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Great espresso in SD?

  • k

I'm heading to San Diego for a conference and need a morning and mid afternoon pick me up. Is the a good coffee shop near the convention center? I'm looking for a barista with talent who knows a cappuccino isn't 20 oz and does immediately ask "What size?"

I will be staying on Broadway, so anything within walking distance would be great.

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  1. There's a little coffee place on the corner of 5th and K St. Called PJs. They make a pretty decent espresso, better than Starbucks at any rate, and are a short walk from the convention center.

    1. I am a Caffe Calabria fan for their lattes.They really know how to pull shots, unlike other coffee places! They train their baristas very seriously. I don't drink espresso, but I have heard it's excellent. They roast daily and have "cuppings daily" to critique their own roasting

      7 Replies
      1. re: abacal

        I know Kaz is already back from his trip, but I wanted to add a little note here about Caffe Calabria. After all of the great things I heard about them, I finally made my way there for coffee this morning. The service was fantastic and my drink was all right, except that the barista didn't put enough espresso in it. I could barely taste anything but milk.

        I'm hoping to try them again when a different barista is pulling the shots. I also love Sochi teas, which is their tea brand, and will probably buy a bag soon.

        1. re: geekyfoodie

          "I also love Sochi teas, which is their tea brand, and will probably buy a bag soon.
          "

          If you do you might want to check the Reader for their semi-regular tea tastings. The head buyer for their tea program conducts a free, informal, and broad lecture/tasting in the rear "service/sales" side of their operation.

          1. re: geekyfoodie

            What kind of drink did you order? In the post Starbucks world, a latte is a large glass of slightly coffee flavored milk. This seems to be regardless of the shop, the public demands it. A 20 oz drink can't help but taste like anything but milk.

            I usually order a machiatto free poured. If the barista looks at you like a four eyed radioactive fish, then simply explain that you don't want "foam" spooned on top but simply to have the aerated milked poured into the drink. Usually specifying a total drink volume is a good way to ensure you get the proper milk / coffee balance you like. I prefer a single machiatto totaling about 2 to 3 oz.

            Has anyone tried Bondi yet? Was I just swept up in 80 degree weather in October and Australian accents?

            1. re: KAZ

              I ordered a caffe mocha, which might taint some of my coffee-loving street cred, but it's my favorite drink. I prefer the espresso strong and the chocolate to be a slight background note (I think of it as a sweetener more than a major flavor additive). A pet peeve of mine is when a barista essentially makes hot chocolate.

              Anyway, this mocha didn't have much coffee flavor in it at all and I watched the barista make it... he poured two half-shots into the 16 oz. cup, which isn't enough for me. I'm not writing off Calabria yet. I'm keeping cgfan's comment about inconsistency in mind and giving them another try or two. Next time, I will be more specific.

              I don't go out for coffee much around here, as I agree that there isn't much of a coffee culture. I usually make espresso at home with espresso from Zeitgeist, a Seattle-based roaster. I'm looking forward to trying Bondi and Papplecco.

              1. re: geekyfoodie

                geekyfoodie: I'm glad you mentioned home espresso, and perhaps we may share the same view: I rarely say this since it may strike some as a boast, (unintentional, for sure), but any home espresso enthusiast would probably say the same thing. If one does not live in a city that has a sizeable and thriving coffee culture, then the best espresso is the one that you can make at home, without a doubt. So even though I do order a rare espresso out there in the streets of S.D., (and then only with a select few baristas), the best ones so far are the ones that I pull at home. For sure it requires good equipment and a strict attention to detail and one's technique, but it results in a cup that's more enoyable and delicious than the cup you can get in most/any of our local cafes.

                1. re: cgfan

                  I agree that the ones pulled at home are often better, but I sense that I'm probably not as technically proficient as you are. What I like best about making my own espresso is the control with the espresso itself and, if I'm making an espresso drink, the rest of the ingredients. I use a small dollop Ghiradelli chocolate sauce and steam lactose-free milk. I'm lactose-intolerant, but I abhor soy milk and espresso... I think the flavors are completely incompatible. The end result is a mocha that's slightly sweet, but not dominated by chocolate.

