Road Drip

Author: george Posted: September 4, 2008

During a recent road trip to California, we made a few important stops along the way.

Now, while this road trip’s main theme was not coffee, it certainly was a very enjoyable sub-plot. As usual, all the coffee was great at all these places (otherwise we wouldn’t have gone in the first place) so instead of boring you with espresso reviews I’ll focus more on the photos and other points of interest. The main characters are Navid (who works at crema), our good friend Shahin (who doesn’t really drink coffee) and yours truly.

While passing through Seattle we stopped at Vivace and Victrola. We got a pressed Kenyan (can’t remember from which region though) for the road.

I spotted this outside Victrola -

In Portland, we went to the Ace Hotel for Stumptown (and the atmosphere). Shahin got a tea that the barista described sort of as a mate (as in yerba mate). He also said it would taste like dirt, but that it is really good for you. Let me tell you first hand that it smelt and tasted identical to a horse stable/manure. I believe when I tasted it my exact words were, “this tastes like falling into a pile of manure with your mouth open.” I say this not really so much as a bad thing either because while these aren’t qualities I look for in my preferred taste profile of tea (or anything), I’ve never tasted something so perfect. It was such a vivid and obvious taste that you can’t do anything but appreciate it. I wish I could remember what it was called but I can’t.

The next day we went coffee-less but were rejuvenated a day later when we arrived at Ritual Coffee in San Francisco.

simple & clean logo.
simple & clean logo.

It was about 6 pm when we wondered in, and the place was packed. It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen a cafe at that time, and people just kept on filing in. Eminem was blasting violently throughout the shop, and all the staff and customers looked more like rockstars than anything else. Instead of going to work, these guys are just playing gigs, everyday in their hometown. I love it.

What was perhaps even more rediculous than the amount of people getting coffee at that time was that there was only one barista on bar. It probably took about 15 minutes to get my mac and espresso, but all the better, that just meant getting to spend more time there. It was also one of the few places that I thought a chalk board menu looked good, even if it was just for whole beans.

sweet jar labels.
sweet jar labels.

They roast their own product, and the bags were scattered throughout the back. Seeing the bags and things like this are always a nice little reminder that the journey a coffee bean takes starts far far away, not just at your local coffee shop.

While taking some pictures of the cafe one of the baristas who was off shift engaged me in conversation. His name was Ryan, and later on in the week while reading some coffee blogs I actually saw a few pictures of him. Ryan, if you’re reading this – Spork was great, and you were right, there was no vacancy in San Francisco.

We left San Francisco later that night, but we planned to stay a few nights on the return trip – don’t worry, we wouldn’t disrespect San Fran with only a few hours of visit.

2 days later we made it down to L.A. with the plan of stopping over at Intelligentsia before heading over to Navid’s cousin, who lived about an hour further down south. When we finally got to where it was supposed to be, the whole street was blocked off for some kind of fair, and the only way to get in was with a wrist band that cost 20 dollars. We heard the coffee was amazing, but I didn’t think we could justify 20$.

As promised, about a week later we caught it on the return trip, and had I known it was going to be as good as it was, I may have just paid the 20$ extra the first time ’round.

Maybe it was because we hadn’t had an espresso in almost a week, or maybe it was all the excitement of finally making it to the cafe, or perhaps it was the orange plated synesso, but for whateve reason, Navid and I both agreed it was one of the best espressos we’ve ever had. Ever. I can’t even remember what it tasted like, except that it was all we could have asked for, and maybe more.

Shahin got tea.

not actually slanted in real life.
not actually slanted in real life.

Do not be concerned about the above picture. The tables are not actually slanted in a downwards direction at Intelligentsia. This is a camera effect.

We all bought a ton of merchandise, including mugs, t-shirts, and even a skateboard deck. I haven’t had this black cat bar yet, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a chocolate bar that has actual black cat espresso in it, and a recipe on how to make a drink with it on the back.

Another beautiful thing about “Intelli” was the lack of inside seating. While there were a few seats inside, the patio was the main feature thanks to year round sun – must be nice.

I know there are other shops in L.A. that would have been nice to check out but we just didn’t have time this trip – next time.

Also, while we were in San Diego we went to Starbucks for breakfast and wifi (they were sold out of the breakfast sandwich I wanted and the wifi didn’t work) and we saw the new espresso machines. I don’t know if we have them here yet or not, so here’s a picture. I keep thinking of UFO’s when I look a it, but I also think of UFO’s whenever I see a Mistral from Marzocco too, so that isn’t saying much – except maybe that I have UFO’s on the mind too much.

