Bread Whore Drinks in Moto

February 24th, 2012  |  Published in Bread Whore, Culinary Creative, Drink, Feature  |  16 Comments

Logan Heights has a storied history as the epicenter for San Diego’s Latino culture, but a new culture seems to be brewing in the barrio: a coffee culture.  You want to drink independent, artisan coffee from local roasters?  You’ll find a triumvirate of java joints in Logan Heights:  Cafe Virtuoso, Ryan Brothers Coffee, and Cafe Moto Coffee.  All three have worked and established themselves as premier purveyors of roasting, and I have a soft spot for all three for individual reasons.  Virtuoso represents each week at the Little Italy Farmer’s Market, and I can’t imagine a better, more beautiful Saturday morning stroll among all the vendors than with a terrific cup made from one of their coffees.  It’s why I love San Diego.  Ryan Brothers coffee is used in my number one beer of choice:  Alesmith Speedway Stout, a knockout.  Get thee to a craft beer brewery stat, prepare to be floored by the espresso deliciousness you’ll discover in this imperial, and you might even achieve nirvana and perhaps discover God.

However, the Cafe Moto name introduced me to the San Diego coffee culture, and it’s the one whose reach seems to extend the most into the local community.  That coffee you drank at Influx Little Italy or Golden Hill while inhaling a Red Velvet?  Moto.  Want to enjoy a fine roast made especially for the people who have to suffer in La Mesa?  Visit Cosmos Cafe.  Upscale Mexican in Bankers Hill?  Yep, Moto is served at Barrio Star.  College student chillin’ in University Heights needing to get some work done for less than $2?  Hit up Mystic Mocha for Moto.  The customary lazy Sunday brunch?  Too many to name all of them – Crest Cafe, Adams Avenue Grill, Parkhouse Eatery, Ave.5, and many more serve it up Moto-style.

Basically, Moto is ubiquitous with San Diego, but you don’t need to visit any of the places mentioned above to sample some of their outstanding coffees or teas; you just need to get your ass down to Logan Heights and 2619 National Avenue, San Diego, CA 92113-3617.  There, you’ll find the mothership.  And the man providing safe passage while aboard is none other than Mr. Tom Ward, barista extrordinaire, one cool cat who projects an aura of calm and tranquility if you happen to venture into the choppy waters of indecision.  No dickish hipster dripping with disdain, Tom is a true professional who takes pride in his service and his knowledge, which he freely dispenses to the masses.  After I’d been in several times and embroiled in conversation with the man, I really began to appreciate the fact that Tom embodies a level of customer service rare to discover these days.  Polite to all customers, educated about the craft, acerbic without the undercurrent of nastiness, Tom treats each customer on a humanistic level and it’s a treat to see.  So I sat down with him recently because I only thought it fair to highlight the best and brightest among us in various fields.

Bread Whore – From your perspective, what are essential qualities to being a great barista?

