Portola Coffee Lab Is OC's Temple of Caffeine
I'm not a coffee cultist, save for the sugary Cuban mule-kick to the soul known as a cafecito. But even I had to make a pilgrimage to Portola Coffee Lab, a wonderland whose aesthetics combine sleek and steampunk, whose milieu is hipster yet humble, where tattooed guys with gauges in their earlobes sport lab coats and concoct the best damn coffee in the county. That's what we deemed them in our Best Of issue this year, and I'm happy to reiterate it's true—and then some.
Portola operates out of the OC Mart Mix, a slice of Costa Mesa cool snug against the 405 that collects small boutiques in a faux-industrial setting. In here, Jeff and Christa Duggan constructed a circular counter on which all types of coffee machines sit, ringed by tables for customers inevitably typing away on MacBook Pros while waiting for their brews. I don't particularly care for the specifics of the machinery, or from what tree in Borneo a particular collection of coffee beans originates, although those who do can ask and get an earful that's informative without being boastful. Their sorcery is legit: No matter how you like your coffee, everything comes out with a zap you just won't find anywhere else, each process and roast offering multiple hues of brilliance. If they can make a caffeine believer out of me, imagine what they'll do to addicts!
One thing they don't sell, though, is cafecito—or . . . (cue Oscar Bluth) do they? When I asked for one, describing its makeup to the kind cashier, she turned to one of the baristas and wondered if they could concoct one. They could, he explained to me, but he didn't feel comfortable trying it lest they corrupt their fancy gear. Before I could dismiss his comment as douchebag elitism, he quickly offered his take on a cafecito, one prepared with simple syrup. He presented it to me on a silver tray alongside seltzer water, and while I could've done without the seltzer (provided to cleanse your palate), that faux-cafecito was postmodern perfection: sweet without being cloying, potent, smooth and not upsetting to the stomach. Even though the lines were long, even though the baristas had to tend to their Rube Goldberg machines, even though Portola's popularity allows it to ignore personal modifications, that the Portola Coffee Lab crew took time to experiment with my whims—and succeed—is the height of mensch-hood.
It's not all coffee, of course. The teas sing with floral clarity, and the mocha is chocolate transformed into comfort. And the breakfast burrito—a long and wide yet slender beast chockablock with bacon and black beans and bound by milky, wonderful cheese—is simply spectacular.
This column appeared in print as "OC's Temple of Caffeine."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.