Buzzing About OB – Searching For a Good Cuppa Joe

by on October 29, 2009 · 19 comments

in Economy, Health, Labor, Ocean Beach

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We can trace the history of our love affair with coffee back to a Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi. The story goes that one day Kaldi noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He nibbled a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.

History tells us other Africans of the same era fueled up on protein-rich coffee-and-animal-fat balls—primitive PowerBars—and unwound with wine made from coffee-berry pulp. Coffee later crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, where Yemeni traders sold the beans to traders.

The term ‘specialty coffee’ was first used at an international coffee conference in Montreuil, France, in 1978. In essence, the concept is quite simple: special geographic microclimates produce beans with unique flavor profiles. Underlying this idea of coffee appellations was the basic premise that specialty coffee beans would always be well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed.

OBceans love their coffee. The community boasts eight establishments that have coffee at the heart of their business plan, not counting bakeries and restaurants where it’s also possible to grab a cup of better grade coffee. Recession (nationally, sales were flat this year) or not, business seemed to be pretty healthy in virtually every location I visited over the last few weeks.

The market for gourmet coffee has exploded over the last decade. In 2007, consumption of coffee surpassed that of soft drinks for the first time. Over the past three years young adult coffee consumption increased from 2.5 cups to 3.2 cups per day. McDonalds, Burger King and 7-11 all now claim to be selling better brands of coffee these days.

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The fact is, however, that coffee is a complex product whose ultimate quality is determined by a long chain of micro-climates, farming methods, processors, importers, roasters and even the quality of water used in brewing. One screw up (say, not cleaning brewing equipment) along this chain will impact the flavor of a cup of coffee. And, more often than not at the gourmet coffee level, what we’re getting is a cuppa joe that is only slightly darker and fresher than the stuff that’s served in truck stops. Having said that, my survey of local coffee shops turned up mostly above average brews along with intangible extras not likely to be found at truck stops or Denny’s.

I’m a long time coffee snob. I buy my locally roasted beans from Devine Madman Coffee, grind them up to order, and use a French press to extract as much of the flavor as possible. I’ll never forget—way back in the roaring 80’s—trying to share my newfound love of gourmet coffee with Sunday brunch customers at a restaurant I was running. Back then I was enthralled by the idea that roasters were adding flavors, an enthusiasm that was soon tempered by several patrons spitting out their first sip and asking me “what the hell” I though I was doing. That experience serves to remind me that coffee preferences are highly personal things, so let me tell you upfront about how I went about rating these coffee joints:

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**I used a coffee rating system that I found on as a general guide for tasting. I highly recommend that site if you want to learn more about the process of “cupping” which is what professional tasters call their craft. For those of you who might want to wander into a more complex system, I suggest this tasting chart.

**I ordered a small cup of whatever “dark roast” that each establishment served. I drank it black. Dark roast means that the beans were kept in the roaster for about 12 minutes or so, until oils had just begun to rise to the surface to the bean. At this point in the roasting process some aromatic characteristics of the coffee are lost, the trade off being a richer body and some loss of “sweetness” as the sugars in the beans begin to caramelize. Dark roasted coffees are my personal preference.

**The rating system I used figured the coffee tasting as 50% of the total scoring. Other factors, including service, ambiance and pricing were included in the total score. The best potential score would be 100 points. Anything less than 70 means you should avoid the place. Nobody reviewed here fell into either of those categories.

Here’s my findings:coffee 03-bella

Café Bella

4984 Voltaire St (at Bacon St in front of OB Quik Stop)

A drive through coffee place, with a couple of tables. The BEST cup of coffee in Ocean Beach: an Italian Roast with beans locally roasted at Café Calabria. Friendly staff, lots of choices. Or, and it was also the least expensive. Go figure.

Scores: Coffee/47 points + other/43 points= 92 points Cost $1.25

Jungle Java

5047 Newport Ave

(619) 224-0249

I love the show at the Jungle.  It’s a tropical garden facing out onto Newport where you can watch the OB experience unfold in all its glory (or pathos, depending).  The coffee is excellent, service can be “same day” at times, as it’s a one man operation.

Scores: Coffee/45 points + other/43 points= 88 points   Cost $1.50


1959 Abbott St, (between Newport Ave & Santa Monica Ave)

(619) 224-6666

Perhaps the most “Obcean” of all the places visited, in every sense of the word. Laid back, great view, nice vibe.  And inconsistent.  I had both good and bad coffee & service experiences.  None-the-less, it’s my first choice as a hangout.

