Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Espresso Roma Cafe

Espresso Roma is my shocking new find for a San Francisco coffee shop, located in the Marina no less.  Nothing about this place matched my expectations: not the environment, not the coffee, not the food.  I was blown away on every single visit.

After my first visit, I immediately went home to research more about this amazing little coffee shop.  And to plan a return visit.

Espresso Roma started in Berkeley in 1980, but now has a handful of locations in the country.  They still have a location in Berkeley, but their other locations are more fascinating: in California, they have a shop each in La Jolla and Los Angeles, but then they also have shops in Eugene, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado.  Fantastic cities, but such a strange mix.  Their sole San Francisco outpost is the one I visited in the Marina.

They roast all their own coffee locally in Emeryville.  They roast small batches, and ship out fresh the day of roasting.  This explains the incredible coffee.  They also bake all of their own baked goods, also in Emeryville.  Which explains why they are so good too.  There is much more going on here than meets the eye.

So this totally generic looking coffee shops turns out to be a coffee roaster and a bakery too?  I have no idea why they don't advertise these facts anywhere.  I'm sure they'd sell more pastries if people knew they were baked fresh daily and not from Costco, and that they take such pride in their coffee freshness.

Espresso Roma is a total gem, and I've since returned many times.  I absolutely cannot wait to explore their full lineup of baked goods!

The Space

Espresso Roma is about as nondescript of a coffee shop as I've ever seen, exactly the type of establishment that you'd walk by 1000 times, and never even notice or stop in.  But once inside, it feels like a real neighborhood sort of place, and since they have free wifi, patrons spread out with laptops, all working away for hours on end.  It wasn't ever particularly busy during my numerous visits, although it also wasn't deserted either.

On my first visit, the folks next to me spent the time talking about learning Javascript in order to make their business website more dynamic.  Subsequent visits were no different, with techy buzzwords readily floating through the air.  While this is totally normal in SF obviously, I wasn't in SOMA, I was in the Marina.  No offense Marina-folks, but this does not match my stereotypes of you.  In fact, the entire place doesn't feel like it fits in in the Marina.  It just feels so non-trendy.  The menu boasts no claims of organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, etc anywhere.  There are no hipsters.  No yoga pants.

Just a down to earth neighborhood cafe, albeit one with amazing baked goods.
Outdoor Seating.
Outside are a few small tables, which look like they'd be perfect for people watching and fresh air, but were always in the shade when I visited.  I've yet to visit on a day hot enough to want to sit out on the sidewalk in the shade.
Indoor Seating.
The decor inside is simple, wooden tables and padded benches.  One interesting thing is the selection of greeting cards and magazines for sale, a bit of a strange offering, which I never saw anyone even glance at.  I wonder if they really sell many?
Front Counter.
The front area contains a cooler with beverages, a few bags of chips, and, of course, the interesting part to me was of course the huge array of baked goods in the case.  All standard offerings, and none looked remarkable.  When do random little cafes have good baked goods?  Spoiler: when they are Espresso Roma Cafe!
Menus, register.
The menu contains simple sandwiches and salads, a few breakfast dishes, standard coffee drinks.  Again, nothing remarkable, although I did note the large selection of tea, all loose leaf, in glass canisters behind the register.  Under the menu board was an equally large selection of flavor syrups, probably the largest collection I've ever seen.  Clearly, they care about offering variety, but still, this all looks pretty "normal" and unremarkable.

Service matched everything else I felt about the place on my first glance; I was barely acknowledged, and while not un-friendly, the person taking my order seemed to care less about my existence.  A second employee (or owner?), was always seated near the back door, talking away on a phone, not working the counter or register, even when it backed up.

Judging the cafe on looks alone, I had zero expectations that it was even worth trying.  It truly seemed like as mediocre of a place as I'd ever find, and the Yelp reviews agreed.  3.5 stars, no rave reviews.

But ... it was fantastic.  Good decaf coffee (such a rare find), and the baked good compete with my favorite bakeries.  I'm not joking.  By my third visit, I no longer wanted to just run in and grab something and be on my way, I wanted to sit and linger, as the ambiance won me over, and I felt entirely at home.


