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Good San Diego Coffeehouse?

I'll be visiting SD next week and would love to know a place where I can get a good cup of coffee/classic cappuccino. And when I say good, I don't just mean better than Starbucks, I'm talking about something along the lines of the (now defunct) Murky Coffee in DC, The Roasterie or Broadway Cafe in Kansas City MO, or Ritual Roasters or Blue Bottle in San Francisco. Coffee hounds should know the sort of place I'm talking about. Is there anything like that in SD, or even a reasonably decent substitute?

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  1. Try a search for posts by cgfan - he is the local coffee authority. I don't think there are any bars that provide exactly what you're looking for, but he can direct you to a few places that will pull a better than average shot. (Side note, does San Diego need one of these places? Could we sustain one?) Caffe Calabria is widely considered one of the best coffee bars in town, if you want to try it for comparison's sake. Pannikin is also the longest running local spot - it has its merits, but it's not in a league with the places you mentioned. The Joes on the Nose coffee cart is also pretty good (caveat, I've only had his drip coffee) He's at the Little Italy market Saturday mornings, and the Sunday Hillcrest market.

    If you feel like going up to LA, check out Intelligentsia and LA Mill.

    23 Replies
    1. re: Alice Q

      Thanks AQ for the words, but more of a coffee-crazed obsessive than an authority...but I certainly do have my opinions on the matter! :)

      The best pulled and most consistently pulled shots these days are coming from Nicole at Zumbar Coffee in Sorrento Valley. Steve, the shop owner and roaster, also pulls great shots but mostly I depend on Nicole. Note, however, that they are in the middle of cross-training some new employees so the barista on duty may vary wildly.

      That being said, they're more of a roaster-driven shop than a barista-driven shop, where you'll notice that they'll swing both above and below the ideal brew temps, and they'll suffer fairly often from serving beans that have not rested long enough post-roast. I suspect that they do not regularly "dial in" their machines and grinder throughout the day, nor even from day to day, but that's just a guess from what I taste in the cup. Though not necessarily a bad thing, their blend does tend to vary more than I'm accustomed to versus other blender/roasters.

      I have personally found Caffe Calabria to be notoriously inconsistent, especially since Anna-Lynne, their best barista, assumed office and outside training duties. (In my estimation batting less than 250...) However after repeated visits with a somewhat new crew behind the bar, most of whom I noticed were Italian, their consistency has gone up. I still feel a bit hesitant recommending them, as when they are off they can really be off.

      So delivered with the fewest caveats of any cafe in San Diego, my recommendation goes out to the folks at Zumbar, especially when Nicole's on bar.

      For roasted coffee in general my favorite local espresso roaster is Cafe Virtuoso, though their roasting style is light when compared to most other roasters. (They sell their beans at the Little Italy Mercato and at The Market at Buon Apetito...) It also takes a bit of dialing in to pull their roast successfully, as using nominal settings good for most blends all too easily extracts grainy and undeveloped tastes rather than the complex and layered tastes that are actually hidden inside their blend.

      For single-origin beans our best source is Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, though unfortunately I cannot recommend them for their bar service in either brewing or pulling espresso shots. They always roast up the widest selection of single-origins that I know of in San Diego, and will even sell any of them green for a very fair price (50% off) to interested home roaters. Almost always one can find at least one Dry Processed Ethiopian amongst their selection, one of the more exciting coffees to be found and a rarity at most shops.

      In terms of coffee brewing, no one in S.D. that I know of does Clover brewing or for that matter practices any of the "new old" techniques of vacuum brewing or just simple cone brewing. However Zumbar does offer French Press service, though having never had it there I don't know if they'll do it individually to order. (All of their "normal" brewed coffee is all done using French Press before being poured into thermal carafes...)

      Cafe Virtuoso
      1616 National Ave, San Diego, CA 92113

      1. re: cgfan

        Fantastic. Thanks for the thorough review of options. It is fantastically hard to find a place that maintains a consistent bar--that's why I loved Murky's in DC so much. Never disapointed in their barista quality. Thanks also for your recommendation elsewhere of Kaito Sushi--I'll definitely be checking them out while I'm up there.

        1. re: mdzehnder

          Understood, though relatively recently I had a really nice pull at Chinatown Coffee in D.C., for whom Nick Cho of the now defunct Murky built their coffee program, and even a better shot at Peregrine Espresso in the Eastern Market. Some good shots still remain in D.C. And not quite the draw but at times worth going for are the Clovered single-origins offered at Grape and Bean in O.T. Alexandria.

