December 2005

Monthly Archive

I opened a charming neighborhood coffee shop. Then it destroyed my life.

Posted by on 31 Dec 2005 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Not entirely unlike my recent reviews of Chicago espresso, one of the upcoming articles in the works for TheShot concerns my largely unsuccessful quest for quality espresso in New York City earlier this year.

Without giving too much away in advance, in it I lament why a city that could economically support the upper eschelon of just about anything — a city with a deeply entrenched heritage of fine food and Italian culture — could be such an absolute wasteland when it came to quality espresso. The better places required a trip to Brooklyn, and even they were nothing special when compared with San Francisco’s modest standards. Meanwhile, any place in Manhattan that once earned accolades for its espresso seemed to shut its doors within a year or two of opening.

A glimpse into why this might be comes from Michael Idov’s recent article for Slate: Bitter Brew – I opened a charming neighborhood coffee shop. Then it destroyed my life.

Sadly, the economics of high rent real estate and other employer costs are a large factor why espresso is in such a sad state of affairs in New York City. With the proliferation of convenient competitors and a consuming public that’s too often blissfully ignorant of (or indifferent to) what differentiates a good cup from a bad one, the odds are heavily stacked against any coffee idealist hoping to survive in Manhattan’s cutthroat retail environment.

But I think it’s more than just the New York City consumers that lack discriminating coffee tastes. When Michael Idov writes, “Vienna roast from Vienna! It’s lighter and sweeter than bitter Italian espresso—no need to drown it in milk!,” he illustrates a wealth of intention. But he also clearly demonstrates common ignorance about what constitutes a true espresso, Italian or otherwise. That kind of poverty of thought only comes from a culture that has been beaten down for decades to accept only the most philistine notions of quality standards.

Chicago Espresso

Posted by on 31 Dec 2005 | Filed under: Foreign Brew

Every once in a while I have the privilege of visiting some place else. Eventhough American cities are becoming more and more homogenized, not everything is a Starbucks. When it comes to espresso, Chicago has a few notable exceptions that I experienced this year.

Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Intelligentsia 53 W. Jackson Blvd. Loop 9.00 9.00 9.000
Intelligentsia 3123 N. Broadway St. Lakeview 8.80 8.80 8.800
Metropolis Coffee Company 104 W. Granville Ave. Edgewater 8.40 7.30 7.850
Lavazza 111 W. Jackson Blvd. Loop 6.30 7.80 7.050

Intelligentsia

One of the finest roasters east of Seattle, Intelligentsia even supplies the coffee for Canada’s world-class Caffè Artigiano. Few in the Bay Area realize their preeminent status as a roaster when they saddle up to any one of the Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery chains. Probably because Intelligentsia coffee in the hands of Specialty’s staff and equipment is like putting a cello in the hands of Tim McGraw.

Thankfully, Intelligentsia exhibits the clasically trained approach with their coffee at their very own cafés, with one located downtown on Jackston Street and the original café on Broadway Street in the Lakeside District.

The downtown location is inside the historic Monadnock Building, which is complete with a classic dark wood interior adorned with cool retro espresso machine posters.

Intelligentsia entrance from Federal St. Espresso menu and the yellow La Marzocco at the bar Facing Jackson St. with various Victoria Arduino posters

As for the espresso, it’s some of the best in the U.S.: highly-skilled baristas use beautiful La Marzocco machines to pull a short, potent, but sweet espresso like you may have never had east of Seattle. Certainly one of the best aromas I’ve had off a cup anywhere.

Read the review.

The Intelligentsia ristretto: note how a true espresso should look Is that a dark crema or what? The Black Cat cappuccino

Equally worth a visit is their original Lakeview/Broadway St. location, where their methodical approach to great espresso is even more pronounced … and espresso lovers seem to pack it in all day long. (Read the review.)

Metropolis Coffee Company

Perhaps the only other Chicago area roaster/café worth writing home about is the Metropolis Coffee Company, far up north in the Lakeview District. Sure, the decor is a little worn and the coffee aesthetics could be better, but the espresso is great and it’s a lively literary scene. (And given what everyone will likely be reading, bring your Che Guevara T-shirt for bonus points with the locals.)

Read the review.

