Vietnamese Coffee: In Pursuit of the Perfect Cup

| November 18, 2009 | 3 Comments
  • 3 Comments

vietnamese coffee slow drip
Vietnamese Coffee, Trung Nguyen

Enjoying your slow-drip coffee is a quintessential part of life in Vietnam. Whether you’re stoopin’ it, shouting your order down the street to the local coffee cart on the corner, or enjoying a carefully prepared cup in an upscale coffee house, Vietnamese coffee is meant to be savored and enjoyed to the max.

One reason is the time it takes to brew a cup. Vietnamese coffee is not for the rushy-rushy. Single servings are brewed through a simple metal filter called a Phin, which takes a good 5-10 minutes to produce a cup. The filter is fitted over the top of a cup, or glass (if you’re making iced coffee), the grounds are placed inside the filter (about the same size grind as what you would use for a French press), a small weighted piece is placed on top, and then hot water is poured into the chamber.

vietnamese coffee phin filter
Vietnamese coffee, Phin filter

Another reason to approach the experience with leisure is simply the heavenly flavor. Like espresso, Vietnamese coffee is deep and rich, and a little goes a long way. What makes it really stand out though in my mind, is its incredible buttery aroma and flavor. It wasn’t until I bought some roasted beans from a mom-and-pop coffee/tea shop that I learned why exactly the coffee tasted so buttery — you got it, it’s because the beans are actually roasted in clarified butter! Brilliant.

As if that doesn’t sound decadent enough, sweetened condensed milk is typically used in lieu of cream and sugar both for practical reasons (it doesn’t have to be refrigerated) and for taste (Have you had sweetened condensed milk lately? Think creamy, thick, dulce de leche goodness…in your coffee…everyday!). This is why Vietnamese coffee is a habit I could really get used to.

iced vietnamese coffee
Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da)

In Saigon, with so much fantastic coffee everywhere we turned, it was tough to be too discriminating. So, I left it to the locals to show me the way. Vietnam is a country of food-lovers and total coffee addicts. My favorite conversation starter was asking a local: Where is the best food in town? People would bubble over with recommendations and loved talking about their favorite food, where to get it, and how to eat it. Everyone had an opinion.

One afternoon, over a Lazy Susan laden with dim sum, an impassioned discussion over the most delectable banh xeo, the silkiest tofu, the best hand-pulled noodles with half a crab on top, turned into a full-on debate over where to grab coffee afterward. One fellow named Nguyen insisted, “The best coffee is at my sister’s place,” and after a few nods of acquiescence from his accompanying friends, we were off to taste for ourselves if he was indeed correct.

We hopped on our motorbikes and went caravanning off through the maze of commuters. Put-putting over main highways, over to District 7 we went…on a mission for the perfect Ca Phe Sua Da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). It was spontaneous, exhilarating, and as the wind whipped through my hair, I couldn’t help but envision Anthony Bourdain’s crew on our tracks, kicking up some dust behind us.

saigon motorbikes
Saigon Motorbike Ebb and Flow

What we came upon was a breezy little oasis of an internet cafe, tucked away amongst sprawling new developments and construction sites. The cafe itself is called Goc Peo, but the main signage outside speaks to the main reason for visiting — the rich and aromatic Trung Nguyen coffee served.

coffee time at trung nguyen
Coffee time at Trung Nguyen

Trung Nguyen seems to have made a nice business for itself, their chains and signs are all over Saigon, as well as the airport gift shop, and while the prices are expensive by Vietnamese standards, they are still relatively cheap by US standards (a cup of their famous “Legendee Coffee” was about $2 USD). Incidentally, Trung Nguyen has a pretty comprehensive website that explains all about what defines Vietnamese coffee and makes it unique, namely:

1) The topography of the Annamite Range has allowed for a diverse variety of beans to flourish in Southeast Asia. By blending a variety of bean species (Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Catimor) rather than sticking to a single-source (like 100% Arabica), a broader flavor range is achieved.
2) A lower-temperature, longer roasting process that is stable and consistent.
3) Roasting the beans in clarified butter.

Another interesting fact I learned about Trung Nguyen’s coffee is that they produce what they call their Legendee Coffee, a “unique enzymatically-treated coffee that releases flavors bound in the beans and not released under ordinary processing.” The Legendee Coffee was what Nguyen brought us to taste. Read more about the Legend of Legendee and how modern science has attempted to reproduce the infamously expensive (and kinda gross) Kopi Luwak coffee, made with the help of the weasel-like civit.

My final verdict? The Legendee was worth experiencing, although a little intense for me to want to drink on a daily basis.

iced vietnamese coffee at trung nguyen
Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Trung Nguyen

Regardless, it was a joy to spend an afternoon in pursuit of the perfect cup with company who really loved their coffee. Company who loved it so much, they continued on their way, buzzing away to the next cup as we rookie tourists bid farewell.

ADDRESS

Goc Peo
So 16 Duong 8B, KDC Trung Son
Nguyen Van Cu noi dai – TP. Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam

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Category: asian food and drink, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, tea and coffee, travel

About the Author ()

Stephanie Hua is the creator of Lick My Spoon, a place for all things delicious. So far she has learned that she very much enjoys salted caramel anything, a good soup dumpling is worth a scalded tongue, and there is no room in life for non-fat cheese and crappy chocolate. Also, a barrel of cheese balls never ends well. Stephanie has been known to choose her company based on how much they can pack it down. Ability to endure cramped quarters, sketchy back alleys, and uncharted paths to seek out that special dish is also a plus in her book. If you fit the criteria, drop a note. You’ll probably get along just fine. Stephanie's writing and photography have been featured in Fodor's Travel, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Serious Eats, and Sundance Channel. Follow her on Facebook and @lickmyspoon.
  • http://lickmyspoon.com Stephanie Im

    For a taste of Vietnam in SF, I’ve had some great Vietnamese coffee in Little Saigon. Try a cup to go with your banh mi at Saigon Sandwich (560 Larkin St, between Eddy St & Turk St), or before your pho fix at Bodega Bistro (607 Larkin St, between Eddy St & Willow St). I’m sure there are many more I haven’t discovered yet. Open for suggestions!

  • Levan

    Good press! I can also feel the flavor and aroma of a cup of Ca Phe Sua Da!
    P/S: The coffee shop named is “Goc Pho”, not ” Goc Peo” as your mentioned. It’s Vietnamese name meant “The corner” – because of it’s place!

  • Jane H

    Stephanie, Please come see us at The Pho Bar in Berkeley (www.thephobar.com). We’re located in the hills and we serve up authentic Vietnamese street foods based on my family’s recipes having grown up in Vietnam. We would love to meet you. Jane