Recently we have been thinking about all the great, Top-20-caliber SF coffee bars that have opened up in recent years. So much so that the news of a great new espresso bar opening in town is thankfully becoming a little monotonous. With all the great coffee now available, we thought we could all use a helpful reminder of how bad things can get.

For anyone who watches a TV program involving food these days, there’s the tiresome, obligatory money shot of the chef or host sampling a dish, smirking to the camera after a mouthful, and exclaiming “Mmmmm, that’s delicious!” It’s never, “Ick! What’s that weird texture?,” or “Do you taste something metallic?,” or “I don’t think I’ll be coming here again.” With no sense of balance, it’s nearly impossible to truly appreciate the good stuff.

View from L.A. Café: 7up-branded transient rooms and an Airstream trailer on a roof Entrance to L.A. Café - OK, actually it's only an emergency exit

So where to find SF espresso’s misery market — the coffee shop equivalent of (A favorite site of ours, btw.) While inside Farm:Table earlier this week, the four-packs of Café Bustelo on display were more trash-as-treasure than, say, the outright trash we were seeking. So we walked a few blocks from there into the heart of the Tenderloin and encountered a temple of physical self-abuse we could not resist: the L.A. Café at Turk and Jones Sts.

While it’s too easy to speak ill of the Tenderloin and its many disadvantaged and addled residents, there are few blocks in the city where you can view an Airstream trailer parked on the roof of a four-story building — just past a faded outdoor wall painting advertising 7up and “transient rooms” (see photo above). And yet this is hardly one of the Tenderloin’s worst intersections.

Inside L.A. Café - completed with drugged-out man in a hood in front Have you ever seen pastries under plastic so appetizing?

Everything about the place screamed, “Run! Don’t walk!” But even if going into a place like this to sample the espresso requires a mental state akin to donating your body to science, we couldn’t help ourselves. Even if we risked nightmares and waking up from our fitful sleep in cold sweats thinking about the place afterward.

Nothing more inviting on a café's entrance than a No Trespassing sign from the SF police Where to begin? The corner entrance has no fewer than two signs designating it as an emergency exit only. There are also no fewer than two “No Trespassing” signs posted by the SF police in their store windows — to deter vagrancy. So you have to walk inside via a side entrance further down Jones St.

Once inside, it looks like any Happy Donuts/Sad Espresso chain, with its plain tables and chairs. But this is misery coffee at its finest — complete with the very same neon coffee sign you can ironically find at China Basin‘s The Creamery.

At the far end of the café was a drugged-out, hooded Dave Chappelle look-alike who, perched over a table, did not move during the 30 minutes we were inside. The rest of the clientele who came in and out sported either gold teeth or wheelchairs, if not both. The pastries are covered in plastic, and the owners sport a Vietnamese calendar advertising bail bonds. If this is called “L.A. Café”, it’s clearly modeled more after downtown Broadway than Hollywood.

Vietnamese bail bonds calendar adds to the ambiance If you see these from America's Best Coffee: run, don't walk

Using a two-group Astoria machine with the portafilter handles left out cooling in the drip tray, they pull surprisingly short shots of “espresso” that look and taste more like water than anything else. And, no surprise, they serve one of SF’s finest examples of ghetto coffee: America’s Best Coffee. Their homeopathic espresso comes coated with a balding layer of almost white-pale crema and tastes neither bitter nor ashy — nor much like anything at all. At a steep $1.75 price, we have to figure that the owners are gouging like anyone else trying to make a living in this neighborhood.

Currently L.A. Café is ranked tied for 609th place among SF’s best espresso shots, but it’s not the worst by a longshot. Scarier is that their 2.40 coffee rating still significantly trumps their 1.50 café rating, thus tying L.A. Café with an aforementioned Happy Donuts for SF’s third worst in the café rating category.

Read the review of L.A. Café.

Tuning up the ol' Astoria at L.A. Café The L.A. Café espresso - tastes like Normandie Avenue

After our sordid and tasteless espresso experience at L.A. Café, we could only think of this following sordid and tasteless video of Vince, the hooker-beating ShamWow guy, and how he hates L.A.:

UPDATE: June 3, 2009
And if you want to know the bottom of the coffee barrel in St. Paul, MN, we bring you: St. Paul’s Two Worst Cups of Coffee « The Heavy Table.