          ...and speaking of Kaito...if you get a chance to sit in front of Morita-san at Kaito, who knows of my coffee obsession and for whom I home-roast beans for from time to time, tell him about your search for a good espresso. For many a time in front of Morita-san I've compared the dependence of good espresso and Sushi on the barista and the Itamae, as well as how incredibly rare a good espresso is as well as good Sushi.

          That is there are cafes everywhere in San Diego, and perhaps even more Sushi bars, but for each I cannot recommend even three shops; only 2 for Sushi (Kaito followed by Shirahama), and only 1 for espresso (Zumbar), and for the latter with some reservations...

          Water, water everywhere, but [nary] a drop to drink...

          1. re: cgfan

            Thanks cgfan and mdzehnder for the kind words... I'm in the process of building a new coffeebar soon. Good luck in San Diego in the mean time!

            1. re: nickcho

              Great to see you on these boards! I trust that you'll eventually Tweet about your new coffeebar, and hope to hear the details soon!

              1. re: nickcho

                Very glad to hear it as well! I mourned the demise of Murky and am excited to see what you'll be doing next.

              2. re: cgfan

                Big second for Zumbar. Steve has trained all his baristas well- the new girl does an excellent job, too.

                1. re: cgfan

                  I'll have to check out Chinatown again. My wife stopped there several months back and was not impressed, but more recently I've heard better reports. Perhaps they're struggling with barista consistency as well? Peregrine, you are correct, does do a quite good job, and has excellent beans. Grape and Bean I've yet to try, but I've heard good reports.

                  I'm very excited to see this week what Zumbar has to offer.

              3. re: cgfan

                I'm with cgfan. Zumbar is by far the best coffee in San Diego.

                1. re: cgfan

                  So unfortunately I never made it to Zumbar--I was traveling with friends and had to work around other people's schedules. I tried stopping by several times but they were never open when I was there. I did, however, make it to the Sea Rocket Bistro and had sea urchin and fresh sardines, so that was some consolation.

                  Sea Rocket Bistro
                  3382 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104

                  1. re: mdzehnder

                    Oh that's unfortunate; sounds like you dropped by several times too. Generally speaking it's best to think of Zumbar as being open during the working hours for the people who work in the area, plus limited Saturday hours (mornings only). In this way they definitely have much narrower hours than your typical neighborhood or restaurant-zoned cafe, who'll be reliably open in the evening hours and weekends as well.

                    However they were looking at the possibility of opening a second shop somewhere along the 30th Street corridor, which I assume will require expanded hours to meet the expectations of a restaurant and nightlife area...

                    1. re: cgfan

                      They are?! YAY! Then I will have Zumbar near work and home!

                      1. re: geekyfoodie

                        Cross your fingers, as it's been a while since I last heard them mention this. I do know they've been scouting a location, and they've noticeably been cross-training and ramping up their total staff in SV (though not at any one time - it's a small shop), leading me to believe that they're still pursuing the idea of the second location.

                        1. re: cgfan

                          Yeah, last few times I've been in there, Steve has been training Nicole how to roast the coffee beans. Until recently, I'd never seen anyone but steve on the roaster.

                  2. re: cgfan

                    Zumbar definitely is the most consistent with espresso. Calabria has some excellent baristas, but can be inconsistent too. Anna-Lynne did pull me a double once and it was amazing.

                    As an FYI, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters recently added a Hario v60 bar (cone brewing), and any of the roasted coffees can be brewed on it. It's a great pourover method, and you can always request a cup to be brewed on french press as well. There are a lot of good coffees in right now (a nice Kenyan, Yemen, good Costa Rican microlot), and more are coming in (some CofE coffees, a new batch from the recent Geisha auction).

                    Their espresso blend is good, and consistency is improving. I've found that in San Diego the better coffee shops have some really good baristas and some newer, still improving ones, unlike places like intelligentsia or ritual where skill is high across the board. Still, it's getting better!

                    1. re: yangjon

                      By chance would you know if Bird Rock got some of the Ethiopian Nekisse microlot? Trying to find a place where I can score some of these beans as greens, though in the end I might end up paying a king's ransom to get someone else's roast of it...

