Pepper Guide: A Coffee Crawl Around Los AngelesMay 17, 2016
As with any good coffee crawl, jet lag was never going to be an excuse. In lieu of practice, we were determined to drink as much good coffee as we could on our way to the 2015 World Aeropress Championships in Seattle. For this purpose, we booked a flight into Los Angeles a full week before the competition with the intention of embarking on a largely caffeine-fuelled romp up the West Coast. It was a no-brainer to pick the City of Angels as a jump-off point: we had family and friends to visit, great food to eat, and selected celebrities to hopefully selfie with. Specialty coffee, however, was still a big question mark—LA’s sizeable hipster population notwithstanding. The truth is, no one really thinks of LA as having a renowned coffee scene in the same way as maybe San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle, where the nascent third wave coffee scene was carefully nurtured and organically supported by settled communities of artistes and grown-up beatniks. This was Tinseltown, USA: maker of the 15 minute celebrity and purveyor of flash-in-the-pan fame. Maybe it was the dazzling sunshine, the unreal blueness of the California sky, or the chirpy cheeriness of the natives—if this was a city where dreams came true, maybe no one really needed to stay awake.
However, caffeine was the farthest thing on our minds when we touched down in LAX on an impossibly pleasant April afternoon. All we wanted was a street taco dinner, a solid nap, and a hot bath (in that order) after a largely sleepless long haul flight from Manila by way of Incheon. The next morning was a different story altogether. We woke up to a crisp spring morning to all the familiar cravings of the sleep-deprived and travel weary. We needed good coffee ASAP, and preferably with a big breakfast to go with it. We plunged into LA’s freeways and side streets in search of our liquid gold. Our two-day specialty coffee romp through most of Los Angeles showed us a vibrant and well-educated community of coffee lovers who have subtly influenced the way coffee is tasted and experienced in this sprawling city. Largely unnoticed and easily dismissed, the LA coffee scene is as vibrant and exciting as you’d find anywhere else.
Go Get Em Tiger
A quick drive from our temporary digs on West Hollywood took us to Larchmont Village, a curious stretch of small street-front retailers and specialty eateries which resembled a sophisticated midwestern main street—except this one was smack dab in the middle of America’s second biggest city. Here, Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski—superstar baristas and leading lights in the LA coffee scene—together with their other partners, opened Go Get Em Tiger, a neighborhood café quite unlike their first successful coffee venture (more on that later) in Downtown LA. Done over in minimalist white, natural wood, and with outdoor bench seating, Go Get Em Tiger is an inviting sunlit space that attracted, for that morning, a steady stream of eclectic characters, some of whom appeared to be neighborhood regulars and all of which were drawn by the excellent coffee served by up the proven Glanville & Babinski team.
We ordered our usual cortado (double shot of espresso with 1:1 ratio of steamed milk) and a single origin brew, which in this case was a pourover. We paired the drinks with their Baked Eggs, a zippy tomato stew with ricotta, parmesan, flat parsley, and handmade sausages which woke us from our stupor. The coffee was, as expected, expertly pulled and poured, and we felt the dense cobwebs of jet lag slowly clear in our heads. At the bar, the chatty baristas helped walk-ins pick out whole roasted beans to take home, and called out lattes and flat whites to take out. The scent of freshly baked breads and grilled cheese filled the air. From high up on the wall behind the bar, an astronaut floated in white space observing waves of satisfied customers. He would’ve been convinced to come down to earth for breakfast.
Address: 230 N Larchmont Blvd
Verve Coffee Roasters
We parked in an ubiquitous pay parking lot on Broadway (surely a profitable enterprise this side of town at US$9 for an hour or so), and legged it in the soft afternoon sunshine past a few old bank buildings, arriving at the Spring Street branch of Verve Coffee Roasters. A living wall lined the soaring entrance of the café, and we hurried inside to escape the rising heat. At the counter, we saw that Verve was serving cold brew on nitro tap in tall, frosty glasses—the perfect drink to cool down and keep the creeping jet lag at bay. The resulting beverage had a toasted malty quality to it with a nice honey finish, not unlike the classic cerveza negras we had at home. Nitrogen infusion also gave the drink a clean, effervescent edge to it—quite a unique mouthfeel for what certainly tasted like a nutty, chocolate-y coffee. It was a great place to people watch too, and we picked a seat outside and watched folks make plans over cups of coffee—always a good place to start.
Address: 833 S Spring St
As far as locations go, you probably cannot do better than Grand Central Market (circa 1917) where Glanville & Babinski, the aforementioned baristas extraordinaire, opened their first coffee shop, the eponymous G&B Coffee, at the entrance of the historic Homer Laughlin Building. Opening up into the bustling street and backed up by various stalls selling fresh produce, processed meats, and prepared foods, the low-slung wraparound coffee bar of G&B Coffee was meant to serve consistently good coffee—fast. There were no available seats in sight, and we came up to the bar and waited for our order to be taken and crafted immediately before our very eyes. By this point, we had already had around 3 to 4 coffees each so we decided to keep it safe, and just share a cortado to keep us going until dinner. The unfair thing about American coffee shops is that they have their pick of the best fresh milk to steam and mix with their espressos. Accordingly, the cortados arrived with a full-bodied creaminess to them, which rounded out the tart juiciness of the espresso we sipped slowly while leaning and observing the masters at work.
Address: C-19, 317 S Broadway
Blue Bottle Coffee
The next morning, we came by Downtown LA again to get some drinks from the famous Blue Bottle Coffee. We have always had a soft spot for the brand since Kaye (co-owner of Habitual Coffee) had her religious specialty coffee experience while drinking a cappuccino at the original Blue Bottle Hayes Valley kiosk in San Francisco. The Downtown LA space (formerly owned by Handsome Coffee Roasters) had an en vogue modern warehouse feel to it, complete with the operating roaster visible through the tall windows. Apart from the beautiful, airy space, Blue Bottle also retained Handsome Coffee’s signature Dandy Espresso blend, which we tried as an espresso shot, and an Ethiopia Yirchacheffe as a drip coffee, both expressing themselves as solidly fruity and balanced cups which would satisfy and surprise professionals and first-timers alike.
Address: 582 Mateo St
After a long day of museum-hopping and pretend shopping along Wilshire Blvd, we drove into Silverlake through a long stretch of Sunset Blvd. Fringed by record stores, thrift shops, and various retail spaces, this collectively made the neighborhood the de facto hipster mothership of Los Angeles. Famously located by the Sunset Junction sign in a bright orange 2-storey structure, the establishment of the Silver Lake coffee bar marked the beginning of the end for what was once a largely unexciting LA coffee scene. That weekend afternoon, the coffee bar was packed with local artist types, parents dropping off children to ballet class, and eager coffee types like us. While waiting for our cortado and cold brew, we admired the intricate blue and white tiling and watched Intelligentsia’s highly trained coffee professionals buzz around taking and making orders. In a zip, our orders were delivered to us, and we savored these skillfully executed cups of coffee in the fading light as cars drove by.
Address: 3922 Sunset Blvd