Voodoo Doughnut

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had to kill several hours at Universal City Walk.  There are only 2 options for coffee.  And, when faced with a choice of Starbucks or Voodoo Doughnut…well…that’s not actually a choice.

First, let’s get this out of the way.  Voodoo Doughnut is NOT a coffee shop.  But, they proudly advertise Stumptown coffee, and they have a bad-ass pink, 3 group La Marzocco espresso machine.  So, I grabbed a sugar bomb and then hoped for the best with the coffee.

A Flat White?  I don't think so.

A Flat White? I don’t think so.

Voodoo is pulling their shots with Stumptown Hairbender.  It’s a decent blend, but this not being a true Stumptown shop, the dice are rolled.

I asked for a flat white.  Warning #1 is the guy asked me what size I wanted.  Any true barrista knows a flat white is a 4-5oz drink, so choice of size in this case already flagged a problem.  I looked at the cups and asked for the smallest one (which was 6 oz).

Now, while warning bells were going off like crazy, the end result was actually not terrible.  I wasn’t great, but it was something drinkable and suited my need at the time.  It was much better than anything at Starbucks.  I realize that’s not saying much, but still, I was surprised.  This was a case of a well trained employee clearly using calibrated equipment.  So, while equipment alone does not make great coffee, in this case, it helped to make adequate coffee.

If you are at Universal Studios (or City Walk), this is the place to get coffee if you are in need.  Oh…and the donuts?  The doughnuts are not the best in the world, but they are quite good.

Swell Coffee – Del Mar, CA

The Flower Hill Mall, wait…that dates me. The Flower Hill Promenade as it is now called has had major renovations. There’s now a Whole Foods where the movie theater used to be, a Starbucks, and where Pannikin used to be next to Crown Books is now the home of Swell Coffee.

Swell Coffee is a local San Diego roaster and the shop is pretty nice looking, and the people behind the counter were extremely nice. However, if I wanted burnt nasty coffee, I could have gone to Starbucks.

Since it was hot today, I chose to have an iced latte. But, before my drink, there were 2 cappuccino orders. The woman filled 2 portafilters without cleaning them first. She engaged BOTH portafilters, but only started one. The espresso rocketed out and poured the double shot, split into 2 cups in about 15sec. She then carefully frothed 2 pitchers of milk using thermometers, and then just dumped the frothed milk into the cups… absolutely zero attempt to “construct” the drink.

Then my drink was up. She filled another portafilter, again without cleaning it. She engaged it and then started it AND that other one that had been engaged but never used for the 2 cappuccino…but only caught 1/2 the output. So, my iced latte ended up being a triple shot of yuck. Burnt yuck.

San Diego is home to many craft roasters and shops that serve a variety of 3rd wave style coffee. But, Swell seems content to just serve Starbuck style crap with a local marketing campaign. Bummer.

Kuma Cafe

Also, found during my recent Jury Duty adventure in downtown San Diego is a small place called Kuma Cafe.  There’s small signs on Broadway with a cute little bear face on them directing you to their somewhat hidden location just off Broadway. They are serving coffee roasted by local San Diego roasters, The Westbean.

At first, when I saw the barrista clean the shower head prior to pulling the shot for my cappuccino, I had high hopes.  That shows an attention to detail often not seen.  The shot even looked like it poured well.  Sadly, the coffee just wasn’t that good.  The coffee was mostly lost in the milk (which was steamed fine).  What flavor there was didn’t pair well with the milk.   Also, I’m not a huge fan of The WestBean anyway…I’ve had their beans at other cafes in town.

But, The WestBean has recently scored a really great review on Coffee Review.  So, statistically, the fault here lies with the preparation.  The espresso machine isn’t a big name brand, but knowing what you can do with a Gaggia Classic, I can’t fault the machine too much.  The grinder was a Mazzer doser style.  So, my guess here is that the coffee was sitting in the doser for way too long and went stale (yes folks…freshly grinding does make that big a difference).  Cafe Kuma was almost empty when I was in there about 3pm on a Wed.  If you aren’t serving the volume to clear out the doser, you are better off with an “on demand” style grinder.

Kuma Cafe also has smoothies and acai bowls, which I didn’t try.  But, if you are in this area near Santa Fe Depot and looking for coffee, Copa Vida is a better choice.

Copa Vida San Diego

I got called in for Jury Duty.  Ugh

There’s a new coffee shop 3 blocks from the court house.  Yippie!

Copa Vida, based in Pasadena has 2 locations in San Diego now.  The newest is on Broadway very close to Santa Fe Depot (for you Trolley and Coaster riders) and 3 blocks from the county courthouse.

The cafe is HUGE and very nice inside.  There’s also a very nice open counter facing Broadway to sit and enjoy the breeze blowing up Broadway from San Diego Bay.  The bar has some very nice gear including a big Alpha Dominiche Steam Punk machine which makes watching the preparation after ordering fun.

