The world of specialty coffee and third-wave coffee started here in the Bay Area. With people who saw that there was a gap in the coffee business to provide coffee of equality, to treat it as though it’s a type of wine or higher-end liquor, shops like Blue Bottle, Ritual, and others started in SF and Oakland. From these different shops, the growth of the third wave expanded all over the globe. This generation of coffee growers that saw a chance to finally sell their goods for a fair price, finding roasters who were willing to pay that higher price, and consumers who were willing to pay more, coffee has grown to become more than just a Starbucks or Peet’s, more than just caffeine.
For me, my journey into learning about coffee started at home and with my heritage. Being Ethiopian sort of by virtue makes me subconsciously think about coffee all the time. But, what I saw as the ultimate draw to coffee was the type of community and sort of unifying aspect that keeps me engaged. Coffee shops were the space where I could just drift into my zone, grind on schoolwork while enjoying great coffee, and have fun conversations with friends. That part is what drew me to being a barista at school, and it’s ultimately what has been one of the things that I have missed the most since being in quarantine. I study now by playing coffee shop ambient sounds and have been developing my coffee-making techniques at home. But, the one thing that I have been doing that at least brings me some semblance of normalcy has been visiting different shops, tipping generously, and getting great espresso.
Recently, I set out to find the best espresso in my area. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve gone to thirteen shops in my area on the prowl to find which shop produces the best espresso. I visited shops within about a ten-mile radius of me, shops that are known for specialty coffee, and those that aren’t, as well as a few chains. To set the criteria as fair as possible, I made sure to always order a double espresso and I stirred every espresso to make sure I could get the best taste out of the shot. I took into consideration taste of course as the priority, but I also looked at the price as an important factor, and finally, whether they offered seltzer water with the shot (this is a great way to cleanse your pallet after taking a sip to continue to get the best possible flavor out of your espresso). I also could only at this time take into consideration places that were open for takeout during quarantine, so unfortunately Red Giant (a shop in Redwood City I enjoy a lot) could not be a part of this rankings list. With that being said, I split up the rankings into a few tiers, with a few mentions for specific standouts on value or service:
- Best Overall
- Solid but Lacking in Some Dimensions
- DO NOT GO FOR ESPRESSO (these places can be good for other beverages but I just am looking at espresso for this)
So, without wasting any more of your time, I’ll just start with the best overall rankings if you just wanna know those.
- Red Rock Coffee — $3.75
You may be wondering how or why anyone would ever want to spend $3.75 for a shot of espresso, barely an ounce or two of liquid at most? Well, at Red Rock, you will understand why. I’ll link an article here breaking down the parts of espresso to help with the lingo, but no shop produced a better shot than Red Rock. The dose of espresso and the crema (the orange-like foam that comes from making the espresso) were about as good as you could ask for. They offered seltzer in a pandemic, which is an amazing plus, but it almost made me feel a bit sad to wash down all of the flavors. I was tasting a great balance of bitterness and acidity, with a smooth consistency that sticks a bit to your tongue in a pleasant way. Again, it sounds kind of ridiculous if you do not drink coffee frequently to describe it this kind of a way, but Red Rock has been and continues to be the gold standard for espresso in my area. I will concede that I may have some bias as it’s my favorite shop to work at, but out of the many shops I went to, Red Rock just stood above all others.
- 1 Oz Coffee — $3.50
Just a few blocks up on Castro from Red Rock is this hidden gem of a shop that I only discovered a few months ago. I’d been recommended it several times, but I never went often as a high school student because its short hours never lent it to be a good place to camp out and work. That being said, with quarantine in play, I decided to check it out again, and I was truly impressed. Although its espresso may not be as balanced as Red Rock, I will concede it to goes down very smoothly, and it has a really pleasant fruity aftertaste that makes me want to always keep coming back for more. More importantly, there wasn’t anything unpleasant in the shot, which is something that sets apart this first tier from the rest, and it being a little cheaper than Red Rock is a bonus.
- Voyager Craft Coffee — $3.50
I just visited this place for the first time in quarantine on a recommendation from a good friend, and I feel horrible I haven’t gone here until now. The first thing I noticed and appreciated the most was how happy the baristas were and I had a convo with a few of them that made me feel just so much better during the quarantine. This espresso also comes with seltzer, and it had a particularly distinct texture that was closer to molasses than water, which washed down great with seltzer. I am so glad I finally made it to Santa Clara to try this place out, and I will be back.
SOLID BUT LACKING IN SOME DIMENSIONS
For someone who does not drink much espresso, the distinctions between #1 through #3 on my list probably is not noticeable, but the drop from those to this next set is fairly obvious. These espressos, while good, have a certain characteristic or two that hold them back from making it into the best overall tier. I’ll keep these descriptions a bit shorter, but if you’re in the area of these shops, definitely check them out!
4. Big Mug — $3
This espresso is by far the best value on this list. For $3, you get a solid shot that while lacking in acidity and has a lingering bitterness that is not great, it still holds up very very well. Dose and crema are good, and this came with seltzer. Overall, it’s worth its price and worth a visit if you’re in Santa Clara.