Scores: coffee/ 40 points + other/45 points= 85 points.  Cost $1.75


1830 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard

(619) 226-4471

For whatever reason, the coffee is always better here than at the Abbott Street location. And the service is more consistent.  Having said that, it can’t quite escape the strip-mall-i-ness of it’s location..

Scores: Coffee/ 42 points + other/42 points= 84 points  Cost 1.50

Your Mama’s Mug

4967 Newport Ave   (619) 523-0687

It’s like an old school coffee house dropped into a storefront. A completely different vibe here.  The street scene tends to be more soap opera-ish than a block closer to the beach. Still, it’s entertaining. Service can also be entertaining, although I don’t think that’s on purpose. And they have a larger selection of coffees than most.

Scores:  Coffee/39 points + other/42 points= 81 points  Cost  $1.33

Pirates Cove Coffee

4949 Santa Monica Ave  (in the Apple Tree parking lot)

It’s a pirate ship (complete with squawking mechanical pirate on top) that serves coffee mainly to its loyal drive-through customers.  Very friendly staff.  Very ordinary coffee unless you get it dressed up with whipped cream and a coffee bean.

Scores: Coffee/35 points +other/42 points= 77 points  Cost 1.50

Tiki Port/Pirates Cove

4892 Voltaire Street  (between Sunset Cliffs Blvd & Cable St)

Okay, I’m noticing a trend here.  Cute girls serving so-so coffee. And even though the sign says a cuppa joe is $1.25, I got charged $1.50.

Scores: Coffee/37 points + other/ 40 points=77 points  Cost 1.50


4994 Newport Avenue  (619) 223-7794

I know that’s there’s probably an expectation out there in on the internets that I’ll trash this place because it’s corporate owned, and because there were plenty of people in Ocean Beach that protested their arrival here.  But I’m not going to do that. I appreciate a cuppa Starbucks from time to time.  Having lived in a part of the world (yes, there are some, still) where getting a cup of real coffee was a challenge, I have warm and fuzzy feelings about landing in a US airport and getting a cup ‘o Starbucks.

However, my experience at the OB Starbucks has been not so good.  Wow, is that place sterile! Echo-y, over air-conditioned, and kinda creepy. And while the coffee was acceptable, not much else about the experience was.  Being asked to insert 25 cents in a coin-operated lock to use the restroom that doesn’t include toilet paper as part of the amenities just blew my mind.  Yes, I know that they’ve had a challenge with the homeless people of OB using the facilities.  And yes, I know that they’ll give you a quarter to admit you to the restroom if you stand at the counter and announce your issues to the world.  Never again.

Scores: Coffee/42 + other 29= 71 points.  Cost 1.50

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar lane tobias October 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Wow, it seems that we have the same taste in coffee.

I want to say that according to the ratings, it seems as if none of the places reviewed have a “bad” cup of coffee (all scored over 70). So I guess the best way to determine what might be your favorite cup would be to try some at all of them – just like Doug did. OB seems to be full of people who prefer one place over the other, but that tends to be with any coffee shop – familiarity with customers is essential to a shop’s success (one more reason NOT to go to starbucks..but anyway). I was a barista at both an independent coffee shop and a starbucks in a barnes and noble on and off for about 5 years of my life, and let me tell you – both of them had loyal, loyal customers.

well done doug!


avatar Frank Gormlie October 29, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Great review, Doug. I’m also a coffee snob. Been grinding mine since college (just a few years ago, right!) An ex and I were once thinking about opening up a coffee house in OB – this was in the late 1980s – when there was only 2 or 3 coffee houses in all San Diego County! Wow, we missed the boat on that one. she wanted to call it “Frankly Gourmet”.

I’m glad you added the history. Didn’t know till informed years ago by a friend from Mexico that coffee beans were once eaten.

Also, years ago, I visited Antigua, Guatemala – you know the home of Antiguan coffee. All the local beans were exported to the US – and you couldn’t get Antiguan coffee in Antigua – except for one place owned and run by a gringo. An ex-CIA guy was the rumor.