Lavazza

Illy no longer seems to be the “in” thing for pre-packaged coffee that Europhiles and restaurants like to brag about these days. That trendy crown — both here and in Rome, mind you — has gone to Torino, Italy’s Lavazza.

Just in time for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino (a grossly underrated city, btw, and one of my favorite escapes from tourists when in Italy), Lavazza has brought their high-end chain café concept to the U.S. this year. Modeled after the original Lavazza Caffè, the excellent San Tommaso café in Torino, the decor of these chains brings a modern industrial chic to the States.

Lavazza's modernist menu But you must have accessories! Hey, if she likes Lavazza...

As always, here: so what about the coffee? Well, some coffee lovers in the know will tell you that Lavazza strikes people as an “either-or” taste — you either like it or you don’t. I’m one of the few coffee snobs that falls in the “like it” camp — at least for pre-packaged coffee.

That said, I’m not impressed with the standards at this Chicago café — as I’ve had arguably better espresso from their beans in San Francisco at the humblest of places. More concerning is that I expected their standards to improve after reviewing them soon after they first opened. Yet upon my revisit earlier this week, I found their espresso to be more watery and less flavorful than before.

Read the review.

Unfortunately not as good as its crema might suggest... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

Well, I suppose that won’t necessarily stop the trend mavens from accessorizing with the Lavazza logo.

Happy New Year, all!

Forecast: World coffee exports to fall

Posted by on 30 Dec 2005 | Filed under: Beans

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a study projecting the world’s supply of coffee: Forecast: World coffee exports to fall.

The good news? Specialty coffee crops, like those from Kona, Hawaii, are on the rise. The bad news? Vietnamese robusta continues to proliferate on the commodity coffee market with crude, inexpensive beans that threaten the livelihood of quality coffee growers worldwide.

Puerto Rico coffee growers not picky

Posted by on 26 Dec 2005 | Filed under: Beans

The Chicago Tribune reports that Puerto Rico has turned to welfare recipients and prison inmates to help fill their labor shortage of coffee pickers: Chicago Tribune | Puerto Rico coffee growers not picky.

Puerto Rican high-end haciendas, akin to Costa Rica’s famous La Minita, have fared well as boutique growers of excellent island-style coffees. However, they have been the exception, and the Puerto Rican government is hoping to establish more of a sustainable business across the island.

Starbucks Betting on Drive-Thru Coffee

Posted by on 26 Dec 2005 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Starbucks knows their customers. This much, nobody can argue — given the massive scale to which they have grown. The latest evidence being today’s AP story, Starbucks Betting on Drive-Thru Coffee.

Its once “upscale” image continues to become a novelty of its corporate past. Fewer and fewer consumers now recognize the Starbucks brand as more than the fast food king of quality coffee. This despite the fact that, as evidenced by my reviews, the quality at a given Starbucks is far more inconsistent than the typical fast food chain restaurant.

I certainly lament the many great cafés they have bought out and stripped down to the level of their standards. Yet America needs a business to service its needs for ultra-convenient, middle-of-the-road quality coffee. Even if it comes in a paper cup … and is served in a manner once exclusively reserved for oversized fiberglass clown heads with embedded, unintelligible speakers. And even if, as quoted in the first paragraph of the article, a “double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato” has about as much to do with coffee as a banana split has to do with maraschino cherries.

My hope is that Starbucks will continue to serve the gateway drug to more of what’s truly possible, leaving a sustainable market for consumers who expect much more from their coffee.

Words of Wisdom

When in places like Vancouver or Seattle, beware when you order a macchiato. “Macchiato” literally translates from Italian as “spotted.” A typical macchiato in most areas of the world is a caffè macchiato — or an espresso spotted with milk. Alternatively, there’s the latte macchiato — or a volume of milk spotted with a little espresso.

Some Bay Area locales (like the Peet’s Coffee on East 3rd Ave. in downtown San Mateo) will kindly ask you which one you prefer if you order the “ambiguous” macchiato. Not so in many Vancouver and Seattle locations. Expecting a short cup of espresso, I’ve often received Super Big Gulp®-sized milkshakes full of milk, whipped cream, and a hint of espresso topped with a latticework of caramel syrup.

You’ve been warned. I still have nightmares and wake up screaming.

