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A Vietnamese Coffee Movement Is Brewing Across America

When chef Thai Dang set about opening Beard-nominated Vietnamese kitchen HaiSous, in Chicago back in 2017, he also planned for an attached all-day coffee and street food bar called Cà Phê Dá (“coffee with ice”). So, as is common practice in a diasporic community, Dang, a one-time refugee, asked around and found a sister-in-law whose family had been growing coffee on a small plot of land in the southeastern province of Đồng Nai. “This was old-school roasting with no fancy machinery—they roasted the coffee over old rambutan trees,” he says of the ramshackle operation. “I didn’t want to ship in raw beans and roasting gear. I wanted to keep that same flavor profile, a deep roast, that my sister’s family had been doing for 30 years. It’s the caramel-y notes; it’s the butteriness. These are the characteristics that make Vietnamese coffee what it is.”

But it wasn’t just Vietnam’s beans that Dang was importing—it was also its traditional beverages. The drinks menu, created by Dang’s wife and business partner, Danielle, draws inspiration from the couple’s travels in Southeast Asia, running the gamut from simple drip coffee with condensed milk (cà phê sữa đá) to Hanoian-style egg custard coffee (cà phê trứng) and a traditional coffee with yogurt (cà phê sữa chua), which the duo makes in-house.

HaiSous and its restaurant contemporaries, including New York’s Madame Vo and Minneapolis’ Hai Hai, helped usher in a golden age of Vietnamese cuisine that built on the foundation first laid by the earlier mom-and-pop noodle houses and sandwich shops. The popularity of modernized phở, bánh mì, and lesser-known regional dishes, in turn, opened the minds of food writers and consumers alike to broader notions of Vietnamese food and drink. Now, as businesses slowly come back to life, there’s a fully caffeinated Vietnamese coffee movement sweeping America. And with specialty Vietnamese beans meeting precision brewing and freewheeling ingredient innovation, there’s never been a better time to drink cà phê.

Bao Nguyen, owner of Phin in Seattle.

Some might say it was a long time coming: In 2001, Vietnam quietly became the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, behind Brazil, as well as the largest producer of robusta, the cheaper but heartier counterpart to arabica. Much of this export historically went to large corporations like Nestlé for use in instant mixes and flavorings. So even as Vietnamese coffee (the drink, made with condensed milk) spilled into mainstream consciousness, Vietnamese coffee (the beans, broader history, and culture) remained inaccessible and out of the conversation.

“It’s something we ask ourselves all the time: ‘How do we define Vietnamese coffee?’ ” says Bao Nguyen, the owner of Seattle’s Phin, a modern café where everything is brewed using the traditional slow-drip phin filter. “For some, it could mean coffee from Vietnam. And then for others it could just mean cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. For us, Vietnamese coffee is anything made with Vietnamese beans and brewed with the phin. That’s what makes it stand out.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until younger Vietnamese Americans—some who fled Vietnam as children, and others who were born here—came of age that Vietnamese coffee found English-speaking, digitally savvy ambassadors to truly bring it stateside. Leveraging American business know-how and tapping familial networks in an increasingly open Vietnam, half a dozen first-generation Vietnamese coffee roasters have popped up across the U.S., including Austin’s Phin Coffee Club, Chicago’s Fat Miilk, San Jose’s Omni Bev, Philadelphia’s Càphê Roasters, and New York City’s Nguyen Coffee Supply. (Disclaimer: I’ve consulted for some of these brands).

“I’m super excited about this development of Vietnamese coffee roasters in the U.S.,” says Bao Nguyen, who tried several brands and is currently sourcing from Phin Coffee Club. “It’s given me more options and more varieties. And I know there are more coming in Portland and California. I’m excited to try them all and share them. Even when we say Vietnamese coffee, there’s such a wide range because every roaster brings their own creativity and taste to their work.”

Nguyen’s menu at Phin skews largely traditional, but modernizing touches speak to post–Third Wave consumer preferences. Though older, Chinatown-area Vietnamese restaurants have long used phins to brew milk coffee, it’s not typically done with much intention. By contrast, at Phin, coffee goes through a precision grinder, and the heat of the water used to brew is regulated via a temperature-controlled kettle. Even the condensed milk is house-made. “I didn’t want to change a timeless recipe,” Nguyen says. “It’s already perfect, so once we set the parameters of coffee in a phin, we started looking for ways to play around with it and offer something more.”

That’s not to say Phin only offers one Vietnamese coffee style. Like Dang, Nguyen also slings a version of a yogurt coffee, this one inspired by that of the famed Tractor Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). The yogurt, which he makes fresh in-house, is the traditional, tangy kind: a relic of French colonialism like many modern