Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Los Angeles Area >
Jun 17, 2011 09:54 AM

Portola Coffee Lab - Costa Mesa

For fans of "serious" espresso / coffee, there's a new player in the OC area. From what I understand from an OC Weekly blog, the people behind Portola Coffee have been around for awhile now, but this is their first brick-and-mortar location, and it's quite wonderful ! As the name implies, it's got a bit of a laboratory feel to it, with lots of beautiful glassware and fancy-looking appraratus. But it's all very open and airy, and clean-feeling (yet not sterile). The baristas and other staff even wear white lab coats, to complete the picture.

The place is located in the SOCO Collection, a sort of a shared, multi-use building clustered with other mostly design/furnishing-related business north of the 405 freeway, a block west of Harbor, on Hyland Avenue.

These folks clearly care very much about the quality of their coffee -they're using top-notch equipment, and the counter-person who was helping me asked a short series of clear questions ("Is this your first time here ? Do you enjoy really good coffee ?...) to determine just how "into" the details I was and what type of coffee I would most enjoy, versus just wanting a decent cup of joe. I won't get into the details but they have an array of nice equipment (Slayer espresso machine, syphon, TWO different methods for iced coffee) to make your brew. Whole beans and teas are also sold, and a mouth-watering assortment of gear for your make-at-home efforts. That Japanese syphon at $99 is tempting...

So anyway, my double macchiato was flawless - perfectly dark, deep, complex and subtly, inherently sweet (without any sugar added, as a great espresso does not need any) flavor that lingered and lingered. Served with a nice little glass of sparkling water, too. A nice selection of pastries is also offered, and they've teamed-up with Wicked Wich, a sandwich place that seems to be turning out some great sandwiches (they looked really good, I must return soon), so you can come here and have the full lunch.

Here are their details:

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I went there when they first opened. Those guys are nuts. Truly nuts about coffee. I had a coffee made with their "Trifecta" Machine and it was very good. Never heard of that machine, but I liked the name. Made a fantastic cup of coffee.

    Chatted with the owner / roaster for a bit about their coffee. They really had a refreshing attitude. You could tell they knew their stuff but they weren't snobby or judgmental about it (hello? Intelligentsia). I will stop their whenever I am in OC. Used to go to Kean (which is fine), but these guys are a couple of notches above.

    The only downside is the location. A bit hard to find. On their website, they assume you know where the SOCO collection is. I will say that the space is nice and airy. The retail shops were closed and my young daughter could run around without bothering anything.

    Portola is serious stuff and gives any coffee shop in LA/OC a run for their money.

    1 Reply
    1. re: bsquared2

      I love their location... yes, its a little hard to find initially, but I got there fine via Google Maps/GPS and there is plenty of parking... I also LOVE the space... I spent a good few hours there knitting enjoying my iced coffee in comfy chairs. I can also imagine hunkering down writing there...

      I will say though, they do have room for improvement... Clear in front is their pour over station and their barista was doing one at a time and using a hand timer for each pass. I know timing is important, but it was kinda like watching a bartender use measuring spoons to make your drinks. It made the whole process appear overly fussy and pretentious. The beautify about a pour over is how effortless it appears. You want to lean in and see them pour.. but when you are whipping out the timer every 30 seconds, you step back and realize how clinical it all seems... hopefully they train their staff to go more by ear than rely on those timers...

      They also are getting much more crowded (happy for them!) and the expediting system is confusing... I stood around waiting for my ice coffee for quite a bit. I blamed it on the rush, but it was because the space is so cavernous space I didn't hear my name called at clear the other end of the bar or see it because the counter where the completed drinks is sunk in, so its hard to see. Plus, you have to walk all the way around again to the narrow cashier side to put add anything else to your drink (I actually just wanted a straw). I wasn't the only confused or made annoyed by what appeared to be excessive wait or knocked elbows at the sugar/creamer station...

      Finally this is my own lament and warning. But they were out of the special Kyoto drip ice coffee by the time I got there at noon. The barista told me they sell out even quicker than that... So get there early!

      Anyway, I ended up with their regular iced coffee. I am an ice coffee FIEND and I drink it straight up. What people go nuts over expresso... I go over ice coffee... So, I did find their regular iced coffee very good. Better than Intelligencias and Cognoscenti.... but not quite as good as LA Mills. Of course it didn't have the nuances of my current favorite, Paper or Plastik because they also do the Kyoto day long slow drip... So I look forward to returning and hopefully making it in time for a proper compare...