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May 28, 2010 10:51 AM

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.