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Chinatown Coffee and Tea

Name: Chinatown Coffee and Tea
Location: 475 H Street Northwest, Washington, D.C.
Roasters: Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea and rotating guest coffees

Rating: 4-

Good coffee in the Washington D.C. area used to be synonymous with the name Murky Coffee. Sadly, I never did make it to Murky before the IRS closed the Capital Hill location in February 2008 due to several tens of thousands of dollars being owed to them in back taxes. The main branch of Murky Coffee out in Arlington closed a little later in May that same year. Given my love of coffee exploration, not being able to add Murky to my list is something of a missed opportunity. Then again, one somewhat infamous incident leaves me wondering exactly what it was that I missed.

But never fear, former Murky owner, Nick Cho, is alive and well. In addition to maintaining a very entertaining, provocative and informative twitter feed, he is part-owner of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, whose coffee I really wanted to try during my short visit to D.C. I had been under the mistaken impression that none of their wholesale accounts sits close to a Metro stop. It turns out that at least one Dolcezza location is right off Dupont Circle, which I didn’t discover until after I returned. It turns out that Nick Cho’s influence also extends to a new wave of D.C. cafes, such as Chinatown Coffee and Tea, where he was hired as a consultant in its design and build out. You can find this cafe right off the red line in…well…Chinatown, which is super convenient if you happen to be doing any business or sightseeing in the general northeast Capital-mall area.

In fact, Chinatown Coffee was the perfect spot for me to visit during my recent trip to D.C. This shop’s long slim profile with one brick wall is naturally cool seeming even minus the wonderful air-conditioning, which is a definite must when traveling to D.C. in August. More importantly, the coffee selection is great and the coffee itself very good. If that’s not enough the pastry selection was good and they’ve recently added a beer menu, which works a lot better when you aren’t there in the morning.

I noted two important aspects of Chinatown’s coffee menu about which readers of this blog should be aware. First is that they offer coffee from multiple roasters. Or at least they do so on days other than the one on which they expect new shipments to arrive (it seems its best to avoid Thursdays if you want roaster variety). The menu is driven by Intelligentsia as is noted on the website, but Chinatown Coffee also regularly features coffees from other roasters (something not mentioned on the website). During my visit, or at least around my visit, one could expect to be able to buy and be served coffees from Novo and Counter Culture.

The second important feature is that Chinatown offers multiple brewing options of multiple coffees. You can, of course order, the standard, but rotating, Fetco-brewed coffee. While I was there, it was an Intelligentsia Guatemala. During my visit, Chinatown was also serving your choice of two iced coffees. But most important is the fact that you can order any coffee to be brewed-to-order, either via French Press or the Abid Clever Coffee Dripper. This particular dual method approach is a good one since it provides to easily repeatable, yet varied, brew choices.

My choices of brewed coffee were limited to Intelligentsia (boo-hoo for me, right!) so I ordered a Clever of the Kenya Thirkuni. Of course, this coffee may very well have been my choice even if other coffees from other roasters had been available. I had heard quite a few good things about this Kenya and there are simply so many good Kenyas out right now, it seems a shame to miss Intelligentsia’s take on this coffee. My tasting notes for this cup included melon, tangerine, and dark chocolate with some black current and light floral notes (hyacinth) in the finish. It had a surprisingly mellow acidity for a Kenya, which did emerge slowly  as it cooled. Overall, this was a very good cup of coffee despite the fact that I found the body a tad thin and the mouthfeel a little bit too oily (4-).

For espresso, Chinatown pulls shots of Black Cat on a LaMarzocco GB/5. They also pull shots of a rotating single origin espresso in addition to Black Cat decaf. The single origin hadn’t yet been dialed in on my visit and I was running out of time. Besides, I figured Black Cat was probably a better metric of Chinatown’s potential for espresso since they pull shots of it every day. My espresso was a little lacking in body for what I expect from this coffee and this machine, but had some really nice, crisp acidity with grapefruit notes and brown sugar sweetness (4-).

What’s tough about rating Chinatown Coffee and Tea is trying to interpret my own tolerance for innovation and progress, and how those factors intertwine with coffee quality. A year or two ago, Chinatown, with their two brew-to-order options made from your choice of coffees from multiple roasters (not to mention multiple espressos on good equipment), would have been headline news. These days, this more complicated model of coffee delivery is still more than what you expect to find in most shops, but not unheard of when reading about the opening of more serious shops (we’re talking about those not run by the roaster here). No doubt that Chinatown Coffee executes their setup smartly and efficiently and certainly deserves the moniker, “coffee destination.” Still, I left longing for something to make this visit one of those out-of-this-world experiences. Perhaps I’m thinking too hard. Maybe I should just forget it. After all, it’s Chinatown.

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5 comments to Chinatown Coffee and Tea

  • BWJ

    Chinatown is by far the best coffee bar in the DC area. Murky was great. Loved the atmosphere, it had much more room and consistently served great coffee. But I have a great appreciation for Chinatown Coffee and where it’s brought the DC scene. It’s as if Murky matured along with the growing scene of third wave coffee bars. It just feels right. Sophisticated even. I always look forward to my visits to DC for a good cup at Chinatown.

    Great review, glad you were able to check this one out.

  • Jonathan

    I see you have never been to Oklahoma. The best coffee in the midwest I believe comes from the DoubleShot Coffee Company(www.doubleshotcoffee.com).

    Sorry just decided to drop you an idea.

    • I have been to Oklahoma, but not during the life of this blog. Thanks for the tip. Coffee aside, I might take issue with your classification of Tulsa as being in the midwest. As a former midwesterner (Indiana, Illinois and Ohio), I would say that Tulsa is firmly in the South.

  • Ajkdc

    A few years ago I might have missed Murky, but these days I couldn’t care less. Both locations served good coffee but the atmosphere was about as pleasant as hanging out in a trashed college dorm room. Peregrine Coffee, which took over Murky’s DC space, serves coffee as good (if not better) than Murky and is way more pleasant and professional in my experience. Maybe Nick will grow up some day, but I’m not holding my breath…

  • I was impressed with Chinatown and Tea when I visited several months ago, but I’m a whole lot more excited about what they’re doing over at Peregrine Espresso, where the baristas are skilled, knowledgeable, and, surprisingly enough, very friendly. Plus, I’ve had Black Cat espresso at shops all over the midwest (Chicago, Louisville, Columbus, Pittsburgh), so for a non-east coaster as myself it was more exotic to have some Counter Culture espresso.

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