Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Café Catelog: Los Angeles

***UPDATED 2018

When I lived in Los Angeles from 2005-2009, the only cafes I went to were Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I don't know if I had bad taste, or if great local cafes just didn't exist in the city back then. I'm pretty sure every cafe on this list opened in the last decade, so it's quite possible that we are in the midst of a coffee renaissance in LA. Now that I have documented great cafes all over the world, I looked forward to returning to my former home and sampling the very best of the city. 

 In order from my very favorites:

 Verve (downtown)

This is my default oasis and one of the most beautiful and atmospheric cafes in the world. I wouldn’t even suggest bringing a computer for trying to get work done. Sit in the cover patio and soak up the lush greenery. As this is located in a fragile territory between downtown LA and the fashion district, expect to reminisce to the sound of car horns and buses. I can never get sick of this place. 

Giorgi Porgi (downtown)***2018
A hidden gem and one-of-a-kind experience in LA. This café feels more like an art installation that a coffee shop. No sign. Enter though the door covered in old newspaper,  and come in under a moss wall. In the glow of neon lights, the owner Giorgi will ask you some simple questions. Coffee or tea? Hot or cold? A little or a lot? Milk or no milk? Depending on your answer, she will prepare for you whatever inspires her in the moment. Our coffees came drizzled with coco. Keep the laptop in your bag and enjoy sitting at the bar and chatting with her. She was the one who recommend Coffee Hall and Spoke to us.  

RVCC (Arts District)***2018
A must-see-it-to-believe-it café with impressive interior design and architecture. The space houses a café, community space, barbershop, art gallery, and soon-to-be mezcal bar. The latte I ordered was among the best I’ve ever had, but I was stunned with the layout of this lavish and impressive space. 

Blue Bottle (downtown)
Like Intelligentsia, this place is a chain found throughout the city, but a stunning and spacious downtown location makes this one of my favorite places. Plenty of seating and natural light, and even a mini library!

Coffee for Sasquatch (Melrose) **2018
A stunning testament to café architecture and welcome addition to the Melrose neighborhood, Coffee for Sasquatch does not disappoint. It’s curved white walls and natural light made me feel as if I was sitting in a dry bathhouse. I loved my iced latte and relished being in this light and airy space. 

Trinity (Echo Park) **2018
A new hip café-cum-restaurant off Sunset in Echo Park. Order one of their unique offerings, like the Black Sesame cortado and Buttered Yam Latte, and pair that with Icelandic Cod or wild mushrooms. Flip through an issue of Monocle and savor the all-black interior.

Black top (downtown)
Black. White. Chocolate. The minimalist menu says it all. This simple café is a gem on the outskirts of Little Tokyo. Lack of tables make this a difficult place to work from, but who wants to look at a computer screen when you are surrounded by lush vines.


Coffee Hall (Chinatown)***2018

A small minimalist cafes in an old shopping mall in Chinatown, Coffee Hall brews local roasters amid hipster heaven. A ping-pong table and collection of Kinfolk magazines will keep you busy as you wait. Well worst a visit for the experience of seeing the new hip side of LA Chinatown. 

Nossa Familia Cal Edison (downtown)***2018
A Portland transplant makes its debut in the stunning Cal Edison lobby. This tiny stand is worth going to for the amazing architectural experience as well as friendly bartender. We drank a drip coffee with cream and cinnamon. 

Rose cafe (Venice)***2018
A spacious and hip café-bar-restaurant in Venice with hanging plants galore with one of the best Vietnamese Iced Coffees I’ve had in the U.S.  Rose Café is a place I would return to again and again if only I could tolerate the rest of Venice. 

Maru Coffee (Los Feliz)
This tiny gem in Los Feliz is a real treat. Reminiscent of Japan, Maru coffee has a cozy and sparse atmosphere. I ordered a green tea latte - which was the right choice. The only downside is that all the tables are too low to work from, so this is a place to enjoy the company of others, or a silent, self mediation. 


Intelligentsia (Silver Lake)
A shaded gem on Sunset Blvd, I spent hours people-watching from this cafe's ceramic-tiled patio. Lack of seating inside is one downside, but if you are lucky enough to be on the patio, you will witness a magnificent spectacle of human migration.

Paramount (Melrose)***2018
An Australian export that has become an icon in LA. This beautiful green café feels foregin from the start. The only café I’ve been in with table service, I enjoyed sitting in their back patio outside and ordered a few lattes, which were masterfully prepared. 