                2. re: geekyfoodie

                  I had a double expresso at Pappalecco's this past weekend. It was good and I liked that it had adequate crema. Not quite as good as what you can get in Italy but I was satisfied. The friend that was with me wanted an iced coffee drink. It arrived in a large martini glass and, in spite of the rather whimsical serving vessel, was refreshing and he was quite happy with it.

                  I was more impressed with the salad, bruschette and gelato a friend and I split than I was with the coffee tho'. The salad had fresh cheeses, walnuts (not toastes, not glazed, not sugared), pears that, perhaps, had a soak in some Prosecco and a green sauce (pretty decent pesto sauce) . The brushette was a large crisp wafer topped with more of the pesto sauce, lots of chopped tomatos, pine nuts and olive oil. My friend and I have now worked our way through 8 of their current 16 gelato flavors. The dark chocolate, frutas de Bosque (think strawberry) and coconut rock.

                  Go for the coffee, stay for the food.

          2. KAZ: That's going to be a pretty tough call, as San Diego does not yet have much of a coffee culture. Getting a good espresso is all about finding the specific barista that knows what they're doing; rarely is a single shop's entire staff of baristas consistent enough to warrant suggesting an entire shop without suggesting the specific barista at the shop.

            The one that's already been mentioned, Caffe Calabria, will require a taxi to get to from downtown, and as much as I'd like to like them, I find them too inconsistent in execution.

            There are also fans of Ryan Brothers in Barrio Logan, a very long walk and will take you first through S.D.'s homeless population and then through an industrial area before reaching the shop. I never understood the appeal; I find they roast too dark as well as fails miserably in the execution department.

            From where you are the only one that I think may even be worth a try would be Caffe Italia in Little Italy, but it'll also be a long walk from the central Broadway area. Perhaps you can hail a pedicab or short taxi ride from there. However I have only come across one barista at Caffe Italia who is even worth talking about, so it'll be hit or miss. Unfortunately I never got his name, but have had nothing but consistently good espresso and espresso drinks whenever he was at the bar.

            If you decide you can go further away from the downtown core for an espresso, repost here and I can provide a suggestion or two that'll be further out from where you currently are. Otherwise your best bet, and it'll all depend on the barista who's there at the time, will be Caffe Italia.

            There used to be one good barista in the Gaslamp area, a lady who used to run the Carriage Stop Cafe in front of Horton Plaza. Like all good baristas she was passionate about her art and could talk forever to other espresso enthusiasts. Though I no longer frequent the area I've always looked forward to dropping in and getting a shot whenever I was on foot downtown. Unfortunately I think that operation is long gone.

            4 Replies
            1. re: cgfan

              Cgfan, have you tried any of the coffee/espresso offerings at Papplecco (at State & Cedar, fringes of Little Italy)? We know their gelato is very good, I was wondering if they did coffee as well.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                DiningDiva: Yes I have, everytime I have one of their gelatos, which is about once a month. This is a tough one for me as the "new wave of coffee" approach that's practiced in the United States (principally Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and in the Bay Area, and more recently in Manhattan) is heavily technique, technology, and enthusiast-driven. It demands a relationship-driven approach to sourcing, distributing, and roasting coffee that sets it apart as something quite new, in many ways over and above the espresso culture that it was derived from, which is that of Italy.

                Unlike the States it's a pleasure to tour through Italy (and Spain) and see the incredible care and consistency they get at the average cafe, where things are setup where one can enjoy their cup as soon as it is made and payment is taken care of either well before or well after the cup is ready.

                But I have to say that they're almost two different cuisines now, the modern U.S. espresso movement and that of Europe. To me they're aiming at a different style. In Italy Lavazza and Illy dominates their coffee scene, whereas in the U.S. there is no "traditional" espresso scene, as it is (the new wave, that is) driven by relatively new microroasters/cafes who have somehow managed to break the Gordian Knot between having a survivable business while being fanatically quality driven. (Throw away any pour that even looks the slightest bit substandard, make regular trips to the growing regions, place a high emphasis on training and compensation for the baristas, avoid the high margin fru-fru drinks, keep a spartanly bare espresso menu, place a high capital investment in state of the art brewing equipment, control temperature and grind throughout the day, etc.) And unlike the U.S. where the leading baristas are very young, in Italy it's the old guard with years of tradition and experience behind them that delivers the cup.

