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Jan 12, 2012 08:42 AM

Coffee Snob in Search of a fix

I am a coffee snob. I admit it and have no shame about this affliction. We are visiting from Vancouver BC, where good coffee abounds (fitting for our wet, damp weather that lasts for 8 months). Now in sunny (or soon to be) San Diego, I am looking for a well-drawn espresso. . . full of those lovely coffee oils and aroma to match. I am keen on a locally owned cafe (i.e., NO Starbuck or Peete's) especially in Little Italy or Hillcrest. Any suggestions out there, my fellow foodies?

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  1. I am far from a coffee snob but my favorite place for coffee is Caffe Calabria on 30th Street in North Park (not too far from Hillcrest). They also serve excellent Pizza after 5.

    2 Replies
    1. re: JRSD

      SIGH. I went to Cafe Calabria this morning and was soooo disappointed. I had a macchiato. The espresso was bland and hollow, nothing interesting. No notes of anything. No spice, no chocolate. Just empty. My hunch is that their machine needs a good cleaning . . . or they need some better beans. And, the ambience, while promising from the outset, waned quickly. The barista was unfriendly and seemed completely uninterested in talking with me. (and I am a pretty friendly, unintimidating person). To top it all off. . . and this is a bit gross. . . there was poo smeared on the toilet seat. Not a good experience.

      1. re: MyPurpleFeet

        That's unfortunate... By chance, what time did you go?

        I find that anywhere near the "switchover" to their dinner-time Pizzeria operation is a most awkward time to be a customer there. The dual-use setup of the front bar area can cause a lot of tension as their personal busily sets up for dinner service, preparing seating areas for dining that were earlier in the day used for the cafe.

        *** edit: oops, just noticed you went in the morning... ***

        Yeah, their blend could be more exciting; but I don't say that in a bad way. Theirs is the kind of shop that reminds me of espresso in Italy. Not mind blowing but serviceable, always enjoyable and consistent in a very non-3rd wave non-hipster kind of way. The thing I like about them is their consistency in execution, pulling technically perfect shots.

        Personally I find their blend very tricky to pull, and have long ago concluded that it has some very tight shot parameters. I've never been able to dial it in at home the way I can with other blends, which all the more impresses me with their consistency at bar.

        I'd take a consistent shop with OK beans any day over any shop that has the beans but not the consistentcy. Vergnano, to me, falls in a similar category, though I find in Vergnano's case that while their execution varies more, their blend holds up well to these variances.

        Zumbar has had great beans and consistency (when Nicole or Aaron is at bar), especially, though not always, when they have a featured "extra fare" choice. Past hits there have been their Guji Natural Sidamo, and before that their Red Sea Blend, each which were well worth taking the extra fare.

        Honestly I tend to not to get too thrilled with most espresso blends, which is why I roast and pull shots at home. However because of this I have long ago learned to separate out a cafe's technical execution in pulling shots from the character of the blend. The latter is almost never exactly what I would rave about, but I would get thrilled about and rave to no end any shop that can consistently deliver on the former - technically pulling a beautiful shot.

    2. I'd recommend Zumbar below the interchange in Sorrento Valley:

      Great roasting and a great espresso. They're in a bit of an odd location, but I work in that area once a week, and so happy they're there.

      +1 for Caffe Calabria.

      Also, I recall other hounds speaking highly of a certain coffee cart that pulls a nice ristretto- perhaps they'll chime in.

      Good luck!

      2 Replies
      1. re: SaltyRaisins

        +1 on Zumbar. I really think it is the best.

        The coffee cart SR mentioned is located in front of the Kaiser Permanente Clinic building on NE corner Clairmont Mesa at I-805. I haven't been there in almost a year though, so am unsure if the person who pulls a ristretto correctly is still there.

        1. re: SaltyRaisins

          Another vote for Zumbar. Their espresso is delicious. It is in an odd location though. Not exactly the best atmosphere, but good stuff.

        2. I suggest you give Bird Rock Coffee Roasters a visit. Here's their website:

          2 Replies
          1. re: cstr

            +1 on Bird Rock

            Try the drip coffees brewed on chemex. They are amazing

            1. re: cstr

              +1. recognized as #1 micro roaster by roaster magazine. no phillz but still in the same league

            2. In Hillcrest, there are two locally-owned places you can find espresso. Pappalecco and Chocolat, both on 5th. Pappalecco is owned by a couple of Italian brothers, they use Danesi espresso IIRC. I like Pappalecco generally, though I am not a coffee snob. I have not tried the coffee at Chocolat.

