grinds from the grinder. It did not seem to me that the turnover rate was so high that this was a good idea.

Odder was that the barista did not seem to tamp with much force at all, which may explain what appeared to be a fast-pouring shot, an odd crema, and the strongest espresso I can recall. The stuff really punched me. It tasted kind of over extracted — less sour than last time, but hard to discern any flavors other than ka-pow.

It may be that you go there and find this a pleasant experience. Perhaps it would be for me as well in a latte. The funny thing is, I like strong espresso, but while not exactly bitter or sour, I couldn’t really taste any pleasant flavors at all.

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MarcusAt long last I made it to the Victrola on 15th Ave on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It is shocking, really, that I hadn’t been there before. I’ve been drinking coffee in Seattle for almost twenty years, and I’ve even been to bars on 15th, I’ve been by tons of times.

So, when Monica (also of our Legit team) texted to see if I was up, I knew at last I’d go. My first advice: take the bus. Parking sucks here. But the bus is much more with the cafe ethic anyway.

The place is hopping. I have to say that for such a busy, well known shop, quite a few people were solo at their four person tables. I prefer the shared space attitudes one finds at Zoka or Fiore (which I’ll review soon.). But after getting our orders in Monica and I found a table and embarked. And everything she recently wrote on atmosphere totally applies.

First: the latte. Damn. For years, Vivace was the standard in Seattle, far and away the coolest and highest quality shop around. This was easily on par. This is almost certainly in part due to the Guatemalan single origin espresso, which was so remarkable that drink two had to be a macchiato. It is smooth, dark, I found it to taste a bit like pound cake, if one can imagine that. Like it melted in your mouth, but while a little sweet it wasn’t exactly chocolate. Just go have it.

The art: quite good. Standard rosettes for me, Monica got some fancier stuff. Foam was remarkably smooth to both the tongue and the eye. Even the best sometimes have some bubblies, but not today. This probably contributed to the pound cake feel. Fantastic.

The food: we have to eat, and they have some fine, simple eats. I had baguette with ham and Brie, and a tasty biscotti.

Atmosphere: people watching here is fun, as it is all over Cap Hill. All sorts of people converge here, and it had the feel that made Seattle great in the 90s (the dream of the nineties is alive in… Seattle?). People in jeans and flannel, people in suits with bowties and suspenders, piercings, whatever, and everyone is chatting.

I’ve long been a Zoka partisan, largely for their spectacular and very consistent cappuccino. Another few trips here, and I may switch allegiances.

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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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