Eightfold (Echo Park)***2018
One of Echo Park’s most popular cafes, Eightfold’s zine wall and marble countertops make it a perfect place to Instagram. We enjoyed a great latte on a sunny Sunday afternoon. 

Paper or Plastik Café (Little Ethiopia)
A popular place for meals and entertainment. But full of rules. Kitchen opens and closes at odd hours throughout the day. They sell magazine but don't allow browsing. You can only open your laptop on community tables - smaller tables are reserved for those guests who wish to dine. But all is forgiven because of their amazing Lavender Chai. In hot and iced forms this drink is worth.

Don Franciscos (downtown)***2018
A beautiful new Cuban café located in a newly developed underground breezeway on Spring Street in downtown. The lavishly designed interior is what drew me to the location, where we enjoyed a strong latte, Cubano, and Cuban toast. 

 Endorffeine Chinatown)***2018

Minimalist space tucked away in a busy Chinatown shopping plaza, Endorffeine
 Has some original offers for the coffee aficionado. I took home a vanilla-pandan cold brew. Absolutely delicious and the first and only time I’ve ever had pandan in coffee. I must say now I want it all the time. 

Coffee Colab (downtown)
An alternative cafe in a back ally near Santee, this cafe seems strangely out of place in LA's quickly gentrifying fashion district. Ten years ago no one would ever think of opening a boutique coffee shop in this district, but it seems well-loved by the neighborhood. No seating so grab your coffee to go and savor the charm and grit of the streets as you walk away.

Go Get Em Tiger (Larchmont)
A frenzied neighborhood joint tucked almost discreetly on Larchmont Street. Popular for their kale salad and other fad-food, this place is constantly packed and a bit chaotic.

Dinosaur (Silver Lake)
A bustling space with interior design that evokes the likes of the Fukuoka Starbucks, but lacks the atmospheric quality of a truly artistic space. When I arrived, it was on the eve of their one-year anniversary, and they had a petting zoo in their parking lot to celebrate.   

 Tilt (downtown)***2018
A sweet little cafes tucked away inside a newish apartment complex. This little place has all the essentials, and being located inside the courtyard garden of an apartment, feels cloistered away from the chaos of downtown. 

Spoke Bicycle Cage (Frogtown)***2018
A excellent traditional latte  to be enjoyed amidst the outdoor patio overlooking the River in Frogtown (a place I didn't even know existed!). The café has the advantage of being nestled between a quiet neighborhood and a river.  

 Menotti's (Venice Beach)
I might be biased because I hate Venice Beach, but Menotti's is a nice retreat from the neon thongs and blaring pop music of the main drag. I ordered an iced vanilla latte which was wonderful. The size of the cafe and constant shuffle of people coming and going makes it impossible to work from, but the coffee and service were good. 


 G&B (downtown)
An overrated and over-hyped joint in the famous Grand Central Market in downtown. Let me clarify: the market is awesome; but G&B coffee is disappointingly just "ok." After waiting 20 minutes for a drink I was expecting something spectacular, but my macadamia latte was barely drinkable. I must have ordered the wrong thing.


Bulletproof (Arts District)***2018
Known for their famous latte with butter, this chain is now located all over the west coast. My first experience was in the LA arts district and it may be my last. I wasn’t a fan of the orange color palette or intense branding of the store. But I mostly wasn’t a fan of the latte. The butter was just too unsavory an experience. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

What did I eat in Kyoto?

Having just picked up several Japanese magazine dedicated to travel and food in Kyoto, but list was long and expectations were high. Here’s what the list boiled down to:

1. Food I wished I had but didn't: peach shaved ice
2. Food I had but wished I didn't: udon – not memorable, we were in a hurry
3. What should have been on the list: eel don – its famous in Kyoto
4. Biggest surprise: pate sandwich
5. Most delicious meal: Sukiyaki from Kimura

Kyoto classics

Sukiyaki from Kimura – Sukiyaki was at the top of my list so I made sure to start searching for a place the moment I arrived. Many were very expensive and were fully booked each night, but I found this lovely family-run place called Kimura, recommended by Popeye magazine. It was only about 3,000 per person, a very fair price, and it was excellent. We really enjoyed our meal on the old red carpet with views overlooking the covered shopping arcade.

