Tohm Ifergan is not David Lynch. That may seem obvious to the filmmaker’s fans—the sorts who’ve been pumped to enter Portola Coffee Lab‘s Theorem bar, where the August menu is composed of nods to Lynch and some of his most iconic films. That type more or less just once-overs the menu and orders her favorite movie. But for some, the difference between Ifergan, the coffee-dealing drummer and barista and co-manager of the six-seat, barista-driven concept bar connected to the 2015 Micro-Roaster of the Year’s flagship shop, and Lynch, the surrealist Hollywood writer and producer and director, is less clear. So, too, is Lynch’s use as the touchstone of Tohm’s drinks. And it took some explaining.
“I was inspired by an old cocktail at a Chicago bar called The Violet Hour a long time ago,” Ifergan said. That drink, The Juliet and Romeo, which features mint, cucumber, and rosewater, set him on the hunt for his own star-crossed lovers. But it wasn’t until later, when he was at home in Orange County and just so happened to be re-watching Wild at Heart, a love story featuring hit men and mothers-in-law, that he put the pieces together. Lynch’s spin on genre would be perfect for a coffee cocktail.
“And so I told my wife, and she was like, ‘well, if you do that you might as well go all the way. You might as well make a Twin Peaks Laura Palmer.’”
Which, of course, is exactly what he would go on to do, dubbing a mixture of skimmed Guji espresso, Assam tea, crushed cherry, lemon peel, and Fever-Tree ginger beer, the Twin Peaks: Laura Palmer. Is it really so crazy that some customers confuse Lynch the auteur with Ifergan?
The drinks appear on the menu in the order they were created. Beginning with the Wild at Heart, which features a mint leaf steeped in rose water and sprinkled and splashed with crushed juniper berries and Angostura bitters, which float on the foam of a shaken natural Panama Elida that’s been Kyoto-dripped and muddled with cucumber and lime juice.
Then there’s the Blue Velvet, which uses dry-shaken egg whites that after being sufficiently frothed are integrated with house-made blueberry lavender compote and skimmed Ethiopia Guji espresso.
Traditionally, the way to play up coffee’s flavor is to pair it with dairy—poured or scooped—and though Ifergan will happily make a latte if you want it, the choice to exclude milk from his menu was intentional.
“I just don’t like milk that much,” he said. “I just don’t think I need it in my drink. It really makes me think about how to make coffee interesting without it.”
While the Theorem offerings might be more reminiscent of cocktails than cappuccinos, Ifergan’s background in competition and coffee makes him adamant about the real heart of his creations.
“I’m a barista,” he said. “I really do care about the coffee itself and the integrity of the coffee.”
That’s apparent when the trip down the Lynch menu ends with Lost Highway, which starts with the Elida but finishes in dry Galaxy hops—a nod to Ifergan’s co-manager, who spends his other working hours at a brewery in nearby Santa Ana. Its taste mimics that of a really good coffee IPA, but arrived at from the opposite direction. And although it originated as a drink served on the rocks, it now comes two ways: over ice or chilled and served in a frosted martini glass. The reason for the addition of the latter option? “One customer just kept asking for it,” Ifergan said.
“What’s great about this space is that it’s constantly changing. I think we’re here in specialty coffee to educate and to create a culture and community. We create a regular clientele that are stoked to try all the new things that we keep adding,” continued the barista-drummer.
And they are added constantly. Menu planning for the coming month begins in the middle of the current one. But if you get through the entire Lynch menu—and a slice of cherry pie—and still feel like you can walk straight, well.
“It’s not listed on the menu anymore, but some people ask for the Trust option,” Ifergan explained.
They simply sit at the counter, look at the barista, and ask him to make something.
And so I eyed him—the veins at my temples were probably pulsing in that way they do by now—and he, me. We were five coffees in, and maybe it was the lavender in the Blue Velvet, or the tonic waters, or I don’t know, but the longer I sat there the more it felt like the big-bellied Hario siphons were not just standing at attention against the leftmost wall but leering (if you’ve seen the opening sequence of Mulholland Drive, you know this feeling).
But, less than ten minutes later, after I’d taken a break to take a breather and some pictures of Portola’s exterior, and Tohm had come back from a last-second trip to a neighboring juice bar to buy ingredients, I was safe and to my senses at Theorem’s reflective black bar. All was well. And then Ifergan was getting to work, soaking a strip of orange peel in tonic water with vanilla bean, combining it with more skimmed Ethiopian espresso. Letting it soak. And with a touch of Castillian bitters, something was made. Served on the rocks, of course.