Inside Mr. Espresso

Posted by on 19 Dec 2005 | Filed under: Local Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

Mr. Who?

Chances are that the name “Mr. Espresso” doesn’t exactly hit you over the head as a symbol of the Bay Area’s finest espresso — but it should. They were recently ranked 6th in CitySearch.com’s 2005 Best San Francisco Coffee. At first, this may seem like a pretty good feat. You might even recognize Mr. Espresso as the only winner in the top ten that isn’t in San Francisco. But what if I told you that they don’t sell a single cup of coffee?

Mr. Espresso is a Bay Area espresso institution — as a roaster and as a provider of espresso equipment, service, consulting, and training for a large swath of the Bay Area’s world-renowned gourmet food industry. The Bay Area’s nouveau roasters like Blue Bottle Coffee and Ritual Coffee Roasters garner all the local (and some national) press these days — and deservingly so. Yet Mr. Espresso was advancing the art and science of great espresso in the Bay Area back when the owners of these newcomers were still in diapers.

Originally an electrical engineer by trade, Carlo di Ruocco founded this family business in 1978 by selling and servicing imported espresso machines. He also drew upon the coffee roasting experience he developed since he was a boy in Salerno, Italy. His love for his native Italian coffee was shared by those who had the priviledge of sampling it, and the resulting interest and demand quickly grew into a family business.

Carlo’s son, Luigi di Ruocco, recently contacted me via e-mail as a fan of CoffeeRatings.com. He invited me to take a look around the place, and I finally got to take him up on his generous offer this past Friday (December 16).

The nearby Port of Oakland: America's largest specialty coffee import port Mr. Espresso headquarters on East 3rd Street in Oakland

Employee Perks

Mr. Espresso is located just north of Jack London Square, along the coffee-rich Port of Oakland (the biggest speciality coffee import port in the nation). It’s an industrial office in an industrial location, marked by espresso machines, a long service bench, pallets of coffee piled high, roasting equipment, and a variety of industrial machines for processing and packing.

Yet when Luigi first walked me into the employee-only area, I came face-to-face with beautiful espresso machines on showroom display in the employee espresso bar. And when I say “employee espresso bar,” I don’t mean the trendy, wannabe espresso stations you find as employee perks at dot-coms (see: Yahoo!). I’m talking a serious two-group Faema E91 Diplomat that employees regularly use to connect with the lifeblood of their business.

With walls covered in coffee-themed vintage poster art, a mirrored back wall behind the bar, and bar sinks filled with empty cups and sampled macchiatos, Luigi stepped behind the bar and offered me an espresso made with their Neapolitan Espresso roast. He asked me how I wanted it — long, short, single, double, etc. Luigi remarked how confusing it has become since more and more places started offering naked shots (Ritual Roasters being a more recent example). Naked shots, or shots made with bottomless portafilters, are something of an invention by Seattle’s Zoka, where a double shot is more like a long single shot with conventional portafilter spouts. (We’ll save the discussion of naked shots for another time.)

Luigi’s “with spouts” doppio was a good example of some of the best espresso I’ve had in the Bay Area. (Read the review.) While the crema wasn’t terribly thick, it was the darker, reddish brown that you expect to find in textbooks. Flavorwise, the espresso didn’t have a heavy reliance on a dark roast for body — as is typical in the Bay Area. The result was a rich, potent, and yet very balanced cup where no flavor component seemed to overpower the others. You could taste the wide variety in the blend.

While Luigi was just being a gracious host, his espresso shot also served as an indicator of the potential for Mr. Espresso coffee and equipment that is rarely realized out in the field. Through no real fault of Mr. Espresso, many of their customers are often too preoccupied with other priorities to get the training the need, to use the freshest beans, and to ensure the highest standards (e.g., the “restaurant disease”). Luigi had previously mentioned his concern over their many customers with low ranks on CoffeeRatings.com, and he was looking for ways to close the gap between what was possible (e.g., what was in my cup) and what was the reality. Just getting their customers into one-hour training sessions is a challenge for them.

