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Coffee Tomo Deserves the Hype

When I suggested to a coworker of mine that we spend the afternoon at Coffee Tomo, her “heck yes” told me I made the right decision. This clean-line coffee shop, located near Heritage Park Library, has a great reputation – and it deserves it.

As a coffee snob, I feel confident in saying that Coffee Tomo is one of the best coffee shops in Orange County. We went to Coffee Tomo on a bright Saturday in the early afternoon, grabbed an outside table, and perused the menu for something refreshing and caffeinated.

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh

I went with the Thunderstorm, and my coworker, Minnie, opted for the frozen hot chocolate. The Thunderstorm (a drink I had never previously heard of) is espresso poured over ice and filled to the brim with seltzer water. I was concerned that the drink might be bitter, but the remarkable smoothness of Coffee Tomo’s beans made it very drinkable. The seltzer water makes this novel version of an iced Americano absolutely perfect for a hot day, and it guarded me against the weather … along with the umbrella on our table.

Minnie’s frozen hot chocolate was a sight to behold – a frosty drink with the consistency of a milkshake, topped with two fat scoops of French vanilla ice cream and a pile of whipped cream as big as a kitten. I begged to try it, and I have to say, it is obvious at a sip that the drink uses high-quality ingredients. I’m not sure what type of chocolate is used, but I can tell you for certain that it’s not Hershey’s. If I had to compare this drink to anything I’ve previously tried, I’d point to the (very pricey) Belgian chocolate milk from Whole Foods.

To cut the sweetness of her drink, Minnie ordered a plain, salted pretzel. Now, this is no ordinary pretzel. Coffee Tomo’s plain pretzels are the platonic ideal of their type – chewy, buttery and fresh out of the oven. I ordered one of the filled pretzels, and while I enjoyed it, I found it a bit too rich. Minnie, who ended up finishing it, said it was one of the best cafe snacks she’s ever had. I will concede (and she agreed) that the ratio of filling to pretzel was perfect.

Since I went with the sweet potato and cheese pretzel on my first visit, I decided to go with something more aggressively savory on the second. After an agonizing internal debate, I chose the jalapeño- and cheese-filled pretzel, which was served promptly by two cheery employees (whose names I did not get). The pickled jalapeños stood up well to the salty cheese, and the pretzel managed, somehow, to hold all that flavor without bursting.

As full as I was from the pretzel, I wanted to try a few items from Tomo’s menu that I was less familiar with. I was tempted to try the non-frozen hot chocolate – that is to say, hot chocolate – but the weather was too good for that. June gloom had fled for the day, and I would, alas, have to save the hot drinks for another day.

I instead ordered the “G9,” a nutty blended drink made of different seeds and grains ground together and blended with milk. It tasted like an almond milk-and-pumpkin-seed milkshake – fatty, creamy and delicious. I’ve never had anything like this before, but I’m glad I took a chance on it. If the pretzel hadn’t already convinced me to make Coffee Tomo my new regular spot, the G9 would have done it.

I can consume dairy without a problem, but I did notice how plentiful – and how good – the dairy-free options are. Unlike many cafes, Tomo doesn’t add an extra charge for non-dairy milk substitutes, and many of its most compelling drinks are dairy-free by default. Some drinks, like the Tomo Latte (which contains condensed milk) cannot be made without dairy, but there’s really no shortage of other options.

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh

As impressive as its coffee, pretzels and novel menu items are, Coffee Tomo has much more going for it. Because it’s located in a large shopping center, parking is plentiful, and it’s easy to get a spot in front of the cafe itself. It’s also a great place to study, with well-shaded outdoor tables and a quiet, clean interior. The employees are helpful, make great recommendations, and don’t rush customers into leaving. There’s also free wifi – helpful if, like me, you rely on the use of online tools for your job. There are always customers around, but not too many people for anyone to easily snag a table.

In addition to practical matters, this cafe also has a top-tier playlist – I noticed songs by the Decembersists and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, which are two of my favorite bands. If you’re into mid-2000s Stereogum-popularized indie music, you’ll love the song list. I’m not sure who the DJ is, but I’m pretty sure our Spotify histories have a lot in common.

Coffee Tomo is slightly more expensive than a typical boba cafe, but lines up price-wise with most cafes I’ve been to. As a customer, expect to pay $10-15 during your visit. Given the quality of everything I had here, I thought that was more than fair – especially since they had a “10% off” deal posted on Yelp when I went.

I firmly believe that this is one of the best cafes in Orange County – frankly, in the whole L.A. metropolitan area – and I’ve been telling everyone as much since my visit. I would recommend every single item I tried, though with the caveat that the sweet potato- and cheese-filled pretzel is best for someone with a serious sweet tooth.

While I didn’t yet have the opportunity to try some of the other adventurous options, I’m looking forward to dragging myself and my friends over to pick a few new things off the menu. Between the library-like interior and the sunny hang-out tables in front, this cafe has everything a patron could ask for. I think I’ll be trying some of the jelly drinks next.

Coffee Tomo
Culver Plaza Shopping Center
15333 Culver Dr. #450
Irvine, CA  92604
www.coffeetomoirvine.com