Wednesday, June 27, 2007


COPING MECHANISMS: my trip to Los Angeles

Last Thursday I got into my car to drive down to Los Angeles. I was really excited about the trip for a number of reasons, including a planned visit to the new Intelligentsia shop in silverlake. But then I stopped at Ritual on my way out of town and had the pleasure of meeting coffee roaster, blogger and L.A. resident tonx, who informed me that Intelligentsia won’t be opening until July. Rats.

But I still had a really good time on the trip, which wound up being chock full of quintessential Los Angeles activities, including attending a film festival party at a schwanky hotel in Beverly Hills, spending an afternoon at the beach, and getting into a car accident. (And just to keep the Los Angeles-ness of it all going, I then had to put up with rude comments shouted at me from passing SUV drivers who were pissed that my car was blocking traffic. Sure, a-hole, I’m leaving my car in the middle of Olympic Boulevard simply because I think it LOOKS NICE sitting there. It’s got NOTHING to do with the fact that the axle’s broken and it’s not driveable. Sheesh. Los Angeles can be very unkind.)

In any case, the other quintessentially Los Angeles thing that I did was put up with a series of cappuccino imitations, because, as I have lamented here before, there is very, very little good espresso anywhere in L.A. county. I lived in Los Angeles for seven and half years, and during that time, I developed a series of coping mechanisms for dealing with the lack of good espresso, and all of those coping mechanisms were employed at one point or another over the past few days. So it was kind of a nostalgic trip for me, a walk down memory lane!

Coping Mechanism #1: appreciating the ambiance

When I first moved to L.A., in 1997, I wasn’t really ready to give up my San Francisco habit of sitting in coffee shops to read or study or write in my journal. So I checked out all the coffee shops I could find and wound up spending a lot of time at the 18th Street Café on Broadway in Santa Monica. I have many journal entries from that time that read something like, "wow, this espresso is so bad, I want to kill myself. But I love this fucking patio!" Or something. So I had kind of a flashback to that era last weekend when I went to groundwork in Hollywood. I got a cappuccino. It was totally forgettable. Stiff peaks. Big bubbles. Bitter, overextracted espresso.

(As an aside, can someone explain to me why groundwork has been so well-regarded on some of the coffee discussion boards? It seems like every time someone posts to coffee geek or requesting recommendations for where to get espresso in L.A., somebody else recommends groundwork. I’ve been to a few of their locations now, and I’ve always been underwhelmed. What’s the deal?)

But the thing I dug about groundwork – at least the one in Hollywood – is that they had this gorgeous, huge table in the middle of the room – a perfect example of the shared space I love to see in coffee shops. I dug it. I just wished the coffee tasted better. But I tried to content myself with admiring the layout. Then I left.

Coping Mechanism #2: making it yourself

After a year or two of endless disappointment with L.A.’s coffee shops, I turned my attention to making coffee myself. As a broke-ass film student, I didn’t have the money to invest in equipment, but I put a lot of effort into finding decent coffee and then getting the best possible results out of my moka pot and the steam wand on the cheapie "espresso" machine I’d inherited from my sister. Again, I was miles away from the real thing, but it was a step up from the trash that was available around me.

I was reminded of this again this past weekend when I visited my multitalented friend John Nein (He writes! He directs! He programs the Sundance Film Festival!) at his office. John proudly showed me the schmancy superautomatic espresso machine they have in the kitchen; it grinds, doses, tamps and brews with the push of one button. John was pretty excited about it, as you can see.

(And may I just point out that even though it was an 80-degree June day, John Nein - in true John Nein fashion - felt compelled to keep the chill at bay with a wool sweater vest. His secret plan to use the power of his wardrobe to make Los Angeles a little bit more like London does not appear to be meeting with much success. But keep trying, John! Maybe the 11th year will be the charm!)

The results of the superauto were interesting. The flavor wasn’t so bad, but the texture was nothing like espresso – a little thinner than what comes out of my moka pot, but with some fake, foamy "crema" on top. But I could see the appeal. John works in an office on Wilshire and La Cienega. As in every part of Los Angeles, there’s a Starbucks nearby, and a Coffee Bean. But that’s pretty much it. So… I could see how if I worked there, I’d be thrilled to have an office coffee maker that made semi-drinkable "espresso." Once again, making the best of a bad situation.

Coping Mechanism #3: the knock-offs

Is it just me, or is Los Angeles the KING of the coffee milkshake? I mean, I know the frappuccino swept the entire nation a long time ago. But really, the frappuccino was the brainchild of some Starbucks employees in Santa Monica who were inspired by Coffee Bean’s Ice Blended. (See page 206 of Howard Schultz’s literary masterwork "Pour Your Heart Into It" if you doubt me.) And I have to say that the Ice Blended is, quite simply, better than the frappuccino. Coffee Bean uses smaller, softer ice than Starbucks does, so their drinks blend up into something much smoother and creamier.

