The news traveled fast. A fresh-faced artisanal coffee obsessive had arrived in Los Angeles and could be found, get this, at a motorcycle repair shop in Virgil Village. Friends had been talking about his coffee for weeks, so I went to check out the man behind the myth and the liquid behind the legend at the little repair shop on Normal Avenue.
Choke, a humble but awfully cute space, has old-school vintage mopeds in the window, a repair shop at the back of the open room, a small patio, an old-fashioned soda machine, a vintage couch and coffee table, and the real treasure — a custom-built espresso maker. In just five months the place has built a loyal and steady following of nearby Silver Lake and Echo Park artists, along with some neighboring car repairmen, who come for their daily cup, each brewed individually by a man who knows his grind.
The alarmingly good-looking Jeff Johnsen, with messy black hair and heart-murmur-inducing blue eyes under thick black Elvis Costello frames, makes me a cappuccino as he tells me his story. Last year he was in New York working as a tech for Soho Vespa, where, unbeknownst to the owner, he and his pals would pull all-night tuning sessions, filled with beer and loud music.
“It was fun, and then it got crazy,” says Johnsen. “The owner caught us one night and it was all over.” He shakes his head with a devilish grin.
He’d been bouncing around from art school to art school studying graphic art and digital media, but he got tired of the city and headed back home to Seattle, where his father, who restores classic cars, and his mom, a former professional tennis player, still live. Johnsen says he and his three brothers grew up in their father’s shop.
“I was practically born in the spray booth,” he laughs, and hands me my cappuccino — the froth and crema laced together to form what looks like a Van Gogh painting in my white cup, a little fern floating on moonlit water. “I always wanted to have a motorcycle espresso bar,” says Johnsen, only vaguely aware of the accolades I begin to pour on his presentation.
“My sister was this master barista. She researched blends and went to coffee festivals. I kind of got obsessed with coffee, and I’d go with her and see latte art competitions. Do you know about that shit?” he asks. “They make designs, like fire-breathing dragons in the latte foam. In Seattle, coffee is a big cultural thing. People are really into it — it’s cool, and it’s not cool. You kind of get sick of it after a while. It’s like, ‘Ugh, here comes another extreme barista who knows everything.’?”
I hold my coffee two-handed like it’s a holy grail filled with sacramental liquid, so perfectly balanced, not too acidic, not too weak, with a rich crema, and sip happily as Johnsen goes on.
During his soul-searching, homeward-bound experience, Johnsen got a visit from his uncle, a 79-year-old playboy and former Formula One driver who still races and dates women in their 30s. His uncle, who I imagine as a cross between Sean Connery and Hunter S. Thompson, took him out to dinner, told him he’d buy him a nice car and some suits the next day, and instructed him to drive down to L.A., get a job at a graphics firm, “get all dialed in” and then start racing cars with him. Johnsen kind of laughed it off until the next day when his uncle pulled up to his brother’s house in a black Mazda Miata and two Brooks Brothers suits in the back seat and said, “There’s a bunch of money in the glove box. Go down to L.A., man, and get started.”
Two for the road: Vintage mopeds on display
Though he can do a lot of the repair work in the shop himself, Johnsen prides himself most on his brewing. “There really was no place to get a good cup of coffee,” he says from behind the counter, grinding, tamping and pouring Walter’s cup. “I mean, some places look cool, but no one cares or knows how to make coffee, and I figured out why.”
Johnsen’s theory about L.A. coffee runs Chinatown deep, with some of the blame going to the water and the climate. “The weather here,” he says, “is really similar to Italy’s, but in Italy they know how to adjust the grind. I mean, the humidity has risen a lot from even an hour ago, when you first walked in. I had to adjust the grind a lot between your cup and Walter’s.”
Ground beans, he continues, have 15 seconds before air sucks out all the real aroma and flavor, which is why every cup is ground fresh. Johnsen grinds some beans into his hand and then runs his fingers through the dirty mound, telling me that the grounds should be moist and wet. If they’re too dry, he dumps them out. Same with the pour.
“It should take between 25 and 35 seconds for a primo ristretto shot,” Johnsen says. “If it pulls out in 15 seconds, I’ll just dump it out and adjust the grind. I know it seems wasteful, but that’s the only right way to make coffee. I can go on forever. It’s difficult to make coffee in L.A. because of the shifts in humidity, so you gotta be on it, and if you are and you love it, you can make consistent cups throughout the day.”
His water-filtration system and softener help too. So do a machine custom made to work with L.A. water and his special secret blend of beans — both arabica and robusta. Then he lets me in on another coffee conspiracy.
“For some reason,” he says, making me another shot of espresso, “this new research came out saying robusta beans are nasty — that they taste like dirty socks and old wood. But in Italy they’ve been doing arabica and robusta blends for years. Without robusta, you don’t get any crema.”
On cue he places the newly pulled espresso in a shot glass in front of me. It has a layer of crema that’s practically an inch thick. I take a sip. It’s like the Guinness of coffee.
“How much coffee do you drink?” I ask.
“Sometimes, I have three or four shots in the morning trying to find the grind, and feel like I’m going to lose my fucking mind,” he says, wide eyed. “I don’t even smoke, but an espresso and a Lucky Strike in the morning — that can get you flying, makes you feel like you’re floating.”
He sells packs of Lucky Strikes, and next to the carton is an open one for complimentary usage.
“It’s such a gnarly cigarette, you should light one up,” he chuckles as I pull one from the box and light it. “You’re going to be so charged up.”
I was fired up all right. It was like shotgunning six Red Bulls.
“Isn’t this good shit?” he asks, like Bobby to my Whitney. Choke, 4157 Normal Ave., L.A.; open Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (323) 662-4653.