Mr. Espresso's employee espresso bar, complete with Faema E91 Diplomat The posters and high art of Mr. Espresso's employee bar

Luigi di Ruocco preps me a shot of their Neapolitan Espresso blend at the employee bar Luigi's work from the Mr. Espresso employee bar

Welcome to the Machines

Looking at the many espresso machines and grinders in their showroom, there was a slight museum element to it all — not unlike SF’s Thomas E. Cara, Ltd. One of the machines on display is a four-group Rancilio, an IMO decent line which Mr. Espresso no longer offers. Luigi said that they used to offer Rancilio machines as an economical option for their customers, but today they deal almost exclusively with Faema and Iberital — the latter of which was a new discovery for me.

The Spanish-made Iberital machines are a prime example from latest new wave of high-quality machine suppliers: using tried and true components such as the E-61 group head, many of these upcoming businesses are more assemblers of quality parts than outright manufacturers per se.

Passing through the employee break room, with walls decorated in photos of Italian cyclists, we approached the workbench where all Mr. Espresso machines pass through final quality control checkouts before being shipped out.

Inside the Mr. Espresso machine showroom and employee espresso bar Inside a single-group Mr. Espresso Iberital Contols to ensure an even 25-minute roast time

Mr. E’s Secret Sauce

Luigi noted that today everyone has pretty much the same access to the same grade or quality of coffee beans. (This is, of course, good news for coffee lovers.) One of the things that differentiates Mr. Espresso is their commitment to wood fire roasting using seasoned oak — a tradition Carlo picked up in Salerno. This specialty process is rumored to produce roasts with a higher lipid content (critical for capturing flavor elements) and a lower acidic content.

Using stacked pallets of chopped oak in the back, they heat their custom roasters with fires stoked at the bottom. Near this wood “oven” are flexible metal vents used to control air flow and temperature. The entire system is hooked up to sophisticated process controls to ensure even, controlled roasts of a lenghty 25 minutes or so.

One of two main wood-fired roasters at Mr. Espresso Stacks of chopped oak used to fire Mr. Espresso's roasters Inside the oak fire of a Mr. Espresso roaster

Hills of Beans

The resulting roasts produce even, beautiful beans that generally run a touch lighter than what you find at your typical Bay Area roaster. They often venture towards a Viennese or Full City roast (an Agtron/SCAA #45), with generally lighter amounts of oil on the surface of the beans. This echoed the characteristics I tasted in Luigi’s espresso just minutes before. A lot of the oak wood roasting would probably be lost in darker blends.

They keep these roasted beans in large plastic bags stored in sealed lids, resting the beans for a minimum of 3-4 days to dispel any CO2 gas bubbles that might otherwise detract from a good espresso.

Next to a fine batch of dry-processed Ethiopian Sidamo (which made an very good single-bean espresso later on), Luigi showed me their robusta stock. Mr. Espresso has also tapped into the higher quality Indian robusta that has come to prominence in recent years, and it had only a slight bit of the classic “rubber” smell. Luigi said they use about 7-8% of this robusta in their espresso blends to bring out the crema and some of the brighter flavors. (This is lower than the ratio I use with the Indian robusta I roast for my own espresso blends at home — I’m definitely going to try this!)

In their warehouse, they keep about six months of green coffee bean stock. Luigi’s brother, John, learned much of the bean buying trade from their father, but he has since advanced his own skills even further through SCAA courses, certifications, and other accreditations. (While both their father and mother are active in the business, both founding parents are slowly stepping back for the next generation to take charge.)

They exclusively blend their beans after roasting. And they spend a lot of effort trying to keep their blends consistent over the years, despite the natural vagaries of any international crop.

A resting drum of Mr. Espresso Ethiopian Coffee stocks in the Mr. Espresso warehouse

Attack of the Pod People

In a world that’s ever more automated, the pains it takes to make a truly great espresso often don’t seem to fit in. While hand-crafting and an attention to detail have made quite a comeback in the gourment restaurant trade, coffee and espresso just hasn’t followed its lead.

Enter the pod: those single-serving, prepackaged puffs of pre-ground coffee that are inserted into, and discarded from, pod-compliant espresso machines like rifle ammunition. Low mess, low fuss, low labor. Low flavor? I’ve long been a pod skeptic myself, thinking that it merely represented repackaging of the same inferior product…another marketing brainchild run astray. (Not coincidentally, some manufacturers of pod systems instead call them disks. Anyone remember the Kodak Disc format, the Sony MiniDisc, etc.? Do we sense a theme here from failed MBA students?)

