I’ve pretty much stopped drinking coffee at any establishment since having been given the opportunity to make espressos at home–by way of a generous loan from chanachang.
But recently, I’ve found myself out and about more often and getting sleepy while at it, so I’ve started drinking cafe coffee again. I am not really a master coffee drinker, but below is my own opinion of various coffee establishments I’ve visited as of late. These are all comparisons of macchiatos (espresso + foam).
Scale: 1 (yuck) – 10 (sublime)
Panera Bread Co.
The woman behind the counter didn’t even know what I was ordering; she didn’t even know what an espresso was and the whole transaction ended up taking several minutes. When I finally received my drink from the counter, I was surprised to find that my cup was filled with two shots of espresso with an enormous amount of foam. But how was the drink itself? Gross. Terrible. One of the worst combinations of sour and bitter I’ve ever tasted. Even after adding a significant amount of sugar, the taste did not seem to improve significantly. It’s a bit like spraying air freshener after you’ve gone number two. Sure it smells like roses, but more like roses who’ve just taken a crap. No wonder most other drinks at Panera are so masked with other sweet flavors. At the same time, I’m sure there must be worse out there. Rating: 1.5.
Starbucks is one of those of places that you know isn’t that great, but you find yourself there all the time anywhere. Sometimes you don’t really have much of a choice. The problem with ordering a macchiato at Starbucks is that their macchiato is more like a vanilla latte with caramel, so you have to be very specific about what you’re ordering. They’ve recently changed their menu to include an ‘espresso macchiato’ which is closer to the real deal. The first time I ordered an espresso macchiato at Starbucks, it was–as expected–mediocre. It had that trademark muted coffee taste that all Starbucks coffee has. But of course, you’re afraid that if the coffee was less muted, it might just taste sharply gross. But it was acceptable. The second time, the barista “marked” my macchiato with caramel stripes–without my knowledge. I’m not a big fan of caramel in the first place, but Starbucks caramel also has that commercial flavor, which seemed to emphasize the embarrassing reality that I was drinking coffee at a Starbucks. I don’t know any other way of describing Starbucks coffee as anything other than ‘OK’. I’ve even bought whole beans from Starbucks before to make at home and it tasted just as muted and commercialized. But before I fall too harshly on Starbucks, I should concede that Starbucks has that ubiquitous presence of assurance. Whenever I am in an unfamiliar environment and in need for some snooty coffee–am I going to choose to patronize Earl’s Diner & Cafe or Starbucks overpriced globalization coffee? But back to my two macchiatos… Rating: 4.5.
I often think of Peet’s as the ‘better Starbucks’ or the Banana Republic of Starbucks. Fortunately, when you order a macchiato at Peet’s they don’t respond with: “Sorry, English only, Sir.” At Peet’s I generally like to order my coffee “for here” because then they’ll give it to you in a real cup (as opposed to a fake cup or a paper cup). Surprisingly, Peet’s macchiato didn’t give me that ‘WOW’ response. Certainly, it had a very complex flavor, but it was slightly sour and some of the flavors seemed to be too distinct–not enough synergy. But the foam at Peet’s was excellent. And if your coffee is half foam, it’s important to have good foam. Part of me wonders though…is Peet’s a bit like what Starbucks would taste like if it weren’t so muted? Maybe better than that. Rating: 6.
E-mocha (Union City)
E-mocha is one of the great free WiFi study spots that only locals know about. They have great hot sandwiches and smoothies, but what about their coffee? I ordered my macchiato…the first thing I noticed was that the barista was new. He didn’t really tamp down the grounds, he let way more water run through the grounds than was proportionate, and he tried to serve the drink to me in a rather large paper cup. I asked him to switch to a tiny cup. Whatever. Micromanaging. How did it taste? Well, not that great. I don’t know if it was because of the barista or just because of the beans or because of the temperature of the water, but it was pretty sour without a whole lot of complexity. Not as bad as Panera though. Rating: 2.75.
The Whole Foods by my school just happens to have a caffe connected to it, so I decided to grab a coffee there since my friends were grabbing lunch. I wasn’t expecting much because…well, it’s a grocery store for Peet’s sake. One nice thing about this caffe is that the menu is very simple. There always something nice about a simple menu, like when you go to In ‘n’ Out. Anyways, when I got my macchiato…it was as close to a perfect macchiato I’ve ever had. I added a little sugar, but the flavor was so rich yet well-balanced, the foam was thick and consistent. And the proportion of espresso to foam was perfect. The espresso flavored the foam; the foam gave texture to the espresso.
Update: I just had another macchiato here the other day. Man, it’s good there. I’ve gotta say, whether or not my first cup at Paddy’s was better or not, Whole Foods is consistently good espresso. And they use a freaking automated espresso machine! Rating: 8.