Tom – A barista needs to be able to get the grind right, tamp the coffee consistently, and steam milk to a good standard. As for great, I suppose it must be “the little things.” They may even be “intangibles.” But the intangibles show up in the cup–in the taste. It has been said there is a scientific approach, and also an intuitive one–which may include the traditions, the “folkways,” if you will. Some mixture of these two approaches would seem most desirable, to me. But also, how can one quantify such things as manner, and a sense of cultural and historical context? We preparers of espresso are part of a long chain of the be-aproned steam-people extending far back in the past–the 1840s and the true steam era–and into the future.  I feel good as a barista when I feel I am doing well by the traditions, but also inventing something from time-to-time: a recipe, or some detail of technique–if only for myself.
BW – How did you come to be so educated about coffee?
Tom – I started by being a teenage customer at San Diego’s better 1980s coffeehouses: Quel Fromage, Java, the Pannakin, and Gelato Vero. As a habitue (when I could afford it), I watched, listened, and drank coffee–particularly cappuccino. Later on, as an older teenager, Stanley Fried at Java gave me a job, and I learned how to pull espresso on a machine that actually required some pulling–the lever-type espresso machine, which you seldom see now. But I only returned to barista work recently. In my new era of coffee, I have been reading voraciously–and learning on the job–making observations, tasting everything, absorbing the hints dropped by my boss at Moto, and for awhile I was working alongside a very capable barista now employed by Espresso Mio in Mission Hills. He had a great hand in re-training me for the 21st Century.
BW – What about Moto appeals to you?
Tom – There is the Cafe Moto brand itself, and then there is the espresso bar at Moto. As one of two baristas in the espresso bar, I love it that the coffee roasted by Moto is consistently delicious, and I credit not only the owners but also the maestro who physically stokes the roaster day in and day out. He has more than twenty years experience, and a truly magnificent moustache, whereas I have far less experience, and no moustache at all to speak of, except when rising before dawn has put me behind in shaving. But the espresso-drinker has to hope for synergy between roaster and barista (and the grower is the third leg of the tripod). I think the Moto coffees are dynamite (of the good kind), and as barista I can pull a really solid double ristretto with the raw materials the Moto “quartermaster” issues. Actually, I just go back to the warehouse and take it! There are twenty-something varieties–single-origins and blends, various roast levels. I keep them all in rotation in order to represent them all within the espresso bar, which is more-or-less the “tasting room” of the “winery.”
BW – What would you say to somebody who believes Folgers is a superior brew?
Tom – I would say “okay” and “I understand,” and that relativity applies to coffee, too, and, also, that we are comforted by what we know. I can understand Folgers-from-a-can as comfort food. Especially on a camping trip, for example. And then I would say, “you know, I’ve got some Columbian coffee, too, and you can bet it’s ‘Mountain Grown.’ Let’s try it! We can prepare it so many ways: a Chemex pour-over, for example. That would definitely be “richness worth a second cup.” And it’s a good candidate for an “S.O.S.” as some say; that’s jargon for “single-origin-shot.” Now, I have not tried to run Folgers on the La Marzocco, but look out, April Fool’s Day is coming up.
BW – Independent, artisan coffee roasters are springing up all over the place.  What’s the appeal of them?
Tom – The term “foodie” may be a little annoying, but I’m going to invoke it! There’s a bit of a renaissance of “craft” going on in terms of pop-culture perceptions of food and beverage, and confound it, why not? We can’t just hand over our stomachs and our palates to ConAgra without a struggle, can we? And it’s fun to “make stuff,” it turns out. I’m thinking about achieving internet notoriety by roasting coffee in a souped-up Easybake Oven, what do you think? But seriously, small is beautiful.
BW – You’re on death row.   What would be the last drink you’d order?  What would be the last meal you’d eat?
Tom – I’d like to have the opportunity to make one last cappuccino–make that, one for everybody in the room. Let the grind be dialed, let the milk be Whole, let the machine be clean and of good provenance–sufficient to the job. Like the two-group La Marzocco at Moto. But I’m a light eater. That last-meal deal could perhaps just be the BLT to-go from Lisko’s, the new deli on El Cajon Blvd. way out east near 68th or so. Next to Guitar City, the little shop run by that great painter.
BW – Since this will be posted on Culinary Creative, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about some of your favorite places to eat in San Diego.
Tom – I get great comfort-food-on-the-fancy-side from time-to-time at Jayne’s Gastropub on 30th at Adams. Unfortunately truly haute cuisine is beyond the budget of the wage-slave barista. Now, “oat cuisine” might be another matter. I like a Saturday breakfast at the Food Factory in Lemon Grove. I hope they NEVER renovate that place, and let it be cash only forever, but I wouldn’t mind if they converted to Moto.  Brew from Farmer Brothers. However, that would be 110% of perfection, which is impossible. Anyway, it’s a bottomless cup there…but don’t go check it out, folks. I want to keep the place to myself. And then there was Toshi’s. What happened? It seems to have gone dark a few weeks ago. Kudos to Cafe Chloe–just for being there. And Salazar’s, for looking the same! I’d give anything to have the Chicken Pie Shop back on Robinson & Fifth. Or for Pernicano’s to finally re-open in Hillcrest–with all original decor. I like a place with atmosphere, as they used to say–but such places keep disappearing. The food may be great or good or decent, but a jumbotron flat-screen TV and intrusive canned music will sour it for me.
There you have it.  The man, the myth, the maestro of Moto (OK, enough with all the alliteration).  But, if you don’t know, now you know.  Moto is worth it.  Whether you want to buy a bag of beans to roast at your own home, visit the roasting facilities and watch the alchemy, or simply hit up Tom for your favorite espresso drink, it’s all about the Moto.  And, again, for all the pussies who don’t want to venture to Barrio Logan, nut up, drop the xenophobia off with your privileged children, and venture down to this culturally rich neighborhood where not only can you soak up some history and sublime eats, but you can discover what’s brewing at one of the best roasters around.