5. Backyard Brew — $3
Located inside an ally on California Ave in Palo Alto, Backyard Brew produces a solid espresso. Its fruity and acidic notes are what carry this espresso, but its lack of any bitterness makes the acidity a bit harsh. Overall though, it is a pleasant espresso and benefits from being the only specialty shop in California if you’re there get food.
6. Coffeebar — $3.25
Personal favorite study space for me, Coffeebar has a citrus-tasting espresso that is perhaps the most unique in this category. It is a bit bittersweet and its balance could be better, but I did enjoy the espresso.
7. Red Berry — $3.25
As the shop I would say I spent a significant amount of time working in high school, I do like the Red Berry espresso. It had a very distinct cranberry flavor, which lent it to being particularly acidic. However, I still thought that it deserved its spot here on the list for it still bringing a nice texture that stood out more than everything below it.
8. Verve (Single Origin) — $3.54
If there were a particular coffee shop that disappointed me the most, or that didn’t live up to the hype, it’s unfortunately Verve. Quality-wise, their beans are next to none. Shops like Red Rock and Red Giant use their beans, and I use them at home. But for some reason, their espresso at their shop just doesn’t measure up to the quality of coffee I know it is. I still liked the espresso, however, I will concede that it’s almost watered down consistency sort of pushed me away from getting espresso there often.
9. Joe & The Juice — $3.94
I was particularly hesitant to get an espresso, much less anything often from Joe & The Juice. But, to cover all the bases for this test, I went reluctantly and paid on the much higher end for their espresso. Somehow, I didn’t mind their espresso. Yes, it was bitter and also had a less than ideal acidic flavor, but it was in no way bad, which surpassed my expectations.
10. Paper Moon (formerly Chromatic) — $3.99
Similar to Verve, I had fairly high expectations. However, I hadn’t gone to the shop since they switched to roasting their beans after moving from Chromatic Roastery as their bean provider. I can’t quite describe what about this espresso was frustrating, but I didn’t taste much bitterness or acidity. It had a weird after taste that I didn’t anticipate, and for charging right at the top of the prices I saw for espresso, I was just disappointed in the product. They’re a new roaster though and it’s a great place to work, so I hope to come back and continue to support, even if it may not be for espresso for a little while.
DO NOT COME HERE FOR ESPRESSO
Unfortunately, like any sort of rankings list, there are losers. These three shops were by far the worst places that I visited and I do not recommend them for espresso at all. That doesn’t mean at all that you can’t go there for other snacks or drinks. One of these three is one of my favorite places to do work. However, I strongly do not recommend that you do not get espresso from these three places if you do go to them.
11. Starbucks — $2.45
Somehow, Starbucks did not end up at the bottom of this list. I think this has been the most surprising part of me going to get espresso the past few weeks. What saves it from not being the worst? It’s dose and crema are fairly close to a good espresso. But, after my first stir, I noticed a very very weird chemical smell. It made the whole drinking experience unpleasant. But, here’s the thing with Starbucks: if you can’t even taste the bad coffee, is it even bad coffee? This was the least coffee tasting espresso I had. It was not good in any capacity, but it was not the worst I drank. And, because it is the cheapest on this list, it makes this feel less bad.
12. Cafe Venetia — $3.75
This is the only near traditional Italian coffee shop in my area, so I was hoping for a very good, or at the very least decent espresso. However, I was greeted with absolutely no distinct flavors other than this barely resembles coffee. The dosage was high for espresso and the crema was not distinct. It tasted watered down and the consistency was not thick in the way that espresso often is. I can’t express what I think about the other drinks here because I haven’t had them, but on espresso, I won’t ever come back, unfortunately. It just tastes unpleasant in all aspects.
13. Coupa Café — $4.20
It makes me feel sad to put one of my favorite institutions in my area last. Coupa has been such a crucial part in my life as a student, being a place where I’ve had some of the most intense conversations of my life, and consistently has great snacks. However, on espresso alone, it is at the bottom of this list. Its dose was far too high, with no crema at all present, and a harsh, unpleasant bitter taste that made this nearly undrinkable. It’s one redeeming quality is that the consistency is correct, but that is about the only thing I can say that resembles good espresso here. Being the most expensive place here too, I just cannot recommend in any capacity to ever get espresso from Coupa.
But that’s it! These are my rankings for espresso in my area. I did not make it to every possible shop, but I used a combination of foodie reviews, Yelp, and personal recommendations. Feel free to argue or disagree with my rankings, but this is my list! In these times especially, we have to support our local coffee shops and continue to tip baristas. They are continuing to be the best people they can in these times, and we just have to do our best to support them as much as possible. As a coffee fanatic, I’ll continue to go support these businesses, and hopefully, soon I can continue to get back to working in their spaces and interacting with my friends in a somewhat normal fashion again.
Being Noah Tesfaye #132: Hunting for the Best Espresso
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