                      1. re: cgfan

                        Hey cgfan,

                        The Nekisse microlot is really nice, but i think that it was a bit too pricey, so no go on the Nekisse! if you wait about a month, the geisha should be coming in though, and this batch is going to be awesome. i'm not sure if it'll be for sale just as green beans, but it's worth a shot, haha. We have a pretty good Kenyan in, and a really nice honey-processed Costa Rican microlot if any of those
                        are of interest.

                        1. re: yangjon

                          yangion, by "we" Is that the royal we, or did you mean that you are a part of Bird Rock Roasters? Sorry but your last post left me a bit confused...

                          In any case is that to say that BRR is carrying the Nekisse but you didn't buy it for yourself, or did you mean you didn't buy it for BRR, or you don't know if BRR carries it at all?

                          I did have a tasting of last year's Geisha and didn't think it was all that considering it's price... Then again I'm in the midst of some deep nostalgic longing as I recently roasted and finished the last of a rediscovered batch of the stupendous '07 crop of dry-processed Idido Misty Valley Yrgacheffe greens. The IMV's always had a great price to value in my book...

                          1. re: cgfan

                            hey cgfan,

                            Sorry for the confusion! I used vague terms because I don't represent Bird Rock's opinions in any way, just my own, and I'm terrible at grammar. But, I do work on the production/wholesale side of bird rock coffee. BRR doesn't carry any of the Nekisse, just had a tiny sample to sample roast with.

                            Last year's Geisha wasn't too bad, but I think that this year's is actually better. We'll have to wait for it to come in to see though!

                            1. re: yangjon

                              Understood.. Thanks for the clarification

                              Hope you announce here when the Geisha comes in!

                              In the meantime I'll have to check out some of BRR's Friday morning cuppings..

                              1. re: cgfan

                                Will do!

                                If you do come in, we just got our first few bags of green beans of a Guatemalan that placed 4th in this year's cup of excellence. It should be really nice!

                    2. re: cgfan

                      "In terms of coffee brewing, no one in S.D. that I know of does Clover brewing or for that matter practices any of the "new old" techniques of vacuum brewing or just simple cone brewing."

                      Cafe Calbaria has a Clover machine or at least they did as of a year ago.


                    3. re: Alice Q

                      I'm interested in the side note question you posed that no one seemed to run with. "Does San Diego need one of these places? Could we sustain one?"

                      My answer:

                      Yes, we need one. I don't like to be on the negative side but there is nowhere in San Diego that comes close to intelligentsia, stumptown, or 49th parallel for example. It's great to see a growing interest in purchasing quality green coffee and roasting it well (i.e Bird Rock) but the consistency is just not there yet. As for the others mentioned on this post (mainly Calabria. I don't have enough experience with Zumbar yet, only been there once), consistency is again the problem. I purchased my first bag of beans from Zumbar today (Ethiopian Sidamo) and was frustrated to open it up and see how darkly it was roasted. My frustrations mounted when I pressed it and drank a smoky cup. Influx, cool cafe with a great vibe, but the espresso (roasters: Cafe Moto) is so intensely bitter. These are just my anecdotal examples to show that yes, San Diego needs "one of these places."

                      As for the question of whether or not we can sustain one: I have no idea. I would like to think so. I hope so, but the fact that I don't hear more uproar about the mediocrity and inconsistency of the coffee roasted here I wonder if a quality coffee place would thrive here. Then again, you go to a place like any of the Intelligentsia's in LA and you'll stand in line no less than 10 minutes to get your coffee. Those places definitely thrive.

                      Just to reiterrate, I don't like being negative but hope that more discussion and talk about this could lead to improving the thing that we all love so much.

                    4. Caffe Calabria in North Park. Not on the same level as Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia but better than others I had so far in SD.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: honkman

                        Yeah, there's not many to choose from in San Diego...

                        Cafe Calabria for central SD (becoming more consistent lately), Zumbar for North San Diego and clearly the best in town I've found.

                        1. re: Ewilensky

                          I want to go to Zumbar for some time but it closes at 5pm.

                          1. re: honkman

                            I went yesterday and I found Zumbar's to be just ok. Yes, they coffee was pulled well but they were out of just about everything bean wise so I settled for a mug of their Sumatran blend which I found to be over roasted to my tastes. I guess I just caught them on a bad monday or something because they were literally out of most types of beans.

