Catching up on several notable articles posted while I was on travel in Portugal…
Here’s one on some of the preferred coffeehouses in the Santa Barbara area, from the UC Santa Barbara student paper: On The Menu – Daily Nexus Online – Full Steam Ahead To Enjoy Espresso at Local Coffehouses.
I have not tried any of the cafés listed in the article. However, I found the Espresso Roma Cafe at 728 State & E. Ortega Sts. to be slightly better than its Bay Area equivalents, with Hot Spots Espresso Bar — a sort of 24-hour biker café and tourist office at 36 State and Mason Sts. — to be surprisingly even better still. (One of these days I’ll have to surface my ratings for these on the site…)
This is as good as a General Douglas MacArthur impersionation as you’ll ever get from me. After three weeks of touring most of central and northern Portugal, I’ve finally returned to the Bay Area.
The good news? I have many stories and photos to convey on the status and quality of espresso in Portugal as a point of comparison. While Portugal might not quite be Italy per se, it is a country that loves its espresso (and soccer … how could I not enjoy a nation with such priorities?). Whether it’s 2am revellers between clubs in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, cape-wearing students holding late-night cramming sessions at the 13th century Universidade de Coimbra, or port wine ship captains heading down the Douro River to the Vila Nova de Gaia, it’s impossible to imagine this country functioning without decent espresso woven into the social fabric of daily life.
And while I did not encounter a single Starbucks or other known U.S. chain in the entire country, there were some European phenomena afoot — such as my discovery of an Illy Espressamente café located in the walls of the Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno, a Moorish-styled bullring in the geographic center of Lisbon.
The bad news? I just caught a flight back from Lisbon at 8:30am this morning (that’s 12:30am local time). So my brain is a bit fried still, and it’s going to be several days before I can get my act back in order and post anything coherent here. But stay tuned for more on my past three weeks of espresso travels … as soon as I can dig out of all that life brings when you’re away for that long.
Every once in a while it becomes necessary to celebrate an arbitrary milestone. And we have one today: for the first time, CoffeeRatings.com reached 500 active espresso ratings for San Francisco.
What’s so arbitrary about it? For one, the 500 milestone was actually passed many months ago. While CoffeeRatings.com‘s focus has been San Francisco proper, there are a number of non-SF ratings that aren’t currently available (or readily available: e.g., Chicago) through the Web site (by design).
Another arbitrary factor? Although the ratings for CoffeeRatings.com have been compiled in just a little over three years, there has been a bit of churn created by a number of café and restaurant closures in that time. These vary from the high profile examples of Café Organica‘s closure due to labor disputes (among other matters), café ownership changes (e.g., Cafe ? to Cafe Bello and Cafe Melroy to Ajatea Café), Starbucks’ buy out and pillaging of chains such as Torrefazione Italia, and outright closures of hardly missed spots like Trans Cafe … and quite literally a guy named Joe — who sold sidewalk espresso from a mobile Verismo machine he connected by extension cord to the downtown Sherman Clay piano shop. And there are undoubtedly more closures and ownership changes I haven’t discovered yet.
Still, there are plenty of stones left unturned in SF alone. I estimate that between the various corner restaurants with espresso machines to every outlet of Peet’s or Starbucks, there are several hundred more to go. (And unfortunately, most of them are probably too foul to recommend.) So how am I celebrating? By (mostly) taking a few weeks off of posting here, for one, as CoffeeRatings.com is going on assignment. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with spare pictures from review #500: the all-glam-and-no-quality Cocola Bakery & Pastry fittingly in the newly opened cathedral to consumerism, the Westfield Centre.
On the fourth floor among the more elegant mall eateries of the downtown Westfield Centre, this bakery/café has a long patisserie counter, chandeliers, and numerous café tables. The fourth floor of this reopened wing (on the site of the former Emporium that closed down many years ago) is markedly more upscale than the eateries on the concourse (i.e., basement) level. However, as regular readers well know by now, that doesn’t necessarily translate to decent espresso.
Using a new three-group Rancilio, they produce an espresso with a very thin layer of light brown crema. It has the classic Peerless coffee diluted ashy bitterness for a flavor, and yet it is not overextracted (it has a modest pour size). The barista is relative skilled here but cannot compensate for all the quality factors that set this place back. (If you follow the Peerless link, you’ll notice a decent correlation between places that use Peerless beans and poor espresso.)
Actually a bit disappointing when compared with their original Santana Row location in San Jose.
This Middle Eastern bar/café/lounge packs in the tourists and the locals — particularly for weekend bellydancing. (Which is why I tend to avoid it at all costs during those hours.) It has a dark interior, floor seating at pillows and low tables, plus a limited supply of traditional table seating (depending on when you arrive).
Joe, the Palestinian owner, and his father (the Anthony Quinn lookalike you often see hanging out) have run this place since 1992. I stumbled into this place the week it first opened, and I’ve been a fan of the place, and it has been rather consistent, ever since. In the past 14 years Starbucks has taken over the coffee world several times over, and yet the espresso here hasn’t changed any for the better in that time. But then the spiced Arabic coffee (cardamom, etc.) is the main attraction.
They use packaged beans from Egypt (and otherwise unknown origin). Their red espresso machine at the bar has dual Faema E61 group heads, and with it they pull a sickly looking espresso with a thin, medium brown crema with larger bubbles in it. It has an ashy flavor — as if the machine hasn’t been serviced since Saladin. Stick to the Arabic coffee unless you’ve had a few too many puffs of their hookahs. (“Hookahs not bazookas”, their old stickers and T-shirts used to say.)
I rarely get out here anymore, but I always seem to have a pretty good time there when I do — with an Arabic coffee and a halva.
Today’s Inside Bay Area published an article from the Los Angeles Daily News on Kona coffee tours: Inside Bay Area – At Kona’s coffee farms, visitors may linger over … Paradise in a cup. The article discusses a little about the Kona growing region and its history.
The Kona region on the Big Island of Hawaii has a unique climate for growing excellent island coffee, some of the best in the world, even though it comes at an exhorbitant price. Perched several thousand feet up from sea level off the main highway, it receives rainfall each and every day — a stark contrast to the very dry coastline to the north. Along the highway you will discover several coffee farms offering tours, and the experience is not unlike the organized wine tasting tours offered in places like the Napa Valley.
Greenwell Farms, for example, offers tours of where they grow, process, dry, and even roast their coffee. When I visited there last year, they sold their green beans to the public and have a tradition of inviting anyone to freely pick the (non-coffee) fruit from their trees.
If you’d like to “join the crowds” for Kona coffee tours, look no further than the coming Kona Coffee Cultural Festival to be held Nov. 3-12.