Because good espresso is hard to find. Especially in the USA.
One of the problems that I knew to expect when moving to the USA was the difficulty in getting good espresso coffee. It’s not that the US is not a coffee drinking country (nobody would ever accuse them of that), but an espresso shot is something you add to other types of coffee to up the caffeine content. As a result, the style of coffee differs greatly, favouring drip filter extraction and a dark, burnt roast that doesn’t lend itself to concentrated extraction with an espresso machine or Aeropress. Both these styles of machine are unforgiving in the way that they highlight flavours.
However, Dallas taught me not to be deterred – if you looked hard enough there you found places that had adopted the Italian approach to coffee making (e.g. Pearl Cup, Union and Origin). And so I expected the same with D.C. – if I looked hard enough I would find something.
So this week I decided to indulge my addiction and go on a hunt for the best espresso near my office. It had to be within 15 minutes walk, which limited my options. I also included the mass-market chain cafés on the chance that I might be surprised. There’s a few that I checked out but didn’t have the time to write up fully (Afterwords at Dupont Circle and its bar style espresso and bookstore surrounds; Mudd House with its old-school décor and antique porcelain cups), but also weren’t really fantastic when it came to the espresso so it wasn’t worth writing up.
Saxby’s Coffee at Vermont and K St
Saxby’s is part of a local chain of places operated by franchisees. It’s also the most convenient, located in the same building as my office so I can sneak out for a five minute shot. The place is pretty tiny, and geared towards an office crowd. The espresso is less than $2 and unlike most chain places is served in a proper ceramic cup. However, the coffee itself is also geared to the office crowd, and lacks depth – without a dose of sugar it really isn’t that great. But as a quick shot it does the trick.
Pros: Proper cups, nice service, not terrible coffee.
Cons: Not fantastic coffee either.
Starbucks at just about everywhere
There are at least three Starbucks within a block of my office, so it would be remiss of me to not include them. However it’s not worth going to any of them. They exemplify the overroasted, dirty approach to espresso that gives American coffee such a bad name. It’s no wonder they failed to survive in the Australian market. If there is a pro, it’s that they’re consistent. An espresso from Starbucks tastes equally terrible no matter where you go.
Pros: There are plans afoot to serve beer at Starbucks, meaning they’ll finally have something drinkable.
Cons: Too many to list.
Dunkin Donuts at 14th and L St
Well this was unexpected. I stopped in one morning for their National Donut Day promotion to get a free donut, and ordered an espresso (or, keeping with the American tendency to use it as a booster for other coffees, a “Turbo Shot”). And it’s not actually too bad. It’s not great, mind you, but a bit of sugar in it makes it drinkable. And the price is only 99 cents, making it the cheapest shot in DC, and the difference in price between them and most places is enough to buy you a donut as well (and the donuts are good). As a bonus, there’s one at the metro station near my house, making it the closest espresso to home.
Pros: Cheap. Passable. Donuts.
Cons: Cheap (the quality is compromised). Passable (doesn’t mean great). Donuts (if you’re watching your weight).
Pret A Manger at Vermont and K St
I hadn’t realised that these guys were even in the USA, having grown up seeing them on street corners in London as a teenager. But here they are in DC, still doing their trade of ready to eat sandwiches. But they also do coffee, and despite expecting the worst, it actually turned out to be quite good. No sugar required, which is impressive since it comes from an automatic (all the places mentioned so far use the push button automatic style of machine which are easy to use but generally underperform compared to the portafilter style machines).
Pros: Good coffee, great service. Espresso-sized takeaway cups.
Cons: No ceramic cups for drinking in-house.
Peregrine Espresso on 14th between R and S Streets
This place was recommended as a proper independent espresso haunt, and it delivered. It’s a fair walk from the office though, right on 15 minutes each way. Peregrine are big on the artisanal espresso style, with proper machines and single origin beans with tasting notes. The espresso itself is fruity, with a rich crema. It’s not cheap, but worth the visit.
Pros: Portafilter style machines. Single origin beans.
Cons: Long walk from the office. It’s the most expensive of the places I’ve tried.
M.E. Swing Co. at 17th and G St
I had heard good things about this place, though two things had me wary. Firstly, it’s one of the oldest coffee houses and roasters in DC (dating back to 1916), which meant that it could easily overemphasise the drip-style coffee at the expense of espresso. Secondly, it’s located in a drab, concrete government building, marked only by a sign on the side.
However, I had no need to be apprehensive. Once inside, the place looks and feels like an old world coffee house, with the fittings dating back to 1930 (taken from their former location). One half of the bar is given over to selling fresh roasted beans, the other has pastries and a big Italian portafilter machine with a dedicated barista pulling shots.
It’s a very good shot too, as good as any I could get in Australia or Italy, well balanced and not overbearingly fruity, and served at the perfect temperature to shoot and go. It’s $2.40 a cup, but the fact that they also serve cheap bagels makes it a good value breakfast stop on the way to work.
And the walk back to the office takes me past this place:
Not bad at all.
Pros: Great espresso in a lovely interior. Cheap bagels and donuts sweeten the deal.
Cons: It’s hard to call the building a con if it means this place stays a well kept secret.
So that's the reviews - I'll keep my eye out for other places to try, but given the high cost of living in DC and the fact that my internship project is going to be very busy for the next three weeks, getting out for espresso will be a luxury. It will be Aeropress shots at the office for a while...
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