                Both styles have a lot of "heart" in them, though I am quite sure that the traditional baristas of Italy will be quite amused by our approach to their favorite drink.

                So I hope that wasn't too long of a detour, but it's just to cue up my view of Pappalecco. To me it feels like I've dropped into a typical Italian caffe, where the coffee is not specially sourced and microroasted but rather comes from a long established but big corporate source and a resulting cup not having copious amounts of crema but definitely not lacking it either. But it's a good honest cup nevertheless that I can appreciate as coming from another, and much older, tradition.

                So I think of Papalecco, despite a very modern interior and a young, enthusiastic owner, as an example of the old guard espresso that we never really had in the States. It seems that we have mostly skipped right over establishing a European-style espresso tradition, growing out of our old 5 cents per cup/bottomless cup of coffee roots and rapidly into the era of the initially more quality conscious corporate mega-roasters/cafes which too rapidly gave into pleasing the boisterous palate of our sugar-craving/anything-goes public, to now the slowly emerging scene of the enthusiast-driven microroaster/cafe.

                I quietly enjoy their cup while being careful not to compare it to that produced, say, by a well-run "new wave" shop. Perhpas it's misplaced romanticism on my part but I do enjoy both styles, however incongruous it may seem to others. I hope that made some sense...

                1. re: cgfan

                  You said it quite eloquently and told me exactly what I expected to hear. I'm never sure if it's the owner's charm or his accent that seduces me into thinking wonderful things about this place. Somehow I've never gotten around to trying the coffee. I'm not looking for the whistles, bells and instant, push-button drinks or coffee nirvana. All I want is a nice, well pulled espresso with which to sit, relax and enjoy. Thanks, I know where I'm headed this Saturday ;-)

              2. re: cgfan

                Actually, we used to have a great coffee culture until Starbucks ran most of the shops out of town.

              3. What about Tony's coffee cart, in front of the Y at the corner of Broadway and Columbia? I haven't been b/c it's a little too far from my office, but I have heard he's great. Considering that's where you're staying it's probably worth checking out at least!

                1. Thanks for all the info everyone. Unfortunately, I was transportation challenged so I stayed mostly downtown. The espresso varied from the undrinkable (PJ's Cafe) to the just plain bad (Cafe 222) to the decent (Chloe). By far the best I found downtown was at Bondi. Granted I have a soft spot for Aussie style coffee, but they matched the expectations. As cgfan pointed out, the Barista is a huge part of the equation. There is a barista at Bondi, tall, thin girl with a rat tail, who is quite good. There is also a great open window direct to the coffee bar. If you have a meeting in downtown, Bondi is a great place to grab a coffee.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: KAZ

                    KAZ: Sorry to hear you weren't more mobile, but your post benefited us all by turning into an impromptu scouting report! Thanks for the intel!

                    So Bondi it is, and (a distant, I take it) second was Cafe Chloe... By chance did you happen to get the name of the barista at Bondi, the one with the rattail? And was she dedicated to the post of barista, or did she have other duties at the bar as well?

                    There's a burgeoning espresso movement happening with the blokes down under, so perhaps it's not too unthinkable that that may have influenced Bondi's coffee program, though I haven't been there to check it out yet. But perhaps the part that's the biggest surprise is to see any food service establishment having a good espresso.

                    I find that coffee, and especially espresso, to be given just a second thought in the restaurant setting. (Though most cafes and coffee shops don't do the espresso side of their operation any favors either...)

                    1. re: cgfan

                      No, I did not get the name of the barista, It looked like she was a dedicated barista, though it was during lunch, so she may do some bartending in the evening. The first time I went, she actually wasn't working and one of the waiters made me a very nice machiatto and my friend a long black (aussie for an americano). I actually ordered the coffee from the closest waitress and she went back and got the one who made me the coffee. He was from Melbourne, where there is a nice coffee scene, and knew what he was doing.

                      They serve coffee from one of Australia's large coffee roasters, Damsisotta (sp?).

                      The flat white the rat tailed barista made me during lunch was one of the best coffee drinks I've had in quite some time.

                    2. re: KAZ

                      Thanks for the tip on Bondi - I didn't even know they had a coffee bar. Will have to check that out sometime!