The coffee is good, not great, but good.  I had both a Flat White and the cold brew.  Both the espresso and cold brew had a typical 3rd wave flavor profile of high fruit acidity bordering on too tart.  Unfortunately, I find this to be a disturbing trend in the coffee world.  Some places keep it mostly in check (like Copa Vida) and others are just way out of bounds.  As, I said, the coffee is good, not great.  But, considering nearly across the street is Starbucks, this is definitely where you want to hang in this neck of the woods.

The staff was friendly and happy to talk about their shop and roasts.  They also have some nice small bites in the cafe which makes this a nice place to hang  on Jury Duty breaks for sure.

VST Precision Filter Baskets

VST Espresso Filter Baskets

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  But, this is worth the time.  I’ve read about VST Precision Filter Baskets before and finally decided to see what this was all about.  I just picked up the 18gr VST STD Ridged filter basket and the difference it makes is crazy.

You can read all about the fancy holes and quality control elements of the VST Precision Filter Baskets on their site.  But, the main take away is that it’s not just a marketing gimmic.  The design of the VST baskets is superior to most stock filter baskets and the result is sweeter, better tasting espresso.  The main thing I notice instantly is that the side walls of the basket are not really tapered at all (like my stock Bezzera or Gaggia baskets).  There is a small curve near the bottom, but mostly, they look nearly straight by comparison.  This means that the coffee puck is a uniform depth all the way around.  This matters because even before you get to the precision holes at the bottom, the coffee is uniform leading to even saturation.

Now, this design also has the side effect of showing even the slightest error in your distribution and tamping technique.  So, be prepared to reset what you think you know how to do a little.  Also, I had to actually adjust my grind finer to deal get the same timing with my standard 18.5gr dose.

The result in the cup is a sweeter, more complex espresso.  Same beans, same grinder, same machine…just changing the filter basket made the espresso taste significantly better.  If you are serious about your espresso, it’s well worth the $30 for the VST basket.

FOOTNOTE:  For most home machines, you probably want the STD Ridged model.  This “ridge” is a small bump on the outside that catches the “spring” in the portafilter and locks the basket in.  The “ridgeless” models don’t lock like that…they rely on simple friction fit.  If you DO NOT have a bottomless portafilter, you might need to get one if you get the 18gr or larger basket.  They have the dimensions on their site so you can measure your gear for compatibility.

For Five Coffee Roasters

For Five Coffee Roasters roast in Queens, but have opened their first shop in the Times Square area at 117 West 46th Street, New York.  Their shop is very sharp looking and their custom ModBar espresso bar is super slick.  But, how does it taste?

The coffee is very good here.  For Five Coffee Roasters are focusing on flavor and not fads.  The coffee had all the right notes and was very balanced.

Costa and George were happy to talk about the philosophy of For Five and all things coffee.  Their customer service was excellent and it was a welcome stop to get out of Times Square.  If you are in the area, stop in to For Five Coffee Roasters for a well crafted coffee.

St. Kilda Coffee New York

You’ll walk right by it and never know it’s there.  St. Kilda Coffee in New York is just across 8th Ave on 44th St. from the Majestic (Phantom…probably never closing) and St. James (Something Rotten as of right now) theaters.  It’s down under a residential building with the street level sign, literally at street level…as in..your feet.

St Kilda Coffee

With a plethora of Starbucks in the vicinity, it’s nice to have an indie joint so close to the theater district.  They are open 7-7 most days, and are serving up the a pretty standard drink menu crafted from beans roasted by Birch Coffee (local NYC company).

The Flat White I ordered was decent enough, but the espresso didn’t really hold up to the milk.
wpid-wp-1480731528990.jpgThere was a pretty typical 3rd wave aroma to the drink, but the flavor of the espresso was totally drowned by the milk.  I don’t know if the fault was drink assembly, or just that the shot was off near the end of the day.

However, if you want to support an indie spot, and get something infinitely better than Starbucks, and are near 44th St., check out St. Kilda Coffee.

Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Review

Cold brew has passed the “fad”phase.  It is now almost its own food group.  Places like Stumptown, Bluebottle, La Colombe, etc are all touting their cold brew these days.  So, what about low cost competitors?  Trader Joe’s has 2 variants, “black” and a flavored variety (vanilla I think).   Note, I’m not talking about their Cold Brew Concentrate.  I’m talking about the little 8oz Trader Joe’s Cold Brew cans that look like this.


The good news is Trader Joe’s Cold Brew tastes like coffee.  The bad news is it tastes like their “brew in bag” coffee only cold.  The can claims to be 100% Arabica, but I’m probably not far off when I say it’s likely 100% cheap Brazilian Arabica.  If you like Dunkin coffee, you will like this.  If you like coffee…not brown dirty water…you won’t like this cold brew.

It was worth the experiment, but cold brew is so easy to make at home.  If you really like cold brew, you should find a local roaster, buy fresh beans, and make it your self.

Demystifying espresso for the average Joe