It’s lower, so you can see the person making your drink better now. Nothing new though, as every other espresso machine company does this already, and has been for years.

On the trip back we returned to San Francisco as promised, and while there we stopped at 2 places. The first was a place beyond highly recommended to me by Aaron De Lazzer, that goes by the name of Philz Coffee.

They have been in San Francisco for 35 years according to their website, and their motto is simple: One cup at a time. Take that Clover. I always forget the names of these things but I believe they make the coffee using a pour over station. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

From my understanding, all their blends (you have a choice from 20) are secret. Only Phil and his son know the coffees inside them, and we just get to know what they should taste like. How cool is that?

We didn’t know which blend to get, so we just told the barista to pick one, and to make it however it was meant to be drank. She added sugar and cream to them, threw on a mint leaf, and handed them to us. I have no idea what the proportions were.

Now, I’ve never had a coffee with cream and sugar, so I can’t give a fair comparison – but I can tell you this – It was dessert delicious. It tasted more like a mocha to me than a brewed cup of coffee. Navid said it tasted like a signature drink. I concur.

You can find out more about these mystery coffees by clicking here.

The last stop in San Francisco we made was to a place that, no matter who is reading this right now, I can say you probably haven’t been too just yet. That is because it only opened August 22nd, (thank you coffeed). From what I’ve read and heard, they used to pump out coffee in a back alley on a cart, but as of 2 weeks ago, they have opened up a real indoor shop.

We went pretty late (around 8pm) but there were still a few people hanging around. The space is quite large and open – like a warehouse. The entrance has big doors, with equally big street windows. One thing that isn’t large is the menu. Kudos to them for that, too. And no, there is not a separate tea menu, that is everything, as poor Shahin discovered. He opted for a macchiato instead. Four Barrel is all about the coffee, and none about the anything else. Good for them.

look ma, no tea.
look ma, no tea.

There are 2 three group mistrals in the shop, each with custom “four barrel coffee” engravings on the front. They are stationed on these tables that swivel and adjust in height too.

One of my favorite things about the whole shop was the exterior of the bathroom. I know the picture below doesn’t give you the best idea of what is going on, but basically above the door there is a giant, wide-screened window that showcases the funky lights up top.

The Boars’ heads added to the atmosphere, as well as the slightly dimmed lighting. (There must be some back story I don’t know about as to what they represent.)

Like Ritual, they roast their own coffee right in the back end of the cafe. I’ve read that they used to use Stumptown while operating from the cart but now are roasting their own beans. (Again, please correct me if I’m wrong.)

pitcher rinser
pitcher rinser

I introduced myself to the barista, who I figured was also the owner (and was right.) and found out his name was Jeremy. A week later, here I am typing in “four barrel coffee” into google and reading article after article about him. Jeremy Tooker, unlike his shop, is not new to the coffee world what so ever. In fact, turns out he used to be a partner in Ritual. Who knew…

All the success to Jeremy.

We tried to go to Blue Bottle after, but they were closed. This marks the second time I’ve gone to San Francisco and Blue Bottle was closed. Here’s to the 3rd time working out.

8 Responses to “Road Drip

  1. Tony T. says:

    Glad you caught my favourite spots in SF while you were here (except for Blue Bottle–better luck next time!). Sounds like you had the low-down already. Looking forward to trying Crema next time I’m in Vancouver (I’ve enjoyed Cafe Artigiano and 49th parallel on my last couple of times up).

  2. Anthony says:

    I very much enjoy your reviews George, and I envy your roadtrips. :)

  3. Mary says:

    This is awesome b/c im roadtripping it down to california as well so thanks for the cafe tips! ill be sure to check them out

  4. george says:

    @ Tony T.
    Be sure to email me if you ever come up!

    @ Mary
    If you want the address to any of these places, (or others) feel free to email me as well.

  5. Mary says:

    Thanks! i actually googled them so im good! ill let you know how it goes

  6. breezy says:

    You hit most of the best places, but oh man, you missed a couple note-worthy places, like Verve in Santa Cruz and the “other” Crema in Portland and Albina Press.

    Although Four Barrel tricked you by having a roaster in the back, it wasn’t up and running yet. All that coffee is by Stumptown. They’ll be roasting soon-ish.

    I’m going to IntellLA in about 10 days and I can’t wait! I hope I can get the slanted table.

  7. R.E. says:

    Wow! I have to plan a “Road Drip” ~
    Excellent post, thanks for sharing your drip.

  8. Dave R says:

    Hey Guys,
    Anyone know some good espresso spots in San Diego? I am headin’ that way for Easter weekend, and need to know the good spots!

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