Mid-city Los Angeles is in the midst of a coffee renaissance. In the new world of LA coffee, every counter has several Clover one-cup brewing machines, every cappuccino is served with a dainty milk design and the prices make Starbucks seem like the corner cuppa' joe. ("You crazy kids. I remember when you could get a latte for just $4.50").
Possibly the most distinctive element of the new coffee bars is the level of the roast, which is decidedly light. This, I must admit, is not a development that pleases me. I grew up in Northern California, and as such, I am a devotee of the darker than dark, smoky roasts that were made popular there. I worship at the altar of Alfred Peet, founder of Peet's Coffee and the modern American coffee culture. I tend to find light roasts overly acidic, so if you like light roasts, keep that in mind.
The second thing you need to know about me is that I drink decaf. I worked as a barista in my 20s, and at some point, after countless quadruple espressos on the early shift, I developed an enhanced sensitivity to caffeine. So I still drink coffee, but I almost always drink decaf. I've done numerous side by side comparisons, and with modern decaf technology, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference, though some swear they can. In any case, all of the reviews below (except for one, which I will explain) were done with decaf.
Alright, I've laid my biases on the table. If you are a light roast fan or look down your nose at the caffeine-averse, keep that in mind as you read on.
For this review, I included some of the new heavy hitters and mixed in some old favorites. At each of the below listed cafes, I had an espresso and a cappuccino, and reviews are based on those two drinks.
Since the new LA Mill store opened on Silverlake Boulevard, Silverlakers have engaged in a bout of public hand wringing about what has happened to their formerly funky neighborhood and whether it can still be cool to live someplace where you have to pay $5 for a plain cup of coffee. In fact, one of the days I visited LA Mill, a woman was arguing with the barista (who I'm guessing made a small fraction of her income) about how the Mill was ruining the neighborhood with its bougieness. While the politics of gentrification are something that merits serious discussion, I'm guessing the working class Latinos who the hipsters displaced from that same neighborhood 15 to 20 years ago aren't shedding a lot of tears for them now, but hey, what do I know, I just drink the coffee.
For all the hype, the Coffee at LA Mill really didn't impress me. The espresso and cappuccino were both competent, but nothing to get excited about. The espresso was the better of the drinks. It had a nice crema and a good flavor. The cap, on the other hand, was weak and watery tasting. The coffee was perfectly drinkable, but nothing special.
The French canneles on the other hand, dark little pastries with a crunchy exterior and an amazingly light and creamy cake contained within, were amazing. Okay, okay, this is supposed to be about coffee, but if I come back to LA Mill, it will be for the canneles. Try them!
Intelligentsia Coffee at Sunset Junction (Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevard) preceded LA Mill by about six months. Like the Mill, this Chicago-based chain, opened to much fanfare and high expectations. Six months in, there is still a substantial line pretty much any time of day.
Itelligentsia is probably the foremost advocate of lighter roasts, and that philosophy came through in its espresso which was too acidic for me. Even on the spectrum of light roasts, I found the espresso harsh and caustic. If you are a true believer that lighter is better, maybe you would like it (and I'd love to hear from you if that's the case) but I found it difficult to finish the drink.
The cappuccino was an entirely different story. The milk adds the perfect counterpoint to Intelligentsia's light espresso. The acidity is tempered, and the true flavor of the coffee really does emerge. Suddenly, I feel like I understand what Intelligentsia is all about. The drink is smooth as silk and has a pronounced, rich coffee flavor without any harshness. And their milk designs are better than anyone else's, though I give no extra points for such frivolity. Despite my aversion to light coffee, I find myself going back, over and over, for this drink, the best cappuccino I've found in LA.
Groundwork Coffee has been around for years now and has a number of locations from which it serves organic and fair trade coffees. I usually go to the Hollywood location, at Cahuenga and Sunset, which is convenient to the Sunday Hollywood Farmers' Market.
I've had great drinks at Groundwork, but they are, at least at the branch I frequent, inconsistent. Sometimes the cap is rich and wonderful, other times it's watery and loose, and the same goes for the espresso. I like Groundwork, but it's been around long enough that they should be making a consistent cup. I know they can make a great drink because I've had it...they should make it every time.
Peet's Coffee and Tea
I grew up on Peet's and the Peet's-inspired dark roasts that are so predominant in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I lived in New York, I would mail order Peet's beans, and when Peet's opened its first LA stores, I would drive all the way to Beverly Hills or Manhattan Beach just to get coffee. Back then, they were purists. They didn't offer syrups or frozen, frothy drinks; they aimed to serve coffee to coffee purists (much like the new generation does today). Now, there are over 20 Peet's shops in the greater LA area, and they offer every manner of hazelnut-vanilla-peppermint frappes. How times have changed.
Still, as a dark-roast lover, they know what I want. Their espresso is dark and creamy (though lacking in crema) and has the thick, smoky flavor I crave; it's still my favorite espresso in town. Their cappuccino is rich and steamy...no milk designs here...but they know how to steam and they do it well on a fairly consistent basis, which is impressive considering their size. My Peet's of choice is the Larchmont store, just based on location, but I haven't found a lot of variance between the different stores in LA(I still think the Bay Area locations are better).
Choke Motorcycle Shop
Located on Normal Avenue just east of Virgil, Choke Motorcycle Shop is by far the coolest espresso bar in the city. This is no gimmick. It's not an espresso bar pretending to be a motorcycle shop, but a motorcycle shop which happens to have an espresso machine. The shop, smelling of gas, is cluttered with motorcycles and oil cans. Whenever I've come in, there has been motorcycle business going on. I wait politely and then meekly ask if I can interrupt them and get a cup of coffee.
The pickings are slim here, espresso and milk drinks...no mochas, no tea, no pastries, no decaf (Born to be Wired?), but the quality is high. The espresso had better form than any other I tried. Espresso is really all about the crema, the oils that form the light colored froth on top of your espresso. It should completely cover the coffee and not disappear on the first sip. Choke is the only place that consistently delivered a beautiful, thick crema. The espresso was still on the light side for my palate, but I know when I taste a perfect form of something, even something I don't prefer, and this was it. The cap was well done, milk design and all, and a close second to Intelligentsia, but not quite up to their level.
As I said, this is primarily a motorcycle shop, so don't go expecting your quick morning fix. They don't seem to open until around 10am or whenever someone comes in, and they make coffee for fun, not for business. In other words, be cool.
To sum up
Best espresso: Choke Motorcycle Shop & Peet's Coffee and Tea
Best Cappuccino: Intelligentsia Coffee