Dueling Dishes: Battle High-End Espresso

Dueling Dishes: Battle High-End Espresso

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.

Dueling Dishes: Battle High-End Espresso

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.

Dueling Dishes: Battle High-End Espresso
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.

Dueling Dishes: Battle High-End Espresso
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.

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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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