Dueling Dishes: Battle High-End Espresso

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Martin Diedrich. The father of the coffee revolution in Orange County, owner of the first coffee shop to make an unapologetic, small, truly Italian cappuccino, as well as the first to introduce la naranja to the idea that coffee needn't be roasted to dust in order to taste like something.

Jeff Duggan. The mad scientist who started out in a cramped corner of a bakery in Irvine, the equipment specialist whose setups at Portola Coffee Lab look like something out of Dexter's Laboratory, and the first one to bring truly third-wave coffee to Orange County.

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Both of them are huge assets to the county. Both have absolutely huge followings who will drive out of their way to get coffee from them rather than Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

This Dueling Dishes segment isn't going to declare either business a better place for coffee. Both have been recipients of Best Of awards; both deserve your patronage. But who makes better espresso?

The assignment was simple: order a single espresso from each place, get it "for here" to avoid the funky taste of waxed cardboard from spoiling the drink, and consume it straight, as sugar would blunt any detectable acidic edge.

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Dave Lieberman
Kéan's espresso had some of the thickest crema I've ever seen; it left a moustache that would have been funny had a really beautiful woman not been looking at me right as I pulled the cup away from my face. (Good thing I'm married and not dependent on retaining my dignity in coffee shops for companionship, isn't it?)

The taste, however, was extremely tannic--it hit the back of my throat with an acidity that knocked me back in my seat. The overwhelming taste was of citrus--lemon and grapefruit mixed in what I think of as a standard espresso shot, the kind that's served all over Europe and goes perfectly with that peculiarly European portion of packaged sugar. In fact, I ordered a second shot and drank it with sugar, which blurred the edges of the drink and made it as close as I've come on this coast to the French standard.

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Dave Lieberman
Portola's espresso came with a glass of sparkling water as a palate cleanser. I was briefly reminded of the unpleasant experiences I've had at Intelligentsia in Sunset Junction ("Hi, what's this for?" "It's a palate cleanser [rolls eyes]."), except there's little pretense at Portola Coffee and absolutely no hipster attitude.

Espresso here comes out of a machine called--I swear I am not making this up--the Slayer. (That was your cue to throw the horns, metalheads.) The theory is that it actually can be programmed to extract the coffee exactly right based on the bean itself. We'll just trust them.

The crema wasn't quite as thick as Kéan's, but the coffee was surprisingly mild. Like every other beverage at Portola, it drank unbelievably smoothly without any addition. Though I am someone from whose lips "un café, s'il vous plaît" or its equivalent in any of a dozen other European languages springs with ease, I have never had a cup of espresso like that. Not very tannic at all, but shockingly floral, with just a hint of citrus on the tongue after the drink. It was like drinking a shot of the most intense, coffee-flavored tea ever conceived--and about five minutes later, as I was nibbling an almond croissant as part of my breakfast, the caffeine rush hit like a wave.

I'm sorry, Martin, but there's absolutely no doubt about it. I'll always love your cappuccinos and your regular brewed coffee and the fact that you get your pastries from Blackmarket Bakery, Kéan, but when it comes to just a shot of espresso, Portola wins handily.

Kéan Coffee, 2043 Westcliff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 642-5236; also at 13681 Newport Blvd., Tustin, (714) 838-5326; keancoffee.com. Portola Coffee Lab, 3313 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 284-0596; portolacoffeelab.com. The shot of espresso from Kéan was from the Tustin location.

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10 comments
Ken Stailey
Ken Stailey

May all espresso drinkers be well and happy!  May none suffer from bitterness or acidity! <3

mitch young
mitch young

The bizarre thing about this is that in its homeland, espresso is espresso. A quick shot you down in one at the bar -- after adding the giant packet of coarse white sugar *or* the one of those long-handled spoons full of the sweet stuff. It's a start to the day or something to get through the afternoon. It isn't tinkered with; I'd say that was a very American development. 

swagv
swagv

Nicely done, this Battle Royale ... without cheese.

Buggle B
Buggle B

A significant percentage determining the outcome of the espresso depends on the barista's preparation. I have been to Kean's several times ordering the same thing (single macchiato) with varied outcomes. Thus, if you want a fair fight, you should technically use the same barista  to prepare each espresso (says the geeky scientist). Nevertheless, Kean and Portola are two excellent choices for a duel. Now if only Espresso Vivace could make their way down to OC...! 

Bean Head
Bean Head

Italians don't know how to enjoy espresso. It's a real shame since they're the ones associated with it. Fortunately we do. But if you drink it like you described above, I wouldn't bother wasting time and money at either or the places.

BTW... Portola's Slayer machine is capable of making espresso from single origin beans and sounds like what was served for the duel. Great stuff! Still, their regular (blend) espresso is pretty damn good too! Thanks Jeff and the Portola gang for bringing your deliciousness to OC!!!

barista joe
barista joe

it is a "most of the world outside of Italy" development.

ryan chang
ryan chang

bubble b is right. you have to use the same barista! we all have our own techniques; a true comparison is the same technique with different variables. also something to note that portola and kean are different types of cafes. the author's 'third-wave' designation to portola is correct, come here if you, the patron, are a mad scientist at home. go to kean if you're a foodie, an enthusiast, someone who likes to read at cafes, who potentially is also a scientist.

C8H10N4O2
C8H10N4O2

Had Espresso Vivace...not impressed! Overrated in my opinion.  Anyway, your point is well taken about barista preparation but this is about random customer experiences isn't it?  A customer should be able to go into either of these establishments on any given day and get a well-prepared espresso.  I think you may have missed the point here...

mitch young
mitch young

"Italians don't know how to enjoy espresso. It's a real shame since they're the ones associated with it. Fortunately we do."

America, Fuck yeah!

Bean Head
Bean Head

My comment wasn't nationalistic or ethnocentric. I'm far from either. It was simply an observation.

And, at the same time, you shouldn't assume or infer that just because something's foreign it's better, or that American things lack culture, etc... It's similarly prejudicial.

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