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Staying Awake on the Freeway: Coffee in Los Angeles

IMG_2727Los Angeles doesn’t strike you as a coffee town like its rainy Pacific Northwest friends Seattle and Portland, or its foggy neighbor San Francisco to the north might. The sun is always shining. The temperature hovers in that 65-75 degree sweet spot seemingly year round. Hence there is no need for a warm-up mocha, right? Who needs the caffeine here?

Well, you need the caffeine, or at least Vin Scully on the radio to entertain during those sluggish commutes on the 405 or the 10.

Let’s be fair though about coffee. Los Angeles deserves world-class baristas and local micro bean roasters just as much as any cold weather or rain-abundant destination. Coffee is as comforting as your favorite blanket and nuanced as intricate Rhône blends. When in capable hands at the espresso machine or drip filters, the morning cup and afternoon pick-me-up can be a transcendent drink, regardless of the climate

Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Starbucks can be found anywhere across Southern California. Though Los Angeles might have been a little behind many other pivotal cities for “Third Wave” coffee options, the great metropolis has certainly caught up. Now, you’ll be plenty awake on the freeways after enjoying some of the finest espresso and coffee in the country. Out in the Warehouse-Arts District on the eastern outskirts of Downtown, all sorts of fascinating places to eat and drink are springing up. Wurstkuche and Church & State led the way, with rollicking versions of a German sausage and bier haus, and a French charcuterie-driven bistro, respectively. Now, in this land where every other car along Mateo Street seems to be an 18 wheeler truck, you have destination worthy coffee.

Handsome Coffee's Bar

Handsome Coffee’s Bar

The less than a year old Handsome Coffee Roasters currently is the dashing gentleman of the Los Angeles coffee society. A trio of former Intelligentsia employees, Tyler Wells, Chris Owens, and Michael Phillips are the minds behind Handsome. Phillips was Intelligentsia’s director of education and also is a two time U.S. Barista Champion and the 2010 World Barista Champion. No big deal. A visit to his domain and you’ll understand how such a concept as a global barista champion can exist. Baristas are both performing artists and athletes.

I visited Handsome in February 2012 when they were conducting a soft opening in the rear of their facility, where the beans are now roasted. Back then the espresso was sensational. It’s possibly even achieved more depth and body since, or at least when the shots are pulled by Phillips. The new bar is a gleaming, sun splashed beauty, with a wrap around counter you can sit at while watching the mixologists, er baristas, at work. It’s quite the captivating show. Almost as captivating as Handsome’s Dapper Espresso blend from Colombia and Guatemala, or their single origin Finca la Bolsa roast currently occupying space on my counter.

Handsome's Espresso

Handsome’s Espresso

The only request? Need that sparkling water sidecar with the espresso. It’s the defining touch from so many premier baristas.

Los Angeles is not necessarily an espresso town. This is a town that enjoys its lattes and cappuccinos, often with skim milk. Or, go for a green tea latte or maybe, a Spanish latte. The latter is the specialty of the eternally chic Urth Caffe, a quartet of cafes that must have created the Los Angeles love of eating healthful turkey burgers and quinoa salads for lunch, followed by exceptional housemade desserts to erase any healthful benefits beforehand. There is an Urth actually near Handsome in the Arts District, but for Urth in all its super models- dogs on a leash at the table- sitting under umbrellas on the patio glory, nothing beats the West Hollywood café on Melrose. It’s the only place I’ve seen a patio without heat lamps full on a cold, rainy day.  And the umbrellas barely could cover half the tables.

Balconi

Balconi

Completely different than Urth would be Balconi, a tranquil drip coffee specialist café courtesy of Ray Sato, on Olympic in West L.A.’s Little Osaka. The coffee bar almost feels like a science lab with the impressive siphon filters leading to extraordinary cups of coffee from boutique roasters. My cup actually happened to be from Handsome’s beans. It’s the cafe that’s perfect for reading the paper, while channeling the inner coffee geek inside you. An afternoon doesn’t get better than lunch of tsukemen at the nearby Tsujita over on Sawtelle, then a coffee reviver at Balconi.

Espresso Profeta

Espresso Profeta

Decor-wise, it’s hard to beat the sunny, Tuscan-style patio of Espresso Profeta in Westwood. If I were a UCLA professor, I’d book a table here daily for grading papers. And, Profeta happens to be the only cafe outside Seattle I’ve found serving Vivace Coffee. The espresso isn’t as pure and captivating as the shots actually pulled by Vivace at their Capitol Hill stand and cafe. Still, no complaining with this ambiance, especially since Profeta is the only spot I found in the city to add on the obligatory sparkling water shot.

My personal favorite cafe-coffee quality combination would be Paper or Plastik on a non- descript stretch of Pico in Mid-City. Here you’ll find excellent Intelligentsia espresso, my vote for the city’s premier cold brewed coffee, free Los Angeles Times, and an attached yoga studio. Is the yoga for before or after the coffee? This is the type of place that could easily become a second office or living room.

