San Luis Obispo County is not known for a whole lot, even among Californians. There’s Hearst Castle, Cal Poly in SLO proper, and the burgeoning Paso Robles wine growing region — or what the locals simply call “Paso”.
But as is happening in many lesser-known regions around the country, SLO County’s appreciation for better food and drink is quickly rising from an earlier background of fast food chain stores and local pizza joints. Nicer, or at least more deliberately thoughtful, restaurants have opened up alongside upgraded old stand-bys. There are still small backroads wineries that retain the wine country feel of 1970s Napa, not unlike the movie Bottle Shock. But now grand new tasting rooms, funded by the wine ambitions of construction tycoons, spring out from the hills baring spared-no-expense modern architecture.
This is the sort of general progression that is happening most everywhere in the country, albeit expressed in regional ways. Some insular, forest-for-the-trees types in the coffee industry would certainly call it “Third Wave“, but yes, this progression also extends to the local coffee scene in the SLO County area.
San Luis Obispo County now boasts a few of their own local roasters and more cafés sporting La Marzocco machines. Last year the local free press, the New Times, followed baristas from SLO’s Linnaea’s and their participation at the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition: Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.
This has marked a real improvement for the area. Who would have expected that you could step into a café in Templeton, CA (population 4,962) — or even the tiny seaside town of Avila Beach (population 797) — and be offered a choice of beans for use in your espresso shot? Joe Mamma’s Coffee in Avila Beach even serves the ever-elusive “traditional cappuccino“. Although the coffee here hasn’t yet reached the quality heights that put them on the map as a coffee destination, the locals do have a little something to be proud of.
Despite a growing interest and emphasis on locally grown, organic, and sustainable food in the SLO County region, we also discovered that it’s not exclusively local. Last Sunday we visited a quintessential example in Templeton — a deli/produce/coffee shop called Farmstand 46. They were marking up a blackboard menu for their drinks at their new espresso bar, even though their espresso machine hasn’t even arrived yet. The coffee they sold on their shelves? Roasts from SF’s own Four Barrel Coffee.
|Name||Address||City||Espresso [info]||Cafe [info]||Overall [info]|
|Black Horse at Uptown||1065 Higuera St., Unit 101||San Luis Obispo||6.80||7.20||7.000|
|Linnaea’s||1110 Garden St.||San Luis Obispo||7.00||7.50||7.250|
|Joebella Coffee Roasters||1121 Rossi Road, Suite C||Templeton||7.40||7.80||7.600|
In a Trader Joe’s mini strip mall off Highway 101, this café only seems to attract the attention of the locals — despite the heavy wine-tasting traffic along Vineyard Drive. If you haven’t been to this burgeoning California wine-growing region, you’ll be in for a shock at how much the industry here has developed out to near-Sonoma-like proportions.
Joseph & Isabel Gerardis opened this café two years ago after running their successful local roasting operation in nearby Atascadero. The loft-like space has a tall A-frame ceiling at the entrance and a service area just behind it and a good half-dozen tables. There’s also two tables for outdoor seating in front under parasols.
At the bar, they offer Melitta bar (“Brew Bar”) coffee. Joseph, who has been around the block compared to most baristas, operated their three-group La Marzocco GB/5, using three different Rio and Astoria grinders for the various roasted coffees they have in rotation for espresso and French press.
Although there seems to be a slow turnover on customers here, due to the limited traffic, it’s encouraging to see the variety they offer. For espresso, their house blend is Michael’s Folly — rated in the review linked below. Joe pulled shots with a medium-to-dark brown textured crema as a slightly large pour in white Nuova Point cups. It is surprisingly a little thin-bodied, but the cup is expressive at the bass-note end of the flavor spectrum: some unusual (and pleasant) kick of spice with a somewhat complex smoothness and balance. Quite a good shot, and one of the best in the San Luis Obispo County region.
We followed that up with their “Guest Espresso” ($2.50), which was The Works: a supposedly darker, more chocolaty blend. We found the cup to actually be a little more meek and subdued, and the shot again served slightly high and a touch thin on body. But it had a much creamier texture and some bolder notes around chocolate. Perhaps a better shot to hold up to milk — and they do offer rather decent microfoam.
Read the review of Joebella Coffee Roasters in Templeton, CA.
What a strange café. This alcohol-free dive (unlike the drunken student bar across the street) has been an institution in downtown SLO for over 25 years. The place shows its age — with a lot of wood and furnishing wear by years of student traffic.