As I mentioned, they roast their own coffee beans, and it shows.  The decaf coffee is among the best I've ever had in San Francisco.
Decaf Iced Americano.  $2.50.
This is, hands down, the strongest decaf I've ever tasted.  I took one sip, tasted the deep complexity, and wondered if I was accidentally given regular.  But, given that I did not get wired from it, I think it really was decaf.  Just really, really great decaf.  Probably the best I've ever had.  They say they roast in small batches, and serve it right after, and, well, it shows.  Since decaf is particularly finicky, I've often thought freshness matters more than for regular.

If I were drinking it hot, I would have left it black, and savored the amazing flavor in this cup of coffee.  But, it was a hot day, and I'd ordered it iced to be refreshing.  For some reason, I always like my iced coffee a bit milky and sweet, so I added milk and sugar to it.

The drink condiment station is well stocked, with nutmeg, cinnamon, and cocoa to sprinkle on, in addition to standard sweeteners and an array of milk offerings.  They did have non-sugar sweetener by the condiment station, but it was a generic brand.  Splenda was also available, but only at the register, which I found a bit odd, why wasn't it with the others?

I was also impressed that for lattes and whatnot, you could choose from a large selection of milks, including both almond and soy.  As I noted above, the lineup of flavor syrups available is probably the most extensive I've ever seen anywhere.  They really do provide a slew of options.

On my second visit, I ordered another iced decaf Americano, because it was again a beautiful sunny day.  The Marina seems to win on weather.  Or maybe I just never bother venture that far on colder days.  Anyway, it was again very good.  And on my third visit, same result.  Insanely strong, very good decaf.  By my third visit, I even stopped adding milk, just appreciating the coffee for its deep flavor.

I'd love to return to try a hot beverage, because this decaf was shockingly good!

$2.50 is a reasonable price for a drink, particularly given the location.  On my second visit, I was charged only $2, which is the price for a non-iced.  I'm not complaining, but I thought it was interesting that they clearly add $0.50 to any iced drink on the menu, but charged me for non-iced.  On the third visit, it was back to $2.50.  I'm assuming he just keyed in the wrong thing on my second visit.

Baked Goods

The lineup of baked goods is incredible, the entire front case is filled with goodies.  Muffins (carrot, blueberry, lemon poppyseed, raisin bran), scones (currant, cranberry), apple turnovers, croissants in more flavors than I can count, cookies of all styles, biscotti.  None were labelled with variety or prices, so I had to obnoxiously ask what the flavors were on each visit.

The baked goods didn't look like ones from any of the big bakeries that supply most coffee shops in SF, so  I asked where they came from.  I was told that they were baked in-house.  Hmm.  They didn't look particularly special.  And what nondescript coffee shop makes great house made pastries?  Apparently this one.  They rival most bakeries I've been to in SF.
Cheese Puff.  $1.75.
On my first visit, I got something called a cheese puff.  I know that sounds like a savory product, but don't be fooled by the name, this was a dessert.

To start, I really have no idea why I picked this pastry.  I love paring a baked good with coffee in the morning, but it was afternoon when I visited, so my standard choice of muffin or scone didn't seem quite right, and I don't really like cookies.   So I picked the strange looking "cheese puff", which turned out to be puff pastry dough, filled in the center with sweetened cheese, dusted with powdered sugar.

It was fantastic.

First, the dough.  It was some of the best pastry I've ever encountered.  It was incredibly flaky, with visible layers like a croissant, but it was thick and crispy on the outside, like a pie crust.  I'm really not sure what technique they used here, but it was basically all the best parts of a croissant and a pie crust, all at once.  I adored how flaky it was, but how it was easy to break off in chunks like a pie crust, if that makes any sense.

The filling was sweetened cheese (ricotta?), accented by citrus notes (lemon?).  Because of the form of the puff, there was a very generous amount of the filling, far more than you get in a traditional danish.  I really liked how well this shape worked for maximizing the filling, generally one of the best parts.

The whole thing was dusted with powdered sugar which sweetened it up a bit.

I adored this creation.  So hard to classify what it was exactly, somewhat like the cross between a mini pie and a cheese danish.  I have no idea if they make puffs with other fillings, but I think fruit or nut fillings would be equally successful in this form.  I'd gladly get another, but I'd also like to try their other offerings.

The price of only $1.75 for a fresh baked pastry was incredible.  None of the baked goods had prices listed anywhere, so this was a pleasant surprise when I was rung up.

Update: I had to try this again, and did so several visits later, but I was far less enamored with it.  The dough wasn't nearly as flaky or crusty as I remembered, and almost seemed stale.  The filling didn't seem as generous, and the cheese seemed almost almond scented?  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't nearly as good as I recalled.  I finished it easily, but it wasn't really something I'd want again.