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Paper or Plastik

Coffee Commissary anchors a prominent, shiny position on Fairfax, north of the Canter’s/Animal corridor, offering beans from beloved San Francisco roaster, Sightglass, among others. You’ll sometimes get that New York barista attitude here, but the café itself is strangely celebratory and active for a coffee-centric destination. Cafecito Organico is your spot near USC, or even better at its sister cafe on Heliotrope, the place for an espresso after brown bread ice cream at next door Scoops.

Spring for Coffee‘s stand on Spring Street barely has room to fit five people inside and five more on the patio, so it’s a take-out crowd. Luckily you can get your terrific macchiato from Ritual in San Francisco in a ceramic cup and savor it right in front of the espresso machine. It’s a funky spot, catering to the businessmen in need of staying awake, and the haute coffee society. Spring for Coffee also has a spot now in Umamicatessen, Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman’s behemoth Downtown food bazaar-deli.

Spring for Coffee

Spring for Coffee

On the other side of town amidst the yoga studios and health food boutiques of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica is the serene Caffe Luxxe. The six year old Luxxe brings a slice of Milan to the Westside’s stroller set and European expats and achieves its goal with an alluringly dark espresso, nuttier and slightly spicier than most versions. Fortunately, Luxxe keeps the shot’s crema thick, unlike most bitter, watery Italian-style espresso shots. If you’re into this sort of thing, Luxxe’s signature is a cappuccino with orange zest on top.

The Los Angeles “Pop-up Cafe in a Cafe” or “Two in One Cafe” is in full swing. By this I mean under one roof you have a separate coffee section and bakery/food section with different names, but you enjoy everything at the same place and purchase everything at the same register. In Silver Lake, Los Angeles’ beloved jam maker Jessica Koslow now shares her two month old cafe Squirl with Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski of G&B Coffee, both of whom were baristas at Intelligentsia. The Squirl jams might steal the show, but G&B’s coffee is a force. Espresso drinks during my visit were from 49th Parallel of Vancouver’s beans, served on a wooden platform, with a shot of, yes, tea. It’s a quirky, transitioning, shoebox sized spot. The food, jams, and coffee easily exceed the quaint conditions. Squirl has irresistible charm with the superb espressos and Kukoho Rose brown rice porridge topped with a Seascape strawberry and rose jam.

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The same set-up can be found with the barely larger Proof Bakery in Atwater Village, where the superb pain au chocolat and cannelés are baked by the gifted Na Young Ma. At the same counter, you’ll find espresso with San Francisco’s Four Barrel beans by Yeekai Lim’s Cognoscenti Coffee. Even Cognoscenti’s web domain name is popupcoffee.com. Here, the hot chocolate tastes like a weak latte, but the espresso shots are golden. Late last week, Cognoscenti opened up its own cafe in Culver City, Of course, the baked goods will be from Proof.

Of course, almost every discussion of Los Angeles coffee begins and ends with the two giants who made the initial “Third Wave” movement in the city. No, not Starbucks and Peet’s. We would be talking about Intelligentsia and LA Mill. Both continue to push the envelope for the details expressed by a bean. The cafes also push the boundaries of what constitutes a coffee bar. My pick of Intelligentsia’s trio would be the Venice branch on Abbot Kinney. Tucked off the main stretch with the only sign of its existence being the lengthy line of dogs and their owners, it is nothing short of a classic fashionista Venice scene. The coffee at the laboratory bar is spectacular. The atmosphere is…unique for certain. It’s not a lingering atmosphere like the Silver Lake branch’s patio on Sunset or the cafe on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. Intelligentsia may have started in Chicago, but it is the undisputed king in Los Angeles.

Proof Bakery/ Cognoscenti Coffee

Proof Bakery/ Cognoscenti Coffee

LA Mill’s boutique/restaurant is right across the street from the Silver Lake in Silver Lake. Is this is a cafe or a boutique or a restaurant is always the question. From the outside, the LA Mill looks like a boutique you might find in Beverly Hills. It’s also a cafe, so you can of course sit in the handsome, animal print covered- oversized chairs sipping a cup of Japanese hand dripped, single origin Ethiopia Daea Kebado roast, but it almost feels too regal a place to do so. Then again, the place is owned and the food imagined by Michael Cimarusti. Yes, the same chef as the chef-owner of arguably the city’s most ambitious gastronomic restaurant, Providence. LA Mill has a master sommelier. For breakfast, an omelette with goat cheese runs for $14. The most popular item is an ABLT (Asian BLT) with pork belly, arugula, tomato, and preserved black bean. At $16, this is certainly a restaurant.  It’s too bad the liquid center white chocolate lollipops departed with former pastry chef Adrian Vasquez (he’s still at Providence).

Cafe? Boutique? Restaurant? It is what it is. For our purposes, LA Mills roasts and serves some formidable coffee and espresso.

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Staying awake isn’t a problem anymore on the never-ending freeways of Los Angeles. Exciting coffee can be found across this enormous city in equally exciting cafes, pulling espresso shots with the sunshine-filled weather shared by the sunshine in each cafe’s distinct personality.

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