Caffe del Doge (Downtown Palo Alto)
Alright, I confess. I didn’t actually order a macchiato from Caffe del Doge, but I wanted to show off to all you guys that I actually went to an authentic Italian caffe (it is an Italian company with locations throughout Italy and now a few in the US). I had a cremino (three layers: chocolate, espresso, whipped cream + fresh chocolate shavings), but it didn’t really give me that much room to taste the coffee itself. They serve their own beans and everyone who works there is Italian, but I’ll withhold judgment for now.
Update: So I finally have had a couple macchiatos here. What I find amazing about the espresso here is the amount of crema their beans give off. It feels like a special treat to have so much rich crema. Add that small dollop of foam and the texture is just perfect. I’ve been there twice now for espresso and the first time, they added just a small dollop of foam, the second time they put in an equal amount of foam as espresso. The first was much better. The thing about this place is that the beans really aren’t that fresh. The beans aren’t ground to order and the beans themselves lack that sheen and aroma that is characteristic of freshly roasted beans. It’s really difficult for me because as a wannabe-Italian, I really want to say this is the best, but its not. The lack of freshness really is a damper. But everytime I go, I learn something new about espresso, which makes me happy. And at least half of the staff there are from Italy (presumably here to help get the caffe off its feet until some American-wannabe-Italians can replace them). In any case, I finally have some basis to rate them. Rating: 6.25.
I know that Cheesecake Factory isn’t really a caffe, but wherever there are desserts, there’s gonna be coffee. They serve Illy there. I actually ended up getting an espresso. I’ll admit, the espresso was better than I’d expected it to be… I mean, Cheesecake Factory is good, but everything is so big and generous there that its hard for the place not to taste a bit franchise-ish. But the coffee was still not as well-balanced as I would’ve liked it. The sourness overpowered the bitterness slightly, leaving that tingling feeling on the tip of your tongue. But it was aromatic and had a good texture. Rating: 6.
Paddy’s (Union City)
Paddy’s is probably about as an uninspiring name for a caffe as you can get. I mean, I guess there’s Irish coffee, but the Irish aren’t really the sort of people I have in mind when I think of espresso. But its in a pretty cool location (Old Alvarado) and the interior is well suited for relaxing, studying, chatting with friends, and most importantly, the baristas are bona fide coffee snobs. The first time I’ve been here, the barista was a haute cuisine chef in training. The second time, another barista (the owner?) took my order. I double-checked with him that their macchiatos were just espresso and foam…expressing my need for assurance because of the infamous Starbucks macchiato. He remarked, “Yes, Starbucks has so overflooded the market that there is just a lot of confusion.” Later, he told me that if I went anywhere and wanted to avoid confusion, to ask for a ‘dry cappuccino’. Wow. Talk about edumacation. Talk about some refreshing snobbery. The cool thing is that he was Indian with a British accent. I mean, does it get any better than that? So anyways, back to the macchiato, it was probably the most attractive cup of macchiato I’ve ever been served. It didn’t have those cool designs, but it had that opulent look of foam dollopped atop espresso with the espresso peaking through the edges–not unlike a cappuccino. Since I was in the company of a snob, I felt a bit embarrassed to reach for the sugar, so I just began sipping it as-is. It was amazing. The foam was silky, the espresso was…it was even better than what I had at Whole Foods. The taste of the espresso was so well-constructed…all the subflavors seem to work in concert with one another…none taking center stage. It was as if the espresso knew how to grab a hold of all the taste buds all at once. And the foam wasn’t so stiff that I felt like I was drinking through an ice cap. It just followed the espresso with every sip. After the second half of the macchiato, I had to add a little bit of sugar, but by then, I was already converted by this amazing cup of marked espresso. I will reserve room for better things in heaven, but this was, to date, the best macchiato I’ve ever had.
Update 1: I just had another macchiato today at Paddy’s. Now I’m wondering if it was so inoffensive because it was a bit watered down. I’m going to have adjust my rating, but still say it’s a very good coffee.
Update 2: I don’t know if it was because the beans weren’t fresh or if because they weren’t freshly ground, or if the barista allowed too much water to be expressed through too few grounds, but it was watery again and lacked an overall strength. There was no discernable “forwardness” to the espresso nor anything that really “gripped” my buds. It mostly passed over my tongue like mucky water. And there was way too much foam this time around too. I must ask again, did I totally misperceive my first cup? Drastic readjustment of rating. Rating: 5.25.
So… it’s still true that I may not be a true espresso connoisseur, but that doesn’t mean I’m not prone to snobbery. Remember, the point of drinking espresso is to become either Italian or a snob, either will suffice.
[Note: A coffee snob’s identity cannot be hidden, not even behind a plastic cup & denim jacket.]