From the second I heard the name Handsome, I have been exceedingly impressed with everything about them. Their products, commitment as a roaster, humble stance as a company, and dedication to educating and sharing an outstanding coffee experience are truly unrivaled. They face the daunting task of competing with the other leading roasters in California and making waves in a slowly saturating Los Angeles market (though the higher-ups at Handsome would probably disagree with my use of the word “compete”). Given their past ties with Intelligentsia, Handsome must face the additional challenge of delineating themselves as a separate entity. So far, they’re off to more than a good start.
The store is designed with an “city-industrial” aesthetic: sleek wooden bar counters, minimalist seating, and polished cement. It’s trendy urban look that many coffee bars try to emulate but seldom embody. Handsome has done a solid job with this practical yet artistic approach; every element of the decor “fits.” Plus, the location is about as urban as you can get. The bar is one of the most attractive features of the shop. It takes up a huge portion of the floor space, its aura is essentially ubiquitous throughout the store. The layout makes the workspace very welcoming. Devoid of clutter or flashiness (or a distinct section for transactions), it is truly a craftmen’s counter and an appropriately professional space to showcase artisan coffee.
Considering its level of prestigue and sophistication, one would expect they would have a Strada. Instead, they utilize a simple Linea. This was something very important to me. Handsome seems to be a company that is committed to efficiency and modesty. I think this was reflected in their choice of machinery. They are not investing in an image or riding a trend. Handsome isn’t using the “smoke and mirrors” of top of the line machinery to convince customers they are the best. And they don’t have to. Instead, they are preparing coffee their way with superlative technique on a solid “work horse” machine, tried and true. Handsome is not about being a “loud” show piece. Without a doubt, they are “quietly” putting out the best product, period. Not to say that owning a Strada automatically labels a shop overly trendy or fake. Quite the contrary in some cases. But to be fair, a well trained barista doesn’t require one to put out outstanding drinks.
Handsome also features an in-house roasting facility. Patrons can observe the entire operation at the back section of the shop. Unfortunately, it is closed off behind glass windows. Kind of neat to have it viewable like a museum piece, but we miss out on the sights and smells of the roasting.
There is a professional dynamic to Handsome that few shops could ever replicate equally; the staff takes the job extremely seriously and yet they are unbelievably humble about their level of proficiency. Furthermore, they are incredibly approachable and inviting to both customers and those in the industry. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone, from the team developing Handsome as a company to the baristas who spend hours on the bar, is dedicated to and genuinely enjoys their job. The staff is also zealously commited to the principle of amicable customer service. While egos may have their place behind the scenes, it is hardly evident on the floor. At times, I almost expect attitude from baristas with such sterling reputations. As proud as they are (and deserve to be), the Handsome staff is almost devoid of arrogance. In fact, I probably could not have gotten attitude from our barista Eric had I asked for it. We were greeted warmly, not in the scripted or hyperactive way, but a personable and low key. He immediately engaged us in conversation about our day. It actually took a few minutes before we even started talking coffee. Everyone was all about sharing knowledge. Anthony, one of the assistant managers, chummed it up with us for about half an hour about our roots in the Monterrey Bay, beans, the site, and of course, their business. A real genuine group of passionate people. Eric told me, “We wanna be humble, its part of our philosophy.” And it definitely shows; they are modest yet proud, accommodating yet austere. These are exactly the kind of people I would want to work for personally and share passion with; honest and hard-working despite their success.
One thing that customers complained about in online reviews was Handsome’s purist stance on no sugar, no cream, and no additives to their coffee. Some call it elitist and I can see their point. However, I invite people to come with an open mind and consider why Handsome may have made this decision. Whenever I’m talking to people about why I love coffee, I eventually come to this little tidbit; coffee is not and should not be a painful experience. If you love putting cream and sugar in your coffee, wonderful and more power to you. I encourage people to enjoy their drinks however they like. There are certain coffees I love adding half and half to. But I believe people should not be adding these ingredients because they feel like they have to, to mask a nasty flavor, mellow out some harsh extract, or drown out the intensity. Call it snobbery, but I think good coffee does not require any alteration and extras just hinder its full potential. I cannot speak for Handsome, but my guess is this is probably their aim. They have painstakingly labored to source and roast award winning beans; the highest caliber coffee can be enjoyed “raw.” Trust your barista and give it a chance?