However, Luigi informed me that pods are growing significantly in popularity back in Italy — particularly in low-volume establishments (small restaurants and cafés, etc.) A section of Mr. Espresso’s floorspace is dedicated to two machines that crank out prepackaged pods of their coffee.

Back in the employee espresso bar, he demonstrated their pod espresso with a single-group Iberital machine. In Luigi’s words, the resulting product is rather consistent and pretty good, although some tasters will definitely notice something missing in the cup.

He was right. Perhaps a bit of the oils and lipids trap some flavors as the espresso is pulled through the surrounding paper filter. While it makes a relatively honest espresso, there is a noticeably narrower spectrum of flavors in the cup — flavors that also seem somewhat muted.

At the end of my tour, Luigi left me with a package of their Neapolitan Espresso blend (call it the “home version” as a lovely parting gift). I’m not about to succumb to the generation of pod people just yet, and this package was evidence why not.

Array of bins for sorting and packing Mr. Espresso coffee U.S.-made machine for packaging pod coffee

Sherwin’s Paradox

Posted by on 12 Dec 2005 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee, Starbucks

Or: A Good Espresso Is Hard to Find

After voluntarily drinking so many overextracted, weak, bitter, and unacceptably poor cups of espresso around the U.S., let alone the world, a few people who know me and my coffee have questioned my sanity. Meanwhile, I have often questioned why anyone should need a site like CoffeeRatings.com in the first place.

It’s not a ridiculous question. Since Starbucks took over city streets and suburban strip malls like a metastasizing cancer, you’d think that consumers’ standards for good coffee could only continue to rise from its 1980s Dark Ages — back when quality coffee meant dirt-in-a-can and Joe DiMaggio was its ambassador of good taste. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

So what’s the problem? Whole bean supplies of quality coffee have gotten better and more plentiful. Espresso equipment technology has improved and proliferated. Customers now regularly ask for “non-fat vanilla lattes” when ordering coffee, and, even stranger, nobody seems to laugh in response anymore.

Then why is bad espresso the norm — particularly in the face of so many reasons why the average espresso should instead be quite good? To give this phenomenon a name for discussion, for now let’s just call it Sherwin’s Paradox. I’ve always wanted my very own paradox.

The Optimist Theory

First of all, the optimist in me likes to believe in a sort of enlightenment explanation. While Starbucks helped raise the bar for the average cup of coffee for the average coffee drinker, it hasn’t introduced middle America to the possibilities of the even higher standards that have existed for decades. Therefore, despite the proliferation of better coffee, equipment, and public access to it all, a truly great espresso remains a very rare thing that few have had the opportunity to experience.

Not to equate bad espresso with an abusive home, but I’d like to believe that many of the people who make bad espresso really don’t know any better … that they cannot draw upon experience to have the expectation that things could be any different. Once enlightened to a true quality espresso — say, a visit to Victrola in Seattle, Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver, or Sant’Eustachio il caffè in Rome — it would change everything about their assumptions about what a good espresso could be.

“An espresso that’s not bitter, but rather — naturally sweet? Rich and flavorful, rather than watered down? Impossible!”

It’s always been my hope that this rude awakening would create at least a personal intolerance for what bitter swill many espresso peddlers have been passing for years under the name of “espresso”.

And yet the most renowned chefs and restaurants, the tastemakers of America, are notorious for serving some of the worst espresso available as your last memory of their exquisite meals. It’s as if a conductor, following his brilliant rendition of a Prokofiev symphony, willingly closed with the theme song to TV’s BJ & The Bear — on kazoos — as his finale.

Which brings me to an alternate, more cynical theory…

The Pessimist Theory

But countering this theory is a sort of disillusionment explanation. I make an analogy between society’s expectations for espresso quality and those for another Italian staple: the pizza. (Should I ever find a way to combine the two, I may need to propose it as my “Unified Pizza Theory.”) Like espresso, a good pizza requires the right equipment, right ingredients, and the right training. But why is it that so many places still suck so badly at pizza, making chewy cardboard disks slathered with inferior cheese and sickly toppings?