              In Little Italy, Caffe Italia, Cafe Zucchero, Influx, and Tazza D'Oro are the locally-owned options (there is also a 2nd Pappalecco location there). I have had good coffee at Influx and Caffe Italia.

              1. For espresso, my main drink of choice, I think the ones who pull them best right now is Zumbar (especially Nicole & Aaron) and Caffe Calabria.

                At Zumbar, I highly recommend paying attention to their special "upgrades" on the menu - when available for 2 quarters more one could have a choice of a seasonal offering, almost always stellar. This is where they get to feature special single-origins or blends, and has almost always been worth the extra fare. (I've found Zumbar to be more judicious than others when offering single-origins as espresso. I've had several there that I'd swear they were blends, they were so balanced.)

                One note for brewed coffee drinkers, though. Though Zumbar offers a French Press brewed coffee, it is pre-brewed and not to order, and they do not do pour-over. I see Zumbar as primarily an espresso shop, which they do very well.

                Calabria has really upped their game and now has found incredible consistency in their shots. They'll also throw in a complimentary chaser of seltzer water, a nice touch if "used properly" well after the long tailed aftertaste of a good shot is over.

                An operation that technically pulls a great espresso but often misses my preferred style is Bird Rock Coffee Roasters (the year's Roaster of the Year from Roast Magazine). For me they tend to prefer a very bright style of espresso, something that seems to be catching on in many of the 3rd wave shops but is not my preferred style.

                However this is probably our best place to have a brewed coffee. The owner, who started out as a home roaster, features many single origins, and their tendency towards brightness in an espresso finds a really great home as a brewed cup. So you'll have a selection of beans as well as brew method, including a hand pour-over V60 cup. And they certainly feature the broadest selection of beans to take home and enjoy, all with well written taste notes, process style, and sourcing information.

                One shop that has been mentioned that serves a passable shot is Vergnano. Nothing too exciting about their blend, but very serviceable. I find that they tend to have temperature fluctuations with their shots, but their blend seems to handle it well, never tasting (so far over perhaps 5 vistis) sour or burnt. But this is perhaps as expected given the nature of their blend and roast - meant for wide distribution across a large chain of cafes - but lacking in any varietal interest. (*$'s take note - one can be a chain and still pull a passable shot!)

                Little Italy has been mentioned, but I've had little success there. Long time ago there used to be a stellar barista at Caffe Italia who was flawless. But that was a long time ago. I've found Papalecco's owner can pull a decent shot, but he rarely gets to pull a shot during service. Little Italy can sure use an espresso specialist!

                6 Replies
                1. re: cgfan

                  Caffee Vergnano closed last month. I agree they did their coffee very well.

                  1. re: cgfan

                    Dude- I always learn something about my tastes when I read about yours. Thanks.

                    I feel that Influx has the best, but often uneven, caffe espresso in Little Italy. I've noted that Cafe Italia and Pappalecco do espresso that is characterless in comparison, but then I, like Josh, am not really a coffee snob and will happily drink bitter espresso after a good meal when I can't stand it on an empty stomach. I agree with your last sentence.

                    On the caffeine subject, do you know where to get puerh teas in SD? I should have bought some last time I was in Taiwan, and really miss it.


                    1. re: SaltyRaisins

                      Thanks SR... Re. puerh, there was a guy in one of the smaller side booths at the Hillcrest FM that sold some, but outside of that nothing comes to mind. Have you checked out (or called) Halcyon? They are the best S.D. source right now for traditional loose leaf teas.

                      My personal fave is a good Tien Guan Yin, and my favorite supplier for TGY, Infusions of Tea, unfortunately just closed up their shop, though they're now ramping up their web store. If TGY appeals to you, I'd highly recommend theirs. Beats all of the other TGY's I've tried, short of one that my sister brought back form China.

                      1. re: SaltyRaisins

                        Halcyon Tea in South Park has at least one excellent Puerh, maybe they have multiples, I'm not sure. We always keep it on hand at home.

                        1. re: jayporter

                          Thanks jay and cg. I've never been to Halcyon- glad to know about it.

                          1. re: SaltyRaisins

                            It's a really nice shop - very peaceful and knowledgeably staffed, with a very generous selection. Perfectly suited to their product, concentrating on traditional Asian teas. They also hold various seminars throughout the year, which I've found to be interesting.