                            1. re: oerdin

                              Hey Oerdin,

                              Sumatran's are typically roasted a little darker (they're known for earthiness and body), so I would definitely try some of the other beans when they're available. When I'm at Zumbar, I'll usually choose my drink based on what single origin is being served on french press. If it's a darker roast (like the Sumatra, or french roast), I'll usually opt for an espresso drink (espresso, short americano), and if it's a brighter coffee (like their Tanzanian or Yirgacheffe), I go for the french press! That way I'm happy every time.

                      2. For espresso mochas, the best I've had are at Pannikin in La Jolla. I just had the best espresso mocha I've had in my entire life there last week (I've been going there for years). They use the Mexican abuelita chocolate.

                        1. If you are in pursuit of an authentically Italian espresso or cappucino, the closest you will come in San Diego is the coffee stand outside the front door of the Mary Birch Hospital on the Sharp Memorial Campus in Kearney Mesa. It is owned and operated by a family from just north of Rome and, having lived in Rome for three years, I can vouch for it. Many of the espresso vendors in San Diego succumb to the temptation to make it "better" by changing some aspect of the traditional Italian coffee; the product of these efforts is sometimes interesting and occasionally enjoyable but they are not the espresso that has been brought to near perfection in the best Italian coffee bars.

                          1. I know I'll get flack for this, but get yourself a Nespresso machine and you'll get a very good one at home. Europeans have embraced this, so maybe they don't know their espressos!!!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: 4wino

                              You'll get no flak from me re: Nespresso. I was a committed homebrew espresso guy for many years -- ground my own beans, had a high-$$$ machine, pulled my own shots etc., etc. Never roasted my own beans, but I was considering it for a while. However, a couple years ago I simply got tired of the mess and the hassle and bought a Nespresso machine. I love it. I would say that flavor-wise it's about a 7.5 on a scale of 10 compared to the best espresso shot you've ever had. However, convenience-wise, it scores an easy 10. I still love getting out every once in a while for a good espresso mocha (Pannikin), but the Nespresso takes care of my daily caffeine requirement quite nicely.

                            2. For anyone craving intelligentsia in San Diego, I hear El Take It Easy (across the street from Calabria) is serving Intelligentsia on a v60 bar.

                              Also! I totally forgot to mention that Bird Rock has been roasting and serving the Geisha, and its also available on the v60 (pour over) or probably french press too. I agree with a lot of the posts that in terms of roasting Bird Rock is top notch (I feel their roast profiles and espresso blends hold their own against the bigger names), even though consistency in execution has room for growth.

                              I have to vouch for Zumbar too though. The roast profiles are a little darker than I'd like, but it's still a good cup, roasted with care. I think that to a certain extent, roast levels can be preference more than skill level. Also, I'm sure that they might have some beans roasted at lighter levels that you can ask for. Execution on bar over there is way consistent though. On a side note, have you guys seen the new wood bar and benches? They're pretty sweet!

                              Also if you guys are willing to find parking, Perks Coffee Shop at UC San Diego serves Barefoot Coffee.

                              I can't comment on Cafe Moto though... they suck. I think that the SD coffee scene still has a way to go but there a places that are solid and getting better. They aren't Intelligentsia or Stumptown, but there's a very small number of places that are passionate about good coffee.

                              El Take It Easy
                              3926 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: yangjon

                                I think a good point has been made about roast profiles being preferential. Still, the Ethiopian Sidamo I got from Zumbar was roasted so dark that it sort of saddened me. All the wonderful and bright flavors of an east african bean are squelched when roasted so dark. Zumbar is pretty spot on at the bar though.

                                I have heard the same thing about El Take It Easy and Intelligentsia. The Linkery has long served Intelligentsia in press pots as well.

                                3794 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104

                                El Take It Easy
                                3926 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104

                                1. re: nhclaus

                                  That's true. The Sidamo I had there wasn't where I like it to be either. I love the really clear blueberry notes that you usually get from them, but I think Zumbar's is more chocolately, and a tad roasty. I think it does come to preference to an extent, haha, but I agree with your preference. Still a good and enjoyable cup though. Bird Rock might still have their Sidamo, and if they do it should be pretty dang good. I think that they're the only ones (or very few) in San Diego that roast lighter, and really aim for complexity in the cup.

