The return of baseball also marks the return of a popular form of that “North vs. South” rivalry — with San Franciscans channeling their hate for L.A. through the sport, and L.A. being, well, mostly oblivious. Last weekend, we witnessed that rivalry expressed through espresso — with San Francisco’s Chris Baca edging out the formidable competition from the Southland. But the likes of Silverlake’s Intelligentsia and barista champs like San Dimas’ Heather Perry are the exception to the rule: like New York City, Los Angeles has historically been a coffee wasteland.

Which is what attracted us to a recent “find that right coffeehouse for you” article on the coffeehouses in downtown Los Angeles: News Item in Downtown Los Angeles – Coffee Anyone?. Sure, it’s an old school coffeehouse piece — of a style harkening back to the day when coffeehouse reviews only told you about what you wanted to see and how you wanted to be seen while drinking the stuff, and nobody dared talk about the quality of what came in the cup. But in L.A. things are slower to catch on.

More “export” than “import”

Los Angeles has successfully exported its culture and lifestyle around the world. However, L.A.’s execution at importing culture and trying to make it their own has frequently been a Hollywood bust (L.A. Kings hockey, anyone?). Although convertibles, bathing suits, and breast implants have all had limited success here, “coffee culture” fits L.A. about as well as palm-tree-lined skating rinks at the mall. Or trying get anywhere on foot.

For example, take Coffee Klatch, home of two-time and reigning U.S. Barista Champ, Heather Perry. For a coffeehouse as good as you could once find in the region, Coffee Klatch is somehat famous for offering overflowing cappuccinos that you’d typically find served in suburban shopping malls (to “cater to local tastes” and stay in business). The café itself is a relatively dingy location in a town, San Dimas, most famously known as the “center of the universe” in the 1989 film, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Stepping into its donut-shop-like environment, we had to resist the urge to strike a pose and yell, “Wyld Stallyns!” while playing air guitar.

Future Southland barista competitors discuss their presentation techniques for the judges:

Talking the talk

But back to the article, the author mentions a few local, independent cafés. They include Figueroa Corridor-based Café Corsa, where owner Rick Weiche comically parrots back every modern quality coffee cliché in the book (“third wave“, “$11,000” Clovers, the ever-popular wine analogy). Following Café Corsa, the article covers Fourth Street’s Lost Souls, who features coffee-blended drinks with names that sound more like 1970s Blaxploitation films (“Soul Cooler”, “Chocolate Monkey”, etc.).

Also mentioned is Groundwork, with two area locations, where owner Richard Karno hates the “third wave” moniker, but only for its perceived elitism (rather than our major beef: the principle of its very non-existence). And given that this is L.A., no mention of coffee culture would be complete without an obligatory nod to Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

UPDATE: April 6, 2008
Today Reuters published another one of those articles on how New York City coffee is slowly improving, even if it’s going kicking and screaming: Call that kawfee? New York embraces better brew | U.S. | Reuters.

However, the credibility-blowing part of the article is in one of its opening paragraphs: “The coffee palates of New Yorkers are closing in on those of their sophisticated West Coast counterparts in Los Angeles and Seattle.” Ummm, Los Angeles? Where U.S. barista champions are forced to pass off gigantic, frothy milkshakes as cappuccinos just to keep the doors open? If L.A.’s coffee culture is considered “sophisticated,” Britney Spears bent over a toilet must seem like Oscar Night®.

Our only rational explanations come down to Reuters’ New York bias. For one, L.A. is the only other American city that New Yorkers look upon with a sibling rivalry. For another, geography education in this country is so poor that many on the East Coast vaguely think that all of California is a suburb of L.A. — unaware that the distance between L.A. and San Francisco is the same between Vermont and Ohio. Having lived on the East Coast for a few years before moving here, I experienced firsthand the infamous, “Hey, we’re going to be in L.A. Tuesday, and we can drive up to meet you for lunch.”

UPDATE: July 1, 2008
L.A.’s local ABC affiliate published a story today on what they consider to be the seven best coffeehouses in town: Top 7 coffee houses in L.A. to get your caffeine fix 7/01/08. Included in the list are Lamill Coffee Boutique, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Urth Caffe, Joni’s Coffee Roasting Cafe, Zona Rosa Cafe, Caffe Luxxe, Novel Cafe, Kéan Coffee, Stell’s Coffee and Tea, and Latte 101. (Don’t ask how ABC-7 in L.A. counts to seven.)