Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace: In Memoriam

David Foster Wallace's untimely passing is a great loss. The title of this blog is a Yiddishe trencherman's homage to his magnum opus's title, Infinite Jest (which in turn is taken from Hamlet). As his loyal readers, we have been touched, inspired, entertained, and challenged by his work. He will be missed. So, dear readers, when you sit down to a good meal this week, think of David Foster Wallace and, in addition to considering the lobster, raise your glasses in memory of one of the most important writers of our generation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Choke on This: A Tale of Two Coffees

On the L.A. coffee scene, there are two lesser known establishments of interest. We are not talking about the Chicago interloper that is a spider web for scruffy late twentysomethings wearing clunky spectacles (regardless of medical need) and are always toiling in futility on their annual submissions to USC Film School. Nor are we talking about L.A. Mill Boutique, its $15 cups of coffee, or its array of “slow extraction” techniques. No, today we are talking about Choke Motorcycle Shop, the zenith of East Hollywood douchebaggery, and Cafecito Organico/Coffee Cellar, Angel Orozco’s labor of love.

Choke is buried deep in East Hollywood, near L.A. City College on residential Normal Avenue, just east of Virgil Avenue. While I can't speak for the location's crime statistics, the general aura of seediness and lack of other obviously licit commerce must intimidate more than a few would-be customers. From the outside, Choke gives the appearance of a ratty repair shop. Its filthy squared windows mute the view into the interior and the connected, adjacent lot is a caged junkyard of a dozen or so aging mopeds. I'll give Choke the benefit of the doubt that it repairs mopeds even if I didn't exactly see any working mechanics on my two visits.

Upon entering, I noticed that the establishment betrays some interest in dispensing espresso-based beverages. There is seating in the form of a single sofa that could incommodiously seat three and a coffee table where a beverage could be placed if the clutter on top were redistributed. Patrons also have the option of playing pinball on one of the vintage machines, assuming they are in fact operable. The espresso machine is partially concealed by the assortment of moped accoutrement and other junk including an old Dr. Pepper vending machine. In a nice touch, Choke makes a box of Lucky Strikes available to the coffee-and-cigarette purists. Luckies may not be Chesterfield Kings, but I appreciate the gesture.

The owner was sitting on the sofa, immersed in his Mac, (strange, considering that the shop’s ostensible purpose is servicing mopeds.) He eventually put his computer down and looked up. I was deeply alarmed, because this short, hirsute man revealed himself to be half-naked, dressed only in short shorts. Yet I knew this gent was the owner because there was no other male in the shop and certainly none fitting L.A. Weekly writer Linda Immediato’s obsequious description of "The alarmingly good-looking Jeff Johnsen, with messy black hair and heart-murmur-inducing blue eyes under thick black Elvis Costello frames." This little person and his Mac ignored me and swiftly departed for the vacant lot's heat and fumes.

On a second visit, I was dressed in my best corporate gear—tan corduroys and a blue, long-sleeved, button-down shirt—perfect for my prior engagement in Newport Beach. The owner wasn't there, so I wasn’t in danger of a heart murmur. But there were two heavily tattooed young women loafing inside. They ignored me for a long minute, as I, again the only customer, re-surveyed the surroundings. Only when it became painfully clear that I may have had some reason to be there did they feel compelled to interact. When I ordered an espresso, one of them welcomed me with the owner’s warmth, and snarkily spat “um, like how did you find us? On some, ugh, blog?” If nothing else, Choke Motorcycle Shop is praiseworthy in its commitment to barista hostility and to serving only hand-selected patrons.

The actual barista, who was only there on my first visit, was the de rigueur ingénue with a European accent, though in this case it was British. (Her picture is posted here.) She was armed with all sorts of homemade equipment, like a retrofitted fire extinguisher and what appeared to be an old nitrous tank. Using beans from Ecco Caffe, she drew a thick espresso that filled the demitasse with crema. But its flavor was steroidal and about as subtle as a Public Enemy anthem. It's still the best espresso in East Hollywood, save the rare day when Intelligentsia's is creamy and not burnt. Another irritating Choke affectation is to provide a napkin from the famed Sant'Eustachio Caffe in Rome, perhaps the ne plus ultra in Coffee Geekdom. But Choke’s espresso could not have been less Italian, which in my book has a subdued and sweeter flavor relative to Seattle-style espresso's sustained sensory assault. Good Italian espresso can be found at Euro Caffé, my favorite café in Los Angeles, and at the much improved Terroni.

For a purer experience, Cafecito Organico/Coffee Cellar makes a delicious cup of coffee. (The existence of the Spanish word "cafecito" demonstrates that language's superiority to English because, from what I gather, the word is a term of endearment for black coffee. English offers no such equivalent.) A native of Guatemala and a product of UCLA, Mr. Orozco taught himself the art of roasting coffee. From his Coffee Cellar cranny inside Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe, he roasts his coffees during the week to varying degrees of medium, understanding that dark roasts obliterate flavor. On the weekends, Mr. Orozco brews coffee by the cup at his Cafecito Organico stands—at the Silverlake Farmer's Market on Saturdays and the Hollywood Farmer's Market on Sundays. He offers a handful of roasts each week, and their origins fluctuate. He prides himself on sourcing quality beans from small growers with the usual “fair-trade,” “shade-grown,” and even “bird-friendly” designations.

I enjoy the nuttiness of his El Salvador blend, and Hans, Food Woolf's lesser half, likes the Chiapas. Mr. Orozco, who affects an earnest agricultural-intellectual look, also has to manage his own inner coffee snob. But he does so with grace and does not allow it to run amuck like Choke's Johnsen. Where Johnsen openly disdains the non-moped-riding population of the world, Mr. Orozco's response to violators of basic coffee etiquette, e.g., patrons asking for iced coffee even on a hot summer day, is to remonstrate politely that “ice will hurt the taste of the coffee.” (He does offer a cold-brewed coffee sweetened with sugar cane juice, the mordantly named Global Warming Special.)

I’m waiting to see what Cafecito can do with espresso. Orozco does roast beans for espresso upon request, and the website indicates that he is in the process of procuring a lever-operated machine. It may take Orozco some time to master the craft, but I know that he will. In the meantime, I will enjoy my cup of Salvadoran during my regular sojourn through the motley Hollywood Farmers’ Market.

Choke Motorcycle Shop
4157 Normal Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 662-4653

Cafecito Organico
Hollywood Farmers’ Market, Sunday mornings
Ivar & Selma Avenues
(213) 305-4484