                                  Green beans might also play into factor too though. For smaller places like Zumbar who usually go through coffee importers it might be harder to get a really good batch of green beans, and they might just be roasting a just ok batch of Sidamo to the best of their abilities? Kind of a random though, but it's interesting that so many factors play into a cup of coffee. If it's slow, you can always strike up a conversation about roasting with Steve too (the roaster and owner), he's a total coffee nerd.

                                2. re: yangjon

                                  You guys need to try the West Bean Coffee Roasters - a new company here in SD - they do a great Ethiopian Sidamo with those blueberry notes you're talking about. We had their coffee at the Camp Confab event, and Farmhouse Cafe is serving it. I like their Sumatra. They're just selling online right now - but are hoping to open a shop soon. www.thewestbean.com

                                  1. re: Alice Q

                                    When the topic of Sidamos came up earlier I thought about (but refrained from) posting a little note regarding what I was sensing as an oversimplification of the coffee market, particularly in the area of expecting specific fruit flavors coming from a roasted Sidamo. Well I figure this is as good a time as any!

                                    And this is not in response to any specific post, but to the general subject itself... (And note that as one who has never traveled "to origin" the following is just my understanding of how coffee is processed in the origin countries, with a specific emphasis on Ethiopia...)

                                    So personally when it comes to cupping Ethiopians in general I set my expectations based upon what I know of the bean. How specific a region does it come from (Ethiopian vs. Sidamo vs. Yrgacheffe vs. Misty Valley), who processed it, how it was processed, and even sometimes what lot it came from. If all I knew were that it was a Sidamo, I wouldn't necessarily expect much in terms of any fruit or berry notes. That's because most of the coffees from Ethiopia, at least the quality coffees, are wet processed, a process where there is no opportunity to significantly ferment the fruit, and thereby develop the fruit flavor, on the seed (bean).

                                    In general in the poorer and less developed growing regions the wet process is much more dependable in terms of getting a "clean" crop out to market. That is why even in an area where water is scarce the wet process is typically used to access the quality coffee market. Dry process requires less in terms of capital equipment, but is particularly labor intensive if one is developing the beans for a specialty market. That is because the process depends on multiple and expert manual sorting of the beans by visual inspection. So dry processed coffees tends to be associated with lots of defects, and in coffee it only takes a relatively low percentage of defective beans to spoil the whole lot.

                                    However starting a few years ago some small and unusually quality-minded producers saw the potential for producing dry processed coffees while investing in a heretofore unprecedented level of increased effort into the manual screening process. Only by this combination can one not only match a wet processed coffee in terms of lack of defect, but in many ways surpass the flavor profile (depending on one's taste preferences, of course) of the wet processed version of the same coffee. This is due to the natural (wet processed coffees are alternatively referred to as natural process coffees) fermentation of the fruit on the bean characteristic of the dry process. For these rare producers, who typically source their beans from one to a small number of farms, only meticulous quality control practices and grading can separate the beans that have fermented to the point of spoiling from the lot. Since the beans are typically dried on open multi-purpose lots, all sorts of foreign matter can also be introduced in to the crop if it were not for the meticulous grading and sorting ...

                                    So I probably went on way too long here, but my concluding point is this: if one tends to prefer the fruit tastes of a dry processed coffee (for some even the clean ones have too much of a "ferment" character), I'd suggest that one roaster is not necessarily the lesser just because they dodn't happen to roast dry processed coffees. (For Ethiopian coffees it is the rare exception that these DP beans are available, at least in the quality market...) They are completely different animals with vastly different flavor profiles.

                                    Additionally if you prefer the dry processed taste you will quickly discover how rarely it is offered in any cafe setting at all. And don't necessarily look to the big "tatsemakers" of coffee either, (though that is still your best bet at finding these coffees), as there seems to be a reactionary recoil from some in the specialty coffee trade that looks to these dry processed coffees as somehow gimmicky or "unpolished".

                                    As a home roaster I have the luxury of selecting the lot, the farm, the processing method, the processor, the origin and the supplier of my beans, the best roast level, and since I have a collection of brewing devices and equipment I can also determine the optimal extraction process to match *my personal taste in coffee*. However when I go to a cafe I'm just happy and overjoyed if they can at least (beyond not absolutely charring [burning] their roast) do the best at extracting a good brew or espresso from the beans and roasting style that that cafe happens to prefer. I wish it were not so but just achieving that level of quality is not easily found in San Diego, far be it for me to expect a cafe to also match my preferences for specific bean varietal, processing method and roasting style...

                                    Just my 2 cents...