I still drink lots of it. French roast, fair trade.


avatar Molly October 29, 2009 at 6:41 pm

Once up0n a time, not too many moons ago, OB had alot more than 8 coffee places. This was around the time that Starbucks opened. OBGO and Save OB Coalition put out a flier I recall that tried to get people to go to other coffee places besides the corporate $tarbucks. I think there was 12 or something like that. Kim or Rio would know. There was a place across from the Post Office. There was a place on Sunset Cliffs around where the vet is now.


avatar jon October 30, 2009 at 8:01 am

There was also a cart in the parking lot of the dry cleaners on sunset cliffs and narragansett. The nicest lady ran it and a few of my friends worked part time for her. The dry cleaner got upset over the cars coming through there and tore the whole thing down. Now I never use that dry cleaner. I wish I could remember her name.


avatar Frank Gormlie October 30, 2009 at 8:46 am

Jon, that lady ended up at the El Cajon Courthouse, until she sold the cart a year or so ago.


avatar Valeria Fiorini October 30, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Her name is Tatiana Jon, Brazilian girl. She worked for us right after she closed her shop and yes, she is a very nice girl.


avatar PSD October 29, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Nice article, Doug! I’m gonna mention to Val and whoever’s hanging with her tomorrow morning when I roll through for the same “large, black, darkest you’ve got” cup I’ve been getting every morning for years (minus a break when I moved back to the sticks for a year) that her little Cafe Bella cart scored your top mark. Huge credit for a great staff and great product!


avatar OBSteven October 30, 2009 at 8:05 am

I cannot stand New Break. The owner is not very nice.


avatar Shawn Conrad October 30, 2009 at 9:02 am

Fresh ground and French press for me. No one can touch the deliciousness of that.

I would like to add the Old Town House on Newport Ave. has really tasty coffee. It is $1.50 for a very sizable cup.

Also, I once gave out some of Frank’s coffee to some O.B.G.O. members when he wasn’t home (I was trying to get laid and they showed up en masse to hold a meeting at Frank’s), and it wasn’t pretty. He likes his coffee.


avatar Dave Gilbert October 30, 2009 at 10:12 am

Nice work Doug! How serendipitous that you’d do a story on coffee stands in OB just as my favorite coffee stand would come under some fire.

“I’d like to ask Jessica W how boycotting helps out the girls that work there? I’ve been getting my coffee at the Tiki Port since the mid-90’s when Pat owned it and it was called High Grade Java and Ciggies. I don’t really care who owns the place as long as the girls are happy when I stop in to get my morning brew everyday. Cutting into their earnings by boycotting them certainly isn’t helping to keep them happy….”

To view the entire thread, please check; Cove Tiki Hut


avatar doug porter October 30, 2009 at 11:19 am

i read the thread at Yelp! as part of my research on the story and found it not consistent with my experiences at those two places. how can the owner be such an ogre if the staff is so perky? there’s an old Algerian saying that applies here: “the fish stinks from the head”. ergo if the boss is an asshole, it will show up in the employees’ behavior. you have to take comments–including some of them here–with a grain of salt.


avatar Dave Gilbert October 30, 2009 at 11:36 am

Well, I do know 1st hand that it’s not easy to run your own business but like I said earlier, I don’t care who the owner is, as long as I’m greeted with a smile and friendly conversation by folks that know me by name.

And, I think that the coffee there rawcks too! I just finished my 2nd cup of “Organic” and am ready to take on the world, lol! They also have a cool policy there where if you bring your own reusable cup, a 16 oz is only a buck which leaves you enough to tip them and help save the environment…your basic win/win.


avatar Mike November 1, 2009 at 5:51 pm

It’s not the interactions between the owner and his employees or customers that’s the problem. It’s his lack of business ethics with vendors and contractors.


avatar Brian October 30, 2009 at 12:49 pm

That Jessica W review smacks of disgruntled ex-employee. Yelp has a system for removing such things. I wouldn’t expect to see it last long.


avatar Valeria Fiorini October 30, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Thank you very much Doug for naming us the best coffee cart in O.B. Val, Cafe’Bella.


avatar Val November 2, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Spread the love people !!!


avatar Jim November 2, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Finally somebody gets it! I used to drive thru Ciggys and wait for that weak ass watered down coffee, then I switched to Cafe Bella, where the coffee is flavorful, the service is friendly, Val is the best! If it hurts your feelings its probably because its true!


avatar Edward Murphy November 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Yes, I’ve never gone anywhere else, but the gals at Bella have never made it necessary. I don’t even think I have asked for my coffee in months. In fact, I don’t even think I know what I drink- they decide, and they are always right. Ronnie at the holidays- thank you.


avatar Ronson Shamoun (Owner Cafe Bella) November 6, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for taking the time to survey all of the coffee shops in OB and ranking Cafe Bella #1. It is an absolute honor to receive such recognition from you and an overwhelming feeling of gratification for the years of hard work my staff and I have put in Cafe Bella. Since its inception, it has been our mission statement to provide three things, 1) High quality coffee from a local roaster, 2) giving the BEST customer service, and 3) an affordable price. Its these 3 characteristics that makes it what it is today. We love Ocean Beach and we will be at the corner for generations to come.


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