The croissant lineup was as impressive as their flavor syrups: plain, chocolate, almond, raspberry, apple, ham and cheese, sweet cheese, and probably a few others.  I had no reason to believe that their croissants would be good, as they looked totally generic and good croissants are hard to find.  But, spoiler, I loved them!
Sweet Cheese Croissant.  $2.10.
On my second visit, I was hoping to get a scone, since I'd been on a serious scone kick, and I visited in the morning.  But the only type of scones they had were currant, which, just didn't seem exciting.  The muffins didn't really look great, so I didn't want one of them, which left me with croissants, not that the croissants looked like anything special themselves.  But, then again, I wasn't impressed by the looks of the cheese puff either and loved it, so, I decided to give a croissant a try.

Inspired by the delicious sweet cheese filling from the cheese puff, I went for the sweet cheese croissant.  I'm not actually sure I've ever had a cheese croissant before.  I've had cheese danishes, but not croissants.

Anyway.  The croissant dough was pretty good, and I enjoyed the flavor, clearly made with plenty of butter.  The dough was sweetened.  I liked the sweetness to the dough, making it more like a sweet bread than a standard croissant.  It wasn't particularly flaky or crispy, but it was fresh tasting and moist.

The filling was absolutely delicious, and I loved the additional moistness it added to the center.  Sweetened ricotta, just like the cheese puff.  I was seriously impressed by how much they stuffed inside.  No skimping here, and almost every bite I had contained a generous amount of the cheese filling.

It was also drizzled with icing, which was the component that almost made me not pick the croissant.  Not because I don't like icing, but because it looked hard, and was scraped off in some places.  It looked like it wouldn't be good and couldn't possibly be fresh.  But, keeping in theme with this review, although it didn't look good, it tasted great.  The dough was sweetened, the filling was sweetened, but somehow the extra icing didn't throw it over the top sweetness-wise, it just accented it perfectly.

I really liked everything about this, and although it was huge, I easily devoured it.  I'd get another, but first I wanted to try the entire lineup.  (After trying more croissants, I deem this one my favorite flavor, and is what I'll go back to when I get my next one).

Again, no prices were listed, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it ring up for only $2.10.  For a housemade, filled croissant, a huge one at that.  Really?  The prices are incredible.
Raspberry Croissant $2.10, Decaf Iced Americano $2.50.
On my next visit, I went for the raspberry croissant, since I was eying it before.

Once I received it, I realized that I'm pretty sure I've never had a raspberry croissant before either.  Raspberry danishes, sure, but not croissants.  And I realized I had no idea what I expected to be inside.

The croissant itself was just like the cheese one, flaky on the outside, moist on the inside, well layered, full of buttery flavor.  And just like the cheese croissant, it had icing drizzled all over the top, this time pink, and actually raspberry flavored.  It also was hard, which didn't turn out to be a bad thing, and I appreciated the crunch it added.

The filling was raspberry jelly, just like you'd find in a jelly donut.  I took two bites, and realized the genius of what I was eating - it was a mix between a jelly donut and a croissant!  Second to apple fritters, jelly donuts are my favorites.  The extra icing on top was similar to having sugar on the outside of jelly donut, something that always seems unnecessary due to the sweet filling, but, well, necessary too.  The end result was something better than the sum of its parts.  I'd pick this over a jelly donut any day.

The only downside is that, unlike the cheese croissant, and unlike the cheese puff, the amount of filling inside this croissant was a bit lacking.  I had many bites that were without any of the raspberry jam.  Sure, the croissant was very good on its own, but, it would have been much better if more generously stuffed.

The $2.10 price tag was again entirely reasonable.  I liked this quite a bit, but I did prefer the cheese one, mostly due to the quantity of the filling.  I'd be tempted to get this again just to see if this was a fluke, if it normally comes with more filling, or I'd gladly go back to either of the cheese creations.  Or ... maybe time to try the almond croissant?
Almond Croissant.  $2.10.
So, on my next visit, I went, prepared to finally move on to an almond croissant.  Except I didn't see one that looked almond.  When I asked what kinds were available, the guy mentioned almond.  So I ordered it, even though I didn't know which one I was selecting.

