The Dish List: Portola Coffee Lab

Mary Fouad | New University

Imagine wandering into what appears to be a chemistry laboratory. You gaze around and see the usual equipment: beakers and flasks on every counter, a long row of glass siphons and a blown-up copy of the periodic table splayed across the wall. Chemists man their stations donning pristine lab coats. You’d think you had just stepped into your college chem class, if not for the fact that instead of mixing solutions, the scientists are brewing coffee in Costa Mesa’s Portola Coffee Lab.

Portola Coffee Lab is located in the OC Mart Mix, an eco-friendly marketplace that specializes in over 30 owner-operated restaurants and boutiques. It’s an indoor mecca with wood paneled floors and a muted color scheme, but you know you’ve reached Portola when you come across lime-green splashed walls and dozens of potted plants.

And it comes as no surprise that Portola was modeled after a chemistry lab complete with Bunsen burners and equations scribbled on the menus: the owner and roaster Jeff Duggan majored in chemistry in college.

“What separates us from coffee giants like Starbucks and Coffee Bean is that we put more time and effort into making our coffee,” Paulina Ruiz, a Portola roaster, said of their carefully brewed drinks.

Duggan first envisioned the lab because he was fascinated by “the many ingredients you can combine and the different methods you can use to produce the perfect solution. We’re meticulous about our coffee.”

And are they ever. I walked in on a Tuesday morning to be surprised by the line trailing out the door.

“Don’t worry, we make the coffee quickly,” one barista shouted over a Trifecta machine when she saw my widened eyes. “There are so many options it takes forever for people to decide.”

Portola has espresso, tea, divergents and varietals menus to choose from, not to mention a whole other “eats” menu. Descriptions of each exotic-sounding drink are vague so unless you’re a regular customer, you’ll need to enlist the help of a Portola professional. But don’t get too comfortable just yet; once I finally made up my mind and assumed that I was ready to order, the barista-scientist asked me my method of choice. My jaw practically dropped. There’s more than one way to make coffee?

Drinks from the “varietals” menu (aka the brews of the day) can be concocted in either the Trifecta machine, the V60 Pour-Over dripper or a siphon; further evidence of Portola’s sensitivity to the various ways coffee can be brewed.

“The main difference between these different machines is that each one alters the body and texture of the coffee,” Ruiz said. “Each machine is designed to showcase certain flavors in the roast.”

Though I was intimidated by the dozens of coffee choices and blends, the baristas were all smiles and more than willing to provide vivid descriptions of each drink I asked about.

After scouring the menu (which is quite like reading a map of a city you’ve never visited) and badgering the barista with many questions, I decided on the Sandona, one of Portola’s brews of the day, blended in the Trifecta machine (the cheapest option). I also ordered their mocha from the espresso menu and bought a yogurt parfait. It wasn’t even two minutes before my orders were up.

My drinks were poured into ceramic mugs and topped off with the prettiest foamed milk art. I sat for a while and let the steam coat my face as I admired the artwork. I almost didn’t want to sip from the mugs for fear that I would ruin the detailing, but eventually the rich smell got to me and I went for the Sandona.

If you thought black coffee was all the same, you haven’t tried the Sandona. Though bitter and seemingly simple in taste, as all black coffee is, my brew contained hints of pineapple, lemon and caramel, leaving me with a sweet, tropical aftertaste. It was unexpected to say the least, but I found myself savoring each sip and was tempted to buy more. It was definitely not your average Americano from Starbucks. One could tell from just the taste that the coffee was carefully constructed.

To cleanse my palette after the surprise that was my Sandona cup of joe, I dove into my fruit parfait. Though it looked like a generic parfait in a ceramic bowl, all of the ingredients tasted as if they were just picked and pulled off a farm. The Greek yogurt was creamy, the strawberries and blueberries were fresh and not too sweet and the granola satisfied my need for crunch.

And then there was my mocha. It was a sweet change from my bitter black coffee, and in every sense of the word: the mocha was essentially ganache. The barista later informed me that their mocha is their best-selling drink because its specially housemade Belgian chocolate ganache. It was chocolatey but not too overwhelming, and at that moment there was nothing I would rather do than curl up by a fire and read classic literature.

Portola Coffee Lab proves that they’re not all bells and whistles when it comes to their appliances; they pay a special kind of attention to their roasts that many coffee shop chains overlook. You don’t need a chemical reaction to tell you that.