When you enter, there’s a room centered around the service area with a two-group La Marzocco Linea. But after 25 years, they don’t seem to have bothered to figure out an efficient service system: waits are typically quite long even when the lines aren’t. That exposes you to additional painful minutes of listening to some of their wretched folk singers in the back room. When we visited, even the payment process at the register was mathematically challenged: the prices listed on their extensive wall boards were not the amounts they actually charged.
There’s limited window-side stool seating along the street windows, which nicely open up to the occasional chaos outside. Think SLO’s version of Berkeley’s Telegraph Ave. — with a typical nighttime forecast of random yelling with a slight chance of vomit. But most of the seating in this dive is in the back (by the folk singers, unfortunately).
They promote their organic Fair Tradeness and use Alta Coffee for espresso and a combination of Alta and local roaster Joebella for filter drip. But they certainly serve more than just espresso and coffee, as the extensive (and almost fabricated) beverage menu will attest to many frilly faux espresso drinks such as white mochas, flavored lattes, etc.
Even so, to our relief they serve a properly short shot with a striped layer of medium and darker brown crema. It looks legit served in classic brown Nuova Point cups. The body is a little thinner than you’d expect with those looks, and there’s a balanced flavor dominated mostly by a muted herbal pungency. This is espresso, unlike what they serve at Uptown nearby. Still, the resulting cup is not significantly better than its downtown rival.
Read the review of Linnaea’s in San Luis Obispo, CA.
This has long been considered something of a San Luis Obispo County establishment. In the early 1990s, a couple friends of the owner, Randy Coates, operated the original Uptown Espresso in Seattle. Mr. Coates later paid $1 for the rights to slap that name on his own SLO café. He has since renamed his chain Black Horse and kept the Uptown name for this location.
The location is a former automotive repair shop, and the front patio offers a bit of seating at a few large tables. ‘Large’ is the operative word here, as inside and out they regularly seem to pull in tables of 10 people or more. (Welcome to a college town.) Inside there’s a fireplace and some window counter seating as well — plus a “Wall of Fame” consisting of photos of celebrities (from Peter Fonda to members of Hanson) and tourists around the world sporting paper cups with the café’s logo. Even if we feel that branding yourself as a quality product with paper cups seems more than a bit backwards.
Ordering a single shot, they give you the second half in the double basket for free. But bizarrely, they serve it in a large, black coffee mug. They even call it a “mug”. Espresso in mugs? Talk about unclear on the concept.
The resulting shot looks it: it’s of a large volume, with a medium brown, relatively even crema. It tastes of mellow pepper and a little malt even, but you could make the case that it tastes more like good filter coffee than a true espresso. Since our visit, we came across a review by the 2 Espressos blog that pretty much came to the same conclusion.
Despite winning numerous Best-of awards from the San Luis Obispo New Times, we found it to be good — but honestly no better than the Peet’s Coffee & Tea tucked in a pedestrian mall a block to the west. A statement like that won’t float well with locals who would like to discredit chain store interlopers, but it is a fair statement.
Read the review of Black Horse at Uptown in San Luis Obispo, CA.
With all this talk of West Coast roasters creeping their operations out East, a news story from today’s Jamaica Observer was a bit of a head-turner. The article seemed to imply that Ritual Coffee Roasters is setting up shop in Jamaica — and we don’t mean Jamaica in Queens, NYC: Rituals Coffee to set up shop in Jamaica – JamaicaObserver.com.
Or did it? In all seriousness, the article actually meant the Rituals Coffee House chain, based in the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. However, the article in the Observer clearly shows an image of Ritual Coffee Roaster’s 1026 Valencia St. location in SF’s Mission District. But what’s in a name, right?
This casual, local café caters to the locals in a big way: to both patrons and employees. It’s located in a large, long building alongside the town railroad tracks at the dead-end of a street.
Out front there is limited sidewalk seating — and an abused Snoopy sculpture, customary for Santa Rosa (aka Charles “Schutlzberg”). Inside they have a back room that serves just ice cream, but the main space is an old, wooden coffeehouse centered around a Sasa Samiac roaster and coffee beans in various stages of roasting: from the plastic bins of greens to the old, brass bins against the wall for storing retail roasted coffee.
They do meticulously date-stamp their roasts here like meat at the supermarket, which is an encouraging sign. Their roasts may lack the gratuitous adjectives and GPS coordinates common to roasters of serious coffee — who decidedly charge quite a bit more than their $12.50/pound. But the roasts here are as fresh as they come — same day, even. We purchased some for home use, and it’s been gassing out for days now.
