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Where is the Amazing Coffee in San Diego/Coronado?

  • rlh Jun 15, 2008 06:27 PM

Are there any local artisanal "must try" coffee shops in downtown San Diego or Coronado? I am excited to visit and always try to find amazing local coffee while traveling - examples of recent successes include Blue Bottle at the Ferry Terminal in SF and Caffe Artigianale (sp?) in the BC/Calgary area. Where should I go out of my way to try while staying in Coronado and attending a conference downtown? Or should I (relatively happily) just settle for Peets or maybe Starbucks? Thanks!

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  1. Caffe Calabria in North Park,(corner of University/30th)

    1. In my opinion there is no place in San Diego that I am aware of on the order of Blue Bottle or Artigiano, or for that matter Vivace, 49th Street, Caffe Luxxe, Intelligenstia, Coffee Klatch, Cafe Grumpy, etc.... I guess there are those operations that like to think that they reach this level, but seldom do they actually deliver where it counts.

      In San Diego I find that regardless of the passion of the operators and the capital invested in their businesses, I find that it seldom buys them any particular advantage in the results left in the cup. The two largish roasters that actually operates their own cafes I find both fall very short in execution: Ryan Brothers in Barrio Logan roasts too darkly to ever result in a good shot, and in my visits there I've never had a competently pulled espresso.

      Caffe Calabria, perhaps the one with the better "java DNA", unfortunately has pulled and served far more sink shots than fair to good shots in the many times that I've been there, though between the two I would strongly favor Calabria over Ryan Brothers. (My last two visits to Calabria there have been wonderful, and all shots on those visits were pulled by a barista by the name of Anna-Lynne.)

      To get a good shot in S.D., in my opinion and palate, is left right now to one of only two places. The 1st choice would be to Espresso Cart Non Pareil in Kearny Mesa, though most know it by the owner's/sole barista's name, Yvonne. Though technically an espresso cart, the casual observer would be forgiven in believing that it's a permanent part of it's host, the Kaiser Permanente building. It's immediately to the east of I-805 at Claremont Mesa Blvd., on the north side of the thoroughfare.

      The customers there are largely those who either work or have appointments at Kaiser who tend to order the "fru fru" drinks, and a small but growing number of customers who treat it as a destination cafe who, of course, tends to order the classic espresso-based drinks. Because of this dichotomy make sure you make it clear which type of customer you are! (Asking for a ristretto, as always, would do the double duty of ordering a drink as well as letting them know you are a java head!)

      When asking for a ristretto don't be too put back if Yvonne responds with a friendly chuckle and a "good luck!" or a "oh yeah?", as she is definitely one who does not take herself very seriously and is taken to self-deprecating humor... Yvonne uses Caffe Calabria beans, which to me are very finicky beans to pull properly, which makes what she does even more amazing.

      The other place is a small single-shop roaster/cafe called Zumbar in Sorrento Valley. Depending on how you get there it could be very easy or difficult to find. Hopefully you'll be coming from Northbound I-5, where all you need to do is to take the Sorrento Valley Rd. offramp and turn left at the bottom of the ramp. The cafe is in a little strip mall just past the Southbound I-5 onramp.

      Steve's the owner/roaster/operator there, along with his small staff of baristas who work there one at a time during the busier shifts. Otherwise it's a one man operation. I do have a few nits about his operation. I find that all too often he uses coffee too soon after roasting, whereas I find most roasts to be ready for pulling at about 3-4 days after roasting. The other is that he at times pulls and serves what I would call sink shots, whereas I find that with Yvonne she critically watches her pulls and is not afraid to dump a shot when it doesn't look right.

      To this day I have never seen Zumbar dump a single shot, though I have been served several that should have never reached the customer. (If I ever run my own cafe any shot that doesn't look right would be set aside for the barista to drink [and contemplate on] while the machine gets reloaded with a fresh shot until the results are customer-worthy!)

      Note that knowing how difficult a drink an espresso is that this is, in a sense, a nit, but still a rather important one. I generally don't expect a barista to be batting 1000 except for the very best of them, the latter being the ones who tend to work at the cafes mentioned at the very top of this post. There have been a few S.D. baristas that I've come across that seem to be able to bat 1000, but they always seem to disappear and go somewhere else! So for the better but "mortal" baristas left dumping a sink shot is a good sign of quality control and a willingness to not compromise shot quality.

      I hope this helps and wasn't too long!

      Please post back after your visit; let us know where you ended up and what you thought of each cup!

      12 Replies
      1. re: cgfan

        Second Yvonne's ristrettos (thanks to cgfan!). I'm usually there about twice a week. I love that she often joins me for a shot when it's not too busy. There's definitely an advantage of having a one-person operation: though Caffe Calabria is good, different baristas make for inconsistent shots. The downside: when Yvonne is busy, you'll have to wait. But good espresso is worth it!

