The tagline for Coffee Tomo, a cafe that opened a few weeks ago off the main drag of Sawtelle Boulevard's mini Japan Town, might be: coffee specialists and slightly manic pretzel innovators. Think fresh-baked, intricately structured pretzels stuffed with red beans and cheese.
The walls of the brand new, immaculate shop are clean white and dark brown wood — "the color of coffee," explains owner Kibum Sung. Sung is a former landscape architect who designed every element of the shop. "I wanted to make it warm, wanted people to walk in and smell the coffee and feel comfortable."
Sung is Korean-born and Japan-educated. Everything here bears Sung's very conscious design aesthetic, from the spare, careful arrangements of coffee paraphernalia on dark wooden shelves to the painstakingly ordered row of jars, showing coffee beans at each stage of roast. The kendo swords high on the shelves are Sung's too; he's a second-dan black belt. But then there's his food: his version of pretzels stuffed with the post-Western Asian-pop madness.
The best thing here might be the pretzel stuffed with sweet potato and cheese: crispy on the outside, utterly soft on the inside, strands of stretchy mozzarella folded around sweet, molten sweet potato puree. It's a deliriously joyous creation.
Sung hand-makes every pretzel to order, rolling it into a baroque arrangement of whorls and folds and curlicues, and bringing it to your table straight from the oven. Where else can you get a pretzel made with this level of devotion?
More adventurous palates should try Sung's favorite: a pretzel stuffed with red bean and cheese, the most lunatic of the stuffed pretzel fillings. The flavors barely cohere, but they make a weird sort of uneven magic, chunky bits of slightly sweetened Asian red bean clinging to strands of mozzarella. The experience is balanced right on the slightly bewildering, charming knife's edge between a sweet and a savory snack — an Asian dessert that wandered into a calzone.
Sung made up these combinations himself, based loosely on stuffed pretzels he'd seen in South Korea. "I have confidence in my pretzels," Sung says.
But for the coffee arts, he turns to Tommy Kim, head barista and master of the roast. Kim roasts all their beans in the large red Diedrich roaster right in front. Kim is also cheerful and completely coffee-obsessed, and he runs at high speed around the shop, chatting with customers about the details of their drink and his former life as an opera singer.
Kim makes the dripped coffee with light-roasted beans, for maximum varietal detail. But for the espresso, he uses his own peculiar mix: one bean varietal, at three stages of roast. "The light roast gives it the sour, the medium gives it the full body and the sweet, and the dark roasting gives it that dark chocolate flavor. I wanted all the flavors, so I mix," Kim says. It's nontraditional, but it makes for a beautiful pull: a high-toned, piercing, slightly schizophrenic but very happy shot of espresso.
Kim makes excellent Italian-style drinks, but he can be talked into making a cappuccino in a style he learned in Japan: espresso with a little foam, a little raw sugar and a cinnamon stick. "It gives it the aroma of cinnamon but not the flavor," Kim says. This is very important to him. He hands you your cappuccino and demands that you stir it up vigorously with the cinnamon stick. "Faster! Faster!" Kim says. "Change the color! More brown! More!"
But for the most ludicrously fun experience of all, order a honey butter bread. This is a very large hunk of white bread, sliced into nine perfect cubes, every face toasted to a crusty golden brown, then re-assembled into a square and topped with a huge pile of fresh whipped cream. It's like some sort of Modern art, negative-space version of a Belgian waffle — obviously the work of a landscape architect set loose in the kitchen.
The result is somehow utterly refined and gleeful at once. It's like the most delicate cinnamon toast imaginable, eggy and spongy and crisp. You spear each cube with your fork, carefully roll it in whipped cream and, slowly, cube by perfect cube, demolish the whole thing. It will delight your inner child and your inner geometer at the same time.
LOCATION: 11309 Mississippi Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 444-9390
PRICE: Coffee drinks, $2.50 to $6; pretzels, $3 to $5; honey butter bread, $5.
DETAILS: Open 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Espresso, coffee, blended ice drinks, tea. Cash only at present; credit cards accepted soon. Street parking.