Their espresso shots, however, leave a bit to be desired. Using a three-group Grimac La Vittoria at the front bar, they pull larger shots with a thinner, medium brown crema that dissipates quickly. There isn’t much body to the shot, and there isn’t much flavor either beyond the basic bold filter coffee taste of spice and some pepper. Served in classic brown ACF cups.
We wanted to like this place a lot more, but they are typical of the older North Bay coffeehouse/roasters. We’re certainly bigger fans of the Santa Rosa installment of “The Goat” just down the railroad tracks.
Read the review of A’Roma Roasters in Santa Rosa, CA.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you — New York, New York
When Liza Minnelli first sang these words about “making it”, and Frank Sinatra later belted them out as a sort of co-opted trademark, they obviously weren’t singing about making coffee. Because when it comes to good coffee, New York City has been a follower, not a leader.
Fast forward to today: while the coffee quality in New York has certainly improved, the city still follows. Case and point with today’s New York Times blog post on two additional, new California coffee imports in town: More Coffee From California – Diner’s Journal Blog – NYTimes.com. This time the coffee interlopers are Four Barrell Coffee and Ecco Caffè.
Start spreading the news, I’m staying today … for an espresso made with locally roasted beans.
But don’t mistake this for mean-spirited city rivalry. Think of it more as a, “What is wrong with you people over there?! Do we have to tell you everything?” The way you’d embarrassingly look at your mom for going out in public wearing an fleece jumpsuit with animals printed on it.
We’re rather shameless about our love for the espresso and cafés in Torino, Italy. So we could not pass on today’s travel article in The Guardian (UK): Lose the froth: Turin’s best cafes | Travel | The Guardian.
So why do we love the espresso and cafés in Torino so much? To start with: grand locations and a long cultural tradition dedicated to killer espresso. To quote the article:
Even more astonishing, however, especially if you’re used to the rip-off prices in England, a coffee at San Carlo (and just about everywhere else in Turin) costs a flat €1, be it an espresso, a cappuccino or anything in between. And by cappuccino I don’t mean a vaguely coffee-flavoured polystyrene bucket of milky froth from Starbucks and co. For one thing, the morning cappuccino comes in what in Britain is fast becoming a dainty relic of the past – a coffee cup, rather than a super-sized mug. For another, and no less radical, it tastes of coffee.
This small-bite Italian eatery and wine bar on Lower Haight arrived on the scene in the Spring of ’08, taking over what was frequently a campaign office for local politicians. They have limited seating in front and plenty more in back, with both dining areas separated by a large, accommodating bar with stool seating.
Despite its gentrified theme (house-made salumi, pizzas, etc. from Mario Batali alumni), the staff here are decidedly Haight St.: black T-shirts, tattoos, and a lot of facial hair (though fortunately not the women). We appreciated that the entire dining experience was complemented exclusively by Dinosaur Jr.‘s music catalog, even if it was only post-Bug. It subtly reminded us of a former era where Rough Trade and Reckless records ruled Haight St., and Ameoba Music was the mere Rock ‘N Bowl bowling alley. (And how we once saw Dinosaur Jr. play with The Fluid at SF’s Kennel Club, née The Justice League, and now known as The Independent.)
Using a single-group La Marzocco Linea at the bar and beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters, you’d think the espresso here might be pretty decent. But you’d be surprised by the lackluster results. While the resulting taste is fine, it is served with a blonde, thinner crema as a large pour. It has a watery body and the flavor of decent filter coffee — not espresso. Served in classic brown Nuova Point cups.
Read the review of Uva Enoteca.
Publications frequently run out of ideas, which is why the Wall Street Journal seems to be jacked on coffee articles of late. (But don’t worry — we have no plans to tell you what investments to have in your portfolio.) Just two days after making the ridiculous assertion that Illy is taking on Starbucks, the Journal published a more thoughtful piece on Asia’s “best” coffee: Ground Rules – Asia’s Best Coffee – WSJ.com.
Fortunately it’s nothing like America’s Best Coffee — one of coffee’s greatest product-naming let-downs. The article highlights the history of Taiwanese coffee culture, making mention of siphon pot coffee and last year’s salty coffee fad. The article also offers small sections on coffee culture in Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam — offering glossaries on the coffee in each country and brief tips on where to find a decent cup.