"Hot and fresh" is how Kibum Sung describes his cafe, Coffee Tomo, right off of Sawtelle in West L.A. True to his mission, everything here is hot and fresh, from the coffee roasted on-site to the handmade pretzels. That's right, fresh baked pretzels. Make no mistake though, Coffee Tomo is a first and foremost a coffee shop. "I want you to smell coffee when you walk in," Sung says.
Sung is (another) landscape architect who decided to switch gears and take a new career path into the world of coffee. And while he lives in Irvine (and commutes every day (!)), Sung decided to open Coffee Tomo right off of Sawtelle because he was attracted to the constant foot traffic and believed that the Los Angeles crowd would be receptive to his brand of specialty coffee and expertly pulled espresso shots. Accordingly, there are no brew machines here, only a row of pour-over filters for individually hand-dripped cups of coffee.
All of Coffee Tomo's coffee is freshly roasted in the shop, so the beans essentially go from roast to cup every day. This is significant, Sung says, because once roasted, coffee quickly loses its flavor, quality, and aroma thanks to oxygenation. In addition to being able to brew beans at the peak of their flavor, the other benefit of roasting on-site is control: depending on varietal, the beans can be roasted to bring out distinct notes and characteristics. Currently, coffee from Brazil, Ethiopia, and Colombia are offered, but Sung hopes to expand in the future.
Sung's enthusiasm for the coffee making process isn't limited to roasting techniques and origins. Get him going on any coffee-related subject, and he talks at a rapid clip, with pauses between verbal paragraphs, as if he silently poses his own questions and decides to answer them out loud. Sung believes, for example, that the pour-over method of brewing yields a superior cup of coffee than most other traditional methods and can speak at length about the fascinating differences between pour-over filters. Picking up a few filters from the counter and off the shop's shelves for comparison, he explains that the shape and lengths of a filter's grooves affect how the coffee brews, how it tastes, and how it smells.
"Coffee only has two ingredients, coffee and water," Sung says. "So, each ingredient has to be very good to make a very good cup of coffee." Add to these basic ingredients a third, more intangible component: the passion and energy of the person pouring the coffee. "The energy of someone who is interested in making the coffee is different than someone" -- here, he stands away from the pour-over filters, looks away towards the ceiling, and his body slouches a little - "who does not care, not paying attention." To that end, the baristas at Coffee Tomo are all experienced, passionate, and well-versed in the art of crafting perfect cups of joe.
And what about those pretzels? "Yes, it's a little weird, maybe," Sung says He wanted to serve quality food alongside the coffee, but ruled out typical coffee shop pastries because they get cold and rapidly decline in quality over time, "like coffee that has been out too long." Wanting to retain Coffee Tomo's primary identity as a coffee shop, he also passed on the idea of serving sandwiches. He finally settled on pretzels, which can be made, from scratch, relatively quickly.
Coffee Tomo's pretzels, however, are not your ballpark pretzels. No, these are soft, airy doughs that just happen to be in the shape of ampersands or civic crowns, stuffed with unexpectedly delicious flavors like sweet potato and cheese. Each pretzel is made, shaped, and baked to order. Like the pour-overs, though, this amount of individual attention and care takes time. But, when the pretzel does come out, it is -- you guessed it -- piping hot and fresh, and infinitely better than a stale, dry muffin. An odd complement to a cup of excellent coffee, to be sure, but it somehow works.
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In addition to "hot and fresh", Sung's other descriptor for Coffee Tomo is friendship. In fact, "tomo" means "friend" in Japanese, and the shop's logo is a demitasse version of the Rubin vase: when looked at one way, two interlocked coffee cups; when looked at another way, two friendly faces. Sung would like to see Coffee Tomo become a homey coffee shop where friends can slow down and catch up over a cup of great coffee and pretzel.
Coffee Tomo has only been open for a few months, but it looks like it is well on its way towards realizing Sung's vision. On our visits, those who ordered a pour-over didn't seem to mind waiting for a cup of coffee that took considerably more time to make than someone pushing the nozzle of an urn. Instead, they did what we used to do before we had to hurry and take everything to-go: they sat down. And talked.
Our LA's Best Coffee map now includes Coffee Tomo - follow this link to find the nearest place to get your caffeine fix.