Once anyone has tasted a truly great pizza from Chicago, New York, or Napoli (for example), the mountains of bad pizza served by various shacks, huts, high school cafeterias, and national delivery chains with uniformed drivers should be rendered unnecessary, irrelevant, and a waste of calories. How could anyone go back to such rubbish on a regular basis when they’ve seen the light?

And yet, millions do — every day. Millions who have clearly had better pizza in their day, and yet they still frequent franchises that have made billions of dollars on the foundation of inferior pizza that tastes little better than anything you can get out of a supermarket freezer. And as the cash continues to roll in for the mass production of these pizza atrocities, competitors have little incentive to really improve their product. Pizza consumers are voting with their pocketbooks, and the votes are saying, “More cardboard, please.”

How might this apply to espresso? We’ve seen restaurant wine lists go from “red or white?” to “Santa Lucia Highlands pinor noir or Sonoma Valley chardonnay?” We’ve seen supermarket cheese go from “orange or white?” to “Swiss Emmental or Port Salut?” But even if Starbucks helped raise the bar, people are still willing to accept bad espresso.

We Sell No Espresso Before Its Time

Are we doomed to standards no better than the fast food approach to quality coffee known as “Starbucks”? Not exactly. For example, investors regularly pressure Peet’s Coffee CEO, Patrick J. O’Dea, to grow big … and to do it rapidly. Yet Peet’s is making a conscious, strategic decision to expand their operations without sacrificing any of their high quality standards. If their coffee and roasting supply chain, or the availability of trained and skilled employees, cannot support a newly planned outlet with the same quality standards, they just won’t do it until they can ensure those standards.

Ultimately, I think the truth behind Sherwin’s Paradox involves a little of both theories — and it is far more complicated than either. In the meantime, I will keep drinking the bad espresso … and writing about it here to help you avoid making the same mistakes. But who knows? I might even be able to tell you about a good espresso worth seeking out once in a while. But I’ll save the discussion of Sherwin’s Folly for another time.

CitySearch.com’s 2005 Best San Francisco Coffee

Posted by on 05 Dec 2005 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Local Brew

Celebrities are out in full regalia. Tension is in the air. It must be time to review the reviewers as we recap the winners of CitySearch.com’s 2005 Best San Francisco Coffee.

Each year, CitySearch.com stages regional popularity contests for establishments in different categories. And each year, they tabulate the online votes from the users of their Web sites.

Citing their Web site, let’s take it from the bottom and work our way the pinnacle of San Francisco coffee…

10. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
2201 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA
A family-run empire of cafe-shops that’s been brewing caffeinated beverages since 1963.

So you grew up in the Los Angeles basin and have been looking for a local hangout since moving to the Upper Fillmore? This is the place for you. But if you must pick a chain, this isn’t a bad one (save for their problematic new café on Market St.). Afterall, this chain is where Café Organica‘s Eton Tsuno got his start.

9. Caffe Greco
423 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA
Strong, authentic espresso draws Italian expats to this highly regarded cafe.

Like much of North beach, this café is hardly the Italian stalwart it used to be. You’re more likely to hear the barista singing Alejandro Sanz than Dean Martin. But the espresso is good, albeit inconsistent, and the atmosphere almost feels like you’re in Italy.

Big plus: recent copies of the pink La Gazzetta dello Sport are freely available on the wall near the cashier to catch up on the latest Serie A calcio (Italian soccer) scores and post-game debate.

Big minus: Their coffee is packed in cans and flown over 6,000 miles before it makes it into your cup. Illy may be the king of quality when it comes to packaged coffee, but freshness is not one of their virtues.

8. Blue Danube Coffee House
306 Clement St, San Francisco, CA
Bohemian java joint with an extensive menu of eats.

Again with the eats? Always be wary of a coffee place known for its food. Not surprisingly, Blue Danube didn’t even break my Top 150. I can only imagine they are ranked for their bohemian atmosphere and the lack of good coffee options along the Taiwanese-American Clement St. corridor. Come for the espresso, but stay for the live geoduck.

If you ever go on a quest for good espresso in Taipei, I can guarantee that this will make your Top 10 list too. (I know from personal experience.)