I didn't realize it was almond due to the fact that that I didn't see almonds; generally almond croissants are crusted in slivered almond, right?  This did have a few slivers of almond, but they were buried under powdered sugar.

That isn't to say that almond was under-used in this croissant.  The inside was absolutely loaded with ground and slivered almonds.  This was unlike any almond croissant I'd had before; usually they have  almond paste inside, this didn't have paste at all, it actually just had the almond.  The almond flavor wasn't as intense since it wasn't a concentrated paste.

There also wasn't just one layer of almond filling, rather, each layer of dough had almond filling between it.  Certainly the most filling I've seen in any croissant.

And, like the other filled croissants I have tried at Espresso Roma, it wasn't a standard, flaky croissant, but, I still liked it.  The outside was crusty, and the inside was more doughy.  Sooo much butter was clearly used, and I really liked the sweetness of the dough itself.

This was certainly the most unique almond croissant I've ever had, and I did easily finish it, but I won't go for this one again.  Back to the cheese or raspberry!  (Although, really, what I want is raspberry AND cheese, which I don't think they make ... ).
Apple Filled Croissant.  $2.10.
Another visit, another new croissant to try!  It was hard to not just get the raspberry or cheese croissants again, since they had a new flavor: apple, perfect for the fall weather.

It was a really interesting pastry, basically, an apple pie stuffed inside a croissant.  Cooked cubes of apple, soft but not mushy, well spiced.  Clearly actual chunks of apple and not just a goo like danishes so often have in the centers.  So far, so good, except .... I don't really like apple pie, or apple filling.  Which, I should have realized before I ordered it.  There was nothing wrong with the filling, and I thought it was fairly unique, but it really wasn't for me.  I scraped out the apple filling and enjoyed the croissant itself, because that was truly delicious.

Flaky, crusty top, crispy bottom, doughy layers inside.  Slightly sweet, perfectly buttery.  I love the mix of crispy exterior and moist interior.

Like all of their croissants, it was huge, yet I devoured it.  I can't get over how delicious their croissant dough is!  But, I obviously wouldn't pick this flavor again.


I finally decided to try something other than a croissant.  Espresso Roma offers a slew of muffins including all the standard flavors of blueberry, lemon poppy, and bran with raisins.  And, low-fat blueberry.
Low-Fat Blueberry Muffin.  $2.
For some reason, I picked the low-fat blueberry.  Now, when do I ever go low-fat?  Never.  But ... I went to Espresso Roma directly after a barre class, and I was feeling ... healthy.  Ok, healthy is relative here.  I used it as inspiration to finally try a muffin.

Bad move.  Maybe their muffins just aren't as good as the croissants.  Maybe low-fat was the problem.  I don't know.  It wasn't good.

It was crazy dense.  A medium size muffin, but, it weighed a ridiculous amount.  So.  Dense.  A brick.  And not a flavorful one.  It just tasted too ... healthy.  The only good thing was the large blueberries inside.

I brought it to Ojan since he likes blueberry muffins, but, he took a single bite and didn't want any more either.  Clearly would not get again.

$2 was a ridiculously reasonable price for a muffin though.


I avoided trying a scone from Espresso Roma for a long time.  There were many reasons for this.  First, I'm just very particular about my scones.  I like them crispy on the outside, moist inside, with a great crumble to them, and a nice tang.  I usually want them warm.  And served with jam and clotted cream.  The Espresso Roma scones looked like they would satisfy literally none of my criteria.  And, on all of my visits, the only varieties available were cranberry or currant, flavors I would never pick.  I want nuts, I want glazes, I want fresh fruits inside.

It took a long time for me to try a scone.
Cranberry Scone. $2.25.
I decided to give one a go, just for research purposes.  For you my dear readers.

It didn't look like any scone I'd ever seen.  It was really cake-y.  It looked like a cross between a cake and a cookie.

And it pretty much was.  The base was slightly sweet, a bit tangy, not crumbly like I like my scones.  But, the flavor was good.  While I'd prefer anything other than dried cranberries, they weren't awful, and the bit of chew added was nice.

So, I did actually like it.  It wasn't what I think of as a scone, but it paired with my coffee just like a coffee cake would, which really was what I wanted anyway.  I'd get another, although I still wish they had more flavors.

At $2.25 it was the priciest item I ever got at Espresso Roma Cafe, and I'm not really sure why it is more expensive than the others, as it seems like the croissants should be far more labor intensive, but this price was still entirely reasonable.
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