To watch Social House barista Jonah Vongdala toil over the intricate designs in his silken latte foams is to watch a craftsman at work. But while the 26-year-old self-proclaimed coffee fanatic from Hawaii is perfectly at home in the driver’s seat of Social House’s La Marzocco—“the Bentley of espresso machines,” he calls it—the real horsepower comes from the Bonmac Hikari siphon coffee system, one of six of the Japanese imports operating in the U.S. and the first in Nevada.
Part chemistry set, part coffeemaker, siphons use water vapor and carefully controlled heat to transform freshly ground beans into a terrifically crisp, aromatic cup served tableside from the vessel in which it was made. Of course, such luxury comes with a price for the proprietor (think down payment on a home). But for you, it’s only $5 per cup, with each serving being three cups.
The siphon’s total immersion brewing and extraction process is a highly technical procedure, but one that still requires the finesse of a passionate disciple. Each cup bears the mark of not only the terroir and the roaster but the barista as well. Even to appreciate the result takes a little learning. Refrain from dosing your coffee with cream and sugar. Instead, enjoy it black: bright, aromatic, smooth. But not bitter. Bitterness, Vongdala says, comes from over-extraction of the grounds.
Your server can steer you through the four True Beans coffees on the menu, but the real show happens at Vongdala’s coffee bar up by the front door, where you can follow your coffee from whole bean to cup. Here’s how it works:
In just 10 seconds, the three cups of water in the siphon’s bottom vessel reaches a boil. Vongdala freshly grinds and adds 10 grams of coffee per cup of water to the brewing chamber. As the hot water vapor forms, it vacuums into the upper chamber, fully immersing each ground, saturating and swelling it for precisely 45 seconds. Using a tiny bamboo paddle, Vongdala gives the mixture four to five gentle swirls: “It’s a delicate process,” he says. “You don’t want to overdo it.” Thirty more seconds of infusion (oh, the aroma!) and then the “kick-back”: With the heat off, the water quickly drains back into the bottom chamber, leaving a perfectly rounded lump of grounds. The ritual concludes with Vongdala inhaling intensely from grounds like a sommelier deep in his glass, then offering it to the patron. “I smell, you smell,” he says. “It’s a great interaction process with the guest.” What’s left is but to slurp—yes, slurp—which introduces air into the coffee and spreads it over the entire tongue.
This coffee experience is decidedly “third wave,” a somewhat controversial artisanal movement. Prior waves brought us from canister coffee to Starbucks. Around the millennium, wave three would send us flocking to coffeehouses for organic, socially responsible, artisan micro-roasted and small-batch coffees, the fairly traded beans picked ripe by hand and roasted lighter to retain the subtleties that darker roasting obliterates.
In case coffee’s not your cup of tea, Social House offers that, too: whole-leaf, organic teas from L.A.-based Art of Tea ($7) and three boba (bubble) teas. “I wish people would start to experiment more with teas,” says Vongdala, who recommends the caramel pear tea with (or even instead of) dessert.
But don’t tell Vongdala’s third-wave comrades—they’ll just get bitter.