Brendan Jude Liszanckie (Bread Whore): current culinary student/ex-English teacher/rabid Celtics fan/raging film fanatic/obsessive lover of music /jack-of-a-few trades/all-around semi-decent guy. Compelled to move to California due to Dre and Tupac's ode, I left Boston, migrated to LA, and got my Dangerous Minds on as part of the Teach for America program. After several years living in the LBC, I bounced around before ending up here in beautiful San Diego with my better half. And I as I embark on my culinary journey, I quote one of my heroes: "I’ve got plenty of common sense…. I just choose to ignore it.” So follow me down this rabbit hole as I freely pilfer from various literary grab bags and write about some of the amazing places and people here in San Diego, all of whom make eating/drinking in this town worthwhile.

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  • Awesome post – I just started drinking coffee again three months ago (after ten years), and boy am I excited about all this good coffee! I look forward to meeting Tom! Thanks for the great article.

  • Valine Moreno

    Great article! Makes me want to drink another cup of locally brewed coffee! I am currently drinking coffee from a local brewer who learned everything about brewing coffee from the classes he took at Cafe Virtuoso. Go local! Thank you BW !!

  • Well done! I can't believe that I have never been to any of the Logan Heights coffee places after working in the neighborhood for the past few years… I will have to check them out!

  • BPM

    I could almost smell the beans roasting. Sounds like something special is happening in Logan Heights.

  • Daniel Sullivan

    Bread Whore! Damn, son, one fine piece of work. Though it be 8pm, I'm seriously contemplating firing up the coffee pot. If only Mr. Ward could be in my kitchen every morning. Next time I'm in the area, I'll be smelling the brew awaiting my parched lips and hoping to catch you there. Moto for everyone! Keep up the good work, Bread Whore.

  • Matt

    Starbucks who? Local small business coffee houses are where people should be buying there coffee.

  • keith fowler

    awesome alliteration throughout Bread. Whore, was that intended or an unconscious flourish?

  • Sharon

    Looking forward to trying this coffee in the near future when we visit you in SD. Keep cooking and writing!

  • Brendan- LOVE your writing. 🙂

  • Brendan

    Thanks, Jenny. Same goes for yours.

  • Brendan

    And a big shout out to everyone! Thanks for the comments!

  • Vinnie

    The heck with the coffee. I want to try the Alesmith Speedway Stout! Sounds like that would be right up my alley. Besides loving both beer & espresso, I can stay awake longer and drink more!

  • Vinnie

    P.S. You have my address!

  • Matt

    Wow! I never realized Logan Heights was such a coffee hub. Thanks for letting us all in on this little secret. As much as I love my Mystic Mocha (shhh, must keep this place a secret, lines are already too long), I can't wait to venture down to Logan Heights and try a new cup of joe.

  • Brendan

    Thanks, Vinnie and Matt, for the kind words. I love Mystic Mocha as well – great carrot-zucchini muffins! And, Vinnie – the next time we meet . . .

  • Brendan- Finally made it down there during the week… WOW! What a gem. Loved the coffee bar and went in the back and bought a bag beans. They are wonderful.. Still enjoying them. 🙂