Kyoto Parfait – there are so many places to get these famous parfaits that I didn’t bother to stress about the exact shop. I stopped into a few random places and was please with the outcome. The hallmark of a good parfait is that it blends multiple wa-fu (Japanese) flavors, like matcha (gren tea) with black jelly, mochi, anok (red bean), kinako (peanut), and goma (black sesame).

Kyoto sweets – unlike the parfait, I knew exactly where I wanted to go for some fine Kyoto mochi. Zen Café offered some premium Japanese sweets for tasting.

Eel don – I didn’t realize Kyotos famous eel don with a scrambled egg on top was such a hallmark dish, so I didn’t get around to visiting this place until the very last hour I was in Kyoto. It was stressful because the line was long and we had a train to catch, but I'm glad I got to see what all the fuss was about.

Korean food

Korean BBQ – our group stumbled upon a cute little Korean BBQ restaurant where we all cooked over our own tiny grills. 

Western food

I hadn’t intended on eating wester food in Kyoto (my Japanese food list was long enough!) but a few times necessity outweighed intent.

Mentaiko spaghetti and spaghetti carbonara – this was one of those time we were too hungry and had to eat the closest thing. But I love this chain and Japanese pastas so there was nothing to regret.

Ham and cheese sandwich from Arabica – this sandwich was recommended t me by a friend in Tokyo who said she has it every time she goes to Kyoto. It is rely an excellent sandwich, with a crispy baguette, soft prosciutto, and butter.

Curry plate lunch – this was from one of my favorite cafes, Independents. We had their set lunch plate that say which was a Japanese take on Thai curry with a salad and soup. Technically not a western dish, but very inspired by western interpretations of taste.

Pate sandwich and Egg sandwich – both these sandwiches were from Gabor Café, and I am so, so, so glad we decided to get them. The pate sandwich was the best I have had anywhere, and the egg sandwich (on the cover of a magazine) was divine. This café also has an excellent ambiance and drinks.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tatami Starbucks of Ninenzaka

I have visited interesting Starbucks locations all over the world, but my visit to the 5-day old Ninezaka store in Kyoto definitely rises to the top of cool.

This one-of-a-kind store stands alone from the others in that it is not in a newly constructed building, but opened in a century-old machiya house in a very traditional neighborhood of Ninenzaka.

The shop is literally occupying one house in a row of private, residential homes. When I got there in the morning (right when they opened at 8:00am) there were children in uniforms on their way to school, old ladies sweeping porches outside their homes, and people hanging their laundry. This really is a neighborhood.

With respect to their location, Starbucks employed one security guard who keeps people in line and keeps crowds from forming. I went so early that I was one of the only people there, but I have no idea how busy this place gets on say, mid-day on the weekend.

From the outside, the house is discrete. Only the Starbucks-branded Noren (cloth doorway) marks this building as a café. The exterior is almost otherwise untouched. Though, upon leaving I did catch sight of the subtle mermaid silhouette on a light outside.

hanging the Noren in the morning just before the store opens

the Noren signifies that the store is open

subtle Starbucks logo details

Inside, the house has been heavily redone, but not to the loss of it’s original character. For instance, it smells exactly like my century-old house in Shimane. The first floor is dedicated to housing a long line of people, a counter where you can order and select sweets, a small sitting space, and a back room where the drinks are made. Upstairs contains rooms and rooms of seating. As I walked around, I noticed that they basically kept the frame of the house, and used traditional materials to modernize it, so that it still had an authentic quality.

the entrance seems generic at first

Japanese-flavored food

decoration at the entrance 
the back room drink stand

the back room where you pick up drinks


natural lighting

Guests still on pillows on tatami (woven straw) matts. Tokonoma (alcoves) in the room display kakemomo (paintings) and ikebana (flower arrangements). Shoji (sliding paper doors) section off the rooms as in a traditional house. There is also a room with modern chairs and seating arrangements.

Japanese style (left) and western style (right)

I am impressed that Starbucks refrained from putting it’s logo on everything…actually, anything inside the house. The art and displays are complete unbranded, as are the cushions and all other decorations. It would have felt cheesy if there were mere moderns replicas but Starbucks kept it classy this time. How they manage to keep this place clean, tidy, and undamaged with all the unruly tourists running around is beyond me.

Café Catelog: Los Angeles

***UPDATED 2018 When I lived in Los Angeles from 2005-2009, the only cafes I went to were Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Le...