How do I know this? Because there were a couple years there – let’s call them the Lost Years – when I gave up on finding decent espresso in Los Angeles ENTIRELY and started to occasionally "treat myself" to super-sweet, coffee-esque milkshakes instead. I contend that this had a lot to do with working in film production and driving all over southern California in a car with no air conditioning. I wasn’t choosing these drinks because they were "coffee." I was choosing them because they were cold. And because I have a reflexive, irrational need to visit coffee shops on a very regular basis, even if the products on offer are subpar.

But still. There was a period of time when I abandoned my beloved cappuccino in favor of the "local specialties." And there is even one local specialty that is still a little bit of a guilty pleasure for me: the honey vanilla latte at Urth Caffe. So this past weekend, I had the pleasure of staying with my friend Kaz, and she lives around the corner from Urth Caffe. So I indulged. More than once, I admit. And what I was thinking as I was sipping my honey vanilla latte was this: this drink is head and shoulders above any other vanilla latte I've ever had. Leaving aside for a second my guilt over drinking a vanilla latte, WHY IS THAT? Why are the vanilla lattes in L.A. better than anywhere else? Why are there places in L.A. that have put some serious time and effort into developing the perfect vanilla latte but not the perfect cappuccino? What is that all about?

It all just drew my attention to the thing that I both love and hate about Los Angeles – nothing is sacred there. And I mean nothing. A lot of outsiders make the mistake of thinking that Los Angeles is synonymous with Hollywood. They think that "culture" in L.A. consists of palm trees, convertibles and breast implants. And certainly, when you first get to L.A., those are the things you notice. Because you can’t really find them anywhere else. But the longer you stay in L.A., the more you realize that palm trees, convertibles and breast implants are only a tiny fraction of what’s going on in that city. And there really is no ONE dominant culture there; the only rule is that there are no rules. Los Angeles is a city that takes concepts that are sacred to other people – often people in faraway places – and it innovates on those concepts, creating something else entirely. This is true with architecture and design. It’s true with art and music. It’s true with religion. (The number of religious cults that have started in Los Angeles is pretty astonishing. The pentecostal church really got going there in 1906. And then there’s the church of scientology. And David Koresh first started recruiting cult members while working at Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard.) And it’s definitely true with food. Los Angeles, after all, is the city that gave birth to the apple martini and the barbecue chicken pizza.

Sometimes the results of this openness to innovation are spectacular. Sometimes they are less than stellar. Sometimes having no rules is scary. Sometimes it’s liberating. But I have to say that the experience of living in a place of such freedom was really wonderful for me. Spending my 20’s in Los Angeles really helped me not only figure out who I was – which is something that a lot of people in a lot of cities do in their 20’s – but it also helped me feel comfortable in my own skin. And to this day, L.A. is a place where I feel very at home. And it’s not because I "fit in" with any kind of pre-existing culture that exists there. It’s because NOBODY fits in there. And therefore everybody does. Los Angeles is where I really learned to live and let live (funny that I did NOT learn this where I grew up, in hippie northern California, where the attitude is "live and let live, but you are an idiot if you don’t choose to live like me.") And Los Angeles is where I perfected the art of indulging my curiosity. There was so much there that was different from me, exotic to me, and well outside my comfort zone that at a certain point I had to just dive right in and get to know it a little.

Speaking in terms of coffee, though, I kind of hate this nothing-is-sacred attitude, because it has meant that I have spent years of my life coping with bad espresso rather than enjoying good espresso. It has also meant that I have had a hard time finding kindred spirits who know or care about what good espresso is. And the "innovation" that led to the frappuccino is something that I have come to regard as being responsible for delaying Americans’ appreciation of truly excellent coffee. (This has come up in this blog before, and you can read about it here.) It’s like the coping mechanism got to be so good that it eclipsed the existence of the original problem: bad coffee. We’re a country of copers.

So… I don’t know. As much as I prize the liberation I feel being in a city like Los Angeles, I’m starting to have a more nuanced opinion of innovation, one that is not divorced from quality. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to believe that difference and newness are not always good things in and of themselves. I feel torn, because I have an instinctive dislike of snobbery (including my own) and yet I see the value of snobbery in promoting quality. I hate standards when they stifle creativity, but I love them when they protect and promote something I care about. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t offer people the freedom to experiment. But can we then employ some critical thinking to differentiate between the good things and the bad things that come out of that experimentation? And can we put some effort into recognizing the value of the good that already exists?

These are the debates I have with myself whenever I go to L.A. and morosely watch the ice melt in my honey vanilla latte. If nothing else, Los Angeles always provides food for thought. And the good/bad news is that I have to go back down there in a few weeks, to pick up my car, which is malingering in a body shop on La Cienega. I’m hoping that by then Intelligentsia will be open.

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