7. Caffe Trieste
609 Vallejo St, San Francisco, CA
Settle down with an espresso, soak up the bohemian North Beach ambience and think existential thoughts ’til sundown.

Mama mia! This café is one of the true old Italian holdouts in North Beach, down to the weekend opera. Their espresso can be a bit dark for some, but it’s still one of the better examples in the city.

And to the critics, Caffe Trieste may have evolved more to become what it used to represent rather than what it truly is today. But what better place to lay down the script to The Godfather?

6. Mr Espresso
696 3RD St, Oakland, CA

CitySearch.com had nothing to say about this lone entry outside of the SF city confines. Probably because their editors had no idea that Mr. Espresso doesn’t serve coffee. Mr. Espresso is a long time family institution in the Bay Area — as a roaster, as a supplier of machines, and as a provider of training and other coffee service. They are arguably the best full-service espresso outfit around.

I recently talked with Luigi DiRuocco, a staffer there. He lamented over the many Bay Area cafés that neglect staff training. Mr. Espresso apparently made staff training a big initiative, and they’re working to convince their customers that their shots are capable of so much more. I am the primo uomo in that choir.

Props to the CitySearch.com users who thought to vote for this local institution, even if you can’t buy a cup of joe from them.

5. Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St, San Francisco, CA
This small storefront bakery lights up the Mission with sophisticated French pastries and artisanal loaves.

Two major problems with this brief write up. First: that’s nice about the loaves, but what about the coffee? Second: it’s French!

That said, this is a fantastic bakery with a fiendishly original/old school espresso setup. They get bonus points for trying very hard at their espresso, and for the most part it pays off. Eventhough their espresso is more in the French style, it does not come off bitter and watery. Their espresso quality is held back most, however, by the limits of their novelty Faema machine. Sometimes you have to sacrifice form for a little function.

4. Cafe Abir
1300 Fulton St, San Francisco, CA
Loyal Western Addition regulars line up for the house blend at this neighborhood cafe.

I never understood the appeal of Café Abir… or at least the appeal of their coffee. Yes, they roast it themselves. Yes, they also won the 2003 SF Bay Guardian readers’ award for Best Independent Coffeehouse. But their espresso just barely cracked my Top 350.

I can only attribute their ranking here to the intense neighborhood loyalty of its patrons, who seem to value the commendable efforts the owners have made to improve the Divisidero neighborhood. That and they do carry a nice selection of reading material at their newsstand.

File under: I just don’t get it. Maybe if I regularly got my coffee at the Church’s Chicken down the street, I’d feel the love.

3. Farley’s Coffeehouse
1315 18th St, San Francisco, CA
Giant java drinks and a no-way-Jose policy on nonfat milk make this coffeehouse a local favorite.

Like Abir, Farley’s benefits from the strong local loyalties of a somewhat isolated city community. It’s a great hang out, but unlike Café Abir, the espresso is also quite good.

(Though as an aside, I personally like the texture qualities of nonfat milk when making my own macchiatos at home, so I don’t get their badge of honor here.)

2. Peet’s Coffee & Tea
2139 Polk St Ste C, San Francisco, CA
Even post-IPO, Peet’s celebrates its bohemian upbringing with dark-roast beans.

I have yet to sample every Peet’s in the Bay Area, and this outlet is proof of that. While I have noticed significant differences between some Peet’s cafés, I can safely assume that this one ranks among the best of the Peet’s I have reviewed. Which is a pretty great cup of espresso. Alfred should remain proud of his legacy.

Particularly with the recent demise of Torrefazione Italia — once Starbucks bought them out and mercilessly flushed their superior brand of competition down the toilet — there is no better Bay Area chain at making espresso today.

1. Dolores Park Cafe
501 Dolores Street @18th, San Francisco, CA
A clean, welcoming coffeehouse and lunch spot with a prime location next to Dolores Park.

More and more dogs in the city must be getting Internet access, because that’s my only explanation for why Dolores Park Cafe would get the nod for San Francisco’s best coffee.

This is a great spot to bring Fifi, have an omelet, and read the morning paper with a great view of nearby Dolores Park. Their espresso is a rather workman-like effort, but it mostly does the trick. But best coffee?!

It’s a fitting closing to this article, though, when I can conclude that San Francisco espresso has gone to the dogs.