        1. re: cgfan

          Agree with Cafe Calabria and 'sink shots'. I went there ONCE after I read on coffee geek that they pulled a great shot. Ewwwww. I pull better shots at home by a mile.

          I was pleasantly surprised by Elixir on C street, downtown, however. I used to work a few blocks away and they pull a nice shot and they have some baristas that are quite skilled at latte art--you hate to drink your drink they are so stunning to look at.

          1. re: meadandale

            meadandale: I've never been to Elixir, but having heard some good things on these boards I set out yesterday (Sat) to try it out. Unfortunately they were closed. Are they strictly a Mon-Fri operation? Please do share any details about their operation! (Best baristas by name, history/heritage of their operation, source of beans, porcelain cups available, etc...)

            1. re: cgfan

              Many of the places in that part of town are M-F only as their primary business source is the local office buildings and city hall, which are all closed on the weekends.

              I've only been there a few times and that was over 2 years ago when I still worked downtown. I'm afraid I can't answer any of your questions knowledgeably except that a) I THINK they get their coffee beans from Cafe Moto (which is where I get mine) and b) my ristrettos were served in a thick (porcelain?) demi which retained the heat well.

            2. re: meadandale

              Considering how much of the quality depends on who's making the coffee, not sure I'd judge Calabria based on only one visit.

              1. re: Josh

                Josh: I'd say the same, that one visit is not enough, though I do agree with meadandale's conclusion given my many, many visits to back it up! And per your point, Josh, it'll take a lot more than my last two good visits for me to change my mind!

                But I'm rooting for them!

                I do intend to return to see if they can pick themselves up and finally address this, the only sore spot in their entire operation, though for me it's the most important one!

                1. re: Josh

                  In general Josh, I agree with you. However, for a place with the supposed pedigree of Calabria to serve me such a horrid sour shot as the one I received, it shows that either they either aren't training their barristas or they have poor quality control (or the barrista was having a bad day and didn't really care). The place wasn't that busy when I went so who knows.

                  I can consistently pull a higher quality shot than the one I received there with my $300 grinder and $500 machine, both of which are merely 'prosumer' quality. I'm just a coffee enthusiast who's done a lot of reading about how to pull quality shots (with a little practice)--I'm not someone who does it a few hundred times a day on a commercial setup.

                  Frankly, considering I have a very nice coffee setup at home (for drip and espresso) and I always have fresh beans on hand from Cafe Moto, I don't generally go out of my way to patronize coffee shops anyways. Calabria is several miles from my house in the opposite direction from most places I'm likely to be headed. My original intent in going there was to get some kind of benchmark for quality espresso that I could shoot for at home since. As it turns out, the bar was set pretty low.

                  I'm not saying that one cannot get a good pull from any of the barristas at Calabria, and I certainly am not trying to steer people away from them (everyone has to make their own judgement) only that I personally wouldn't go out of my way to go back there if I was in search of a great espresso. Would I drop in for a drink if I was in North Park and was nearby? Sure. Would I make a special trip up to North Park for a shot? No way.

                  OTOH, if you want a nice place to hang out and read while enjoying a caffeinated beverage, it's a nice enough place for that assuming that all the construction that was going on in the street when I was there has finally been completed.

              2. re: cgfan

                cgfan - when you open a coffee bar - I will never go anywhere else. ;-)

                1. re: Alice Q

                  Alice Q: ***snifff***sip***sniff*** :-)

                  1. re: Alice Q

                    I second that! Cgfan, you are, as always, a wealth of information.

                    1. re: geekyfoodie

                      geekeyfoodie: Thank you for the words...

                      BTW I alluded above to sink shots, the difficulty of batting 1000 in serving espresso, and the general lack of good espresso...

                      ...here are a few more words, (well, actually 984!), on why good espresso is so hard to find, why even a good shop will pull a bad shot from time to time, and why most people have never really tasted a "real" espresso - (hint: If you had to spit it out or even just wince, it wasn't a "real" espresso! A well-made espresso should never be a "strong", or even an acrid, drink!):
                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/49843...

                  2. re: cgfan

                    Just wanted to update this post with some updated findings. Since my post above Zumbar has been batting nearly 1000 (! yeah !) in regards to execution at the bar. In fact over the many shots that I've had at Zumbar since my post, including the last two shots I had before my post, I've had nothing but stellar shots (save one very recent shot that somehow got away). Certainly a marked improvement in regards to shot quality and consistency.

                    I'd still like to see them actually throw away a sink shot from time to time, (I've yet to see them throw out even a single shot), just to know that they'd rather accidentally throw out the occasional good shot in order to prevent even one bad shot from reaching the customer. But with the high percentages that they've been pulling since my post, I guess they could be forgiven.

                    (The bulk of the great shots that I've had at Zumbar have been pulled by the barista named Nicole.)