Had my enchantment with the store and its philosophy not satisfied me, the product alone would have won me over. Before we received our caps, Eric gave us a Columbian and Burundi S.O. shot to sample. Both had astounding characteristics. Most espresso is biting, bright, tart, intense, or any number of similar descriptors that basically allude to strong flavor. These shots had typical origin flavors: the Columbian had a great body and smooth melon assents while the Burundi possessed a rosy quality. While these characteristics were prominent, they were by no means overwhelming but surprisingly balanced. The cappuccino wowed me even further. Its temperature was perfect, the foam was smooth and heavy, but not rigid. It was not particulary sweet, a bit savory, and had a perfectly portioned milk/espresso ratio. Again, the espresso was ubiquitous and tapered pleasantly, not overpowering or dominant in either consistency or flavor. Weeks later, I am still enjoying the coffee I took home and raving to friends about this unique quality; pronounced and balanced. All the flavor and supple consistency without being abrasive. It’s classy and understated, just like their business.
Handsome is also very amiable with how they present their roasted coffee. Instead of bombarding patrons with subjective and at times obtuse cupping notes, Handsome offers neutral suggestions titled “we taste.” The roasters taste sweet cherries, maybe you will taste something else. Their “roast scale” is quite innovative. Rather than guaging the roast level with arbitrary descriptors (one man’s light roast is another man’s medium), Handsome has opted to use a more customer friendly paradigm: comfort vs adventure. Simple, yet effective. Dark, light, medium… well how dark? What does “dark” mean for each bean? Would a lighter roast bring out better flavors for a particular bean? The spectrum can get a little fuzzy and subjective. It also takes an extremely competent barista with intimate knowledge to be able to field these kinds of questions and explain details in a comprehensible way.
Handsome’s system is more approachable. Labeling a coffee as “comfort” means we probably won’t get any surprises, sharp flavors, or anything particularly out of the ordinary; the coffee will be familiar, well-rounded, and palpable (though these beans are by no means ordinary or passe). Adventure conversely indicates that these roasts require a more enterprising pallet, one that is tolerent of more acerbic flavors or unfamiliar characteristics. This system prevented me from forming predispositions based on cupping notes or my perception of normative roast levels. Going into a roasting session using their more abstract spectrum has forced me to be more open minded about my personal concepts of body, consistency, and flavor.
After a long conversation, my brother and I were invited into the roasting facility. The sights, sounds, and aroumas coming from this room were intoxicating; for that brief moment upon entering the room, you are captivated by the tangible (and ephemeral) proof that Handsome is putting out some of the best roasted beans on the market. If you aren’t sold in the first few seconds, walk out and try again. From the Probat to the dedicated team, the room exudes a profound love of the craft. It was a great experience for me as a professional. Even at the end of my visit, I was still struck by how friendly these guys are. As we were leaving, Anthony thanked us for coming and asked “so, when are you coming back to hang out with us?”
I am a firm believer in finding a coffee shop that works for you personally. It doesn’t have to be the newest or most trendy, but it does have to fit you. Coffee shops aren’t solely about good products, they are places to meet, spaces for interaction, building blocks for relationships, and sources of creative inspiration. Handsome is my new spot. Having the best coffee is just a bonus. Once I find “my spot,” I never leave it.
Finding the perfect place isn’t easy. And let’s face it, traveling to downtown LA is an endeavor in and of itself. Seeing as Handsome is currently the only established cafe in the area, patrons are traveling specifically for their coffee. This may not satisfy everyone and understandably so. In five years once the area develops, there will be increased traffic and a wider audience who is willing to make Handsome a destination in addition to something else. But for me, Handsome is my destination for coffee in Los Angeles. Even if it is a journey, the trip to get what I want is absolutely worth it. I could continue rave about the quality and give you a list of reasons why coffee lovers should visit, but surmount the distance and give them a try for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, good things are worth the effort.
- The espresso, the cap, and the beans
- Modest Mantra
- The fact that it is a destination
- Industry Swag
- Utter professionalism
- The nicest staff
- No condiments
Damn Handsome Roasters582 Mateo St
Los Angeles, CA 90013 (323) 606-3593