                    Now the above has to do with their execution at the bar; in other words how well the barista does to get the most out of the beans that they're using, which in this case is their own blend and roast. One remaining (and small) nit I do have that has nothing to do with execution at the bar is their use of coffee that is "too fresh". Yes, coffee can be too fresh, and to really get the most out of the bean one needs to purposely rest the coffee after roasting.

                    The amount of rest, which can be from a couple of days to more than a week depending on the roast and blend/variety, allows the coffee to settle and spin-off tastes that strikes me as being various combinations of gassy, grainy/cereal, and/or tannic tastes. (The latter is sensed by its characteristic drying of the palate.)

                    If in addition to maintaining their newfound level of consistency at the bar, if Zumbar could also age their roasts a bit, then they'll be serving a cup that is as good as it gets in San Diego.

                  3. I've always loved Blue Bottle in SF for their coffee, ground and pressed one cup at a time. Are you looking for coffee or espresso/drinks? Odd but true, some terrific coffee places excel at only one or the other - answers might be different if you're looking for coffee vs ristretto.

                    Pannikin at 6th and G is actually in the area you asked about - downtown - and while it may not be Blue Bottle, it's a much better and more local experience than Starbuck's or Peet's.

                    Ditto Blue Bridge Coffee Roasters on Coronado - can't remember where they are but I'm sure you can find them on the web. They're family owned and will press a cup of any of their roasts to order.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: sandshark

                      Thanks for highlighting my lack of clarity in the original request - I am looking for cups of COFFEE in the San Diego, not expresso shots or fancy coffee drinks - I like drip, French press, Aeropress, Clover, etc. - as long as it is really great fresh-roasted (as opposed to burnt) coffee beans carefully made by the pot or by the cup. I'll try to find both of your recommendations and look forward to it. As I noted, Blue Bottle and Artigiano are currently my benchmarks for such cups of coffee, but anything local is also fun to try.

                      1. re: rlh

                        Most places that can pull a decent shot would likely be recommended for their drip or presspot coffee as well. If the coffee isn't fresh the espresso will be horrible.

                        1. re: rlh

                          There's a place in Escondido called Blue Mug that has really good drip coffee. They have a bar set up for the cones, and brew every cup to order. I don't know of any other place in San Diego doing this, but Escondido is a bit of a drive - about 30-40 minutes from San Diego proper.

                          Calabria also does French press coffee in a couple of different sizes. I also like the coffee at The Linkery, because they get really tasty beans from a place in North Carolina. The La Golondrina is super delicious, and they serve in a French press.

                      2. I so wish that Caffe Artigiano was here in San Diego..best coffee I have ever had and that includes Paris!
                        I can't think of any place in SD/Coronado that would even come close to that but I wish you all the best!

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Condiment Queen

                          I can press pot or vacuum brew for you my own roast of an Idido Misty Valley Dry Processed Ethiopian Yrgacheffe for you from their '07 or '08 crop, or if you'd like even brew it in an authentic Ethiopian Jebena http://www.flickr.com/photos/akatayam... ! :-)

                          1. re: cgfan

                            My brother does quite a bit of home roasting as well. I just finished up a pound of Yirgacheffe he sent me that had a quite pronounced blueberry flavor and aroma. It was great while it lasted...:-(

                            1. re: meadandale

                              meadandale: Yeah, Yrg can do that. Most African beans are wet processed, amazing as it requires a lot of water. However a brave few are dry processing their beans, which is notorious for potentially creating some off-flavors.

                              However the risk is often worth it, as it also contributes to a fruitiness that you just can't get in a wet processed bean. (In dry processing the fruit is left to ferment on the bean, allowing the more complex flavors to shine through...) The Idido Misty Valley Yrg's are all dry processed, and many have a pronounced blueberry scent in the dry aroma, oftentime surviving into the brew itself.

                              A lot of Sidamos also tend to have this characteristic. (Idido is a small town in Yrgacheffe, which is in the state of Sidamo...) I recall a batch of Sidamo that Mike Perry of Coffee Klatch (San Dimas, CA) roasted which was just exploding with dark berry notes.

                        2. Thanks for all of the ideas and recommendations. I really enjoyed the visit to San Diego, but alas, did not have any "blow me away" coffee experiences.

                          Blue Bridge in Coronado was the best I had - the folks working there were super nice and they had very freshly-roasted beans available. Surprising to me, I actually enjoyed their iced coffee much more than the hot stuff, even when I picked a bean and had a cup freshly-brewed (a la Blue Bottle in SF).

                          brought back beans and am enjoying them for variety's sake, but won't be replacing our runs to the local Peet's with them any time soon.

                          Pannikin was as described - a nice alternative experience to Starbucks downtown - but not a memorable cup - fresh and tasty, however.

                          Thanks again.

                          1. It's A Grind is a good / decent option where the beans are not highly roasted so the caffeine factor is still present in their drip coffee.
                            Java Jones is good too.
                            There's a coffee place in Bird Rock, BR Coffee roasters I believ, which has a decent cup of coffee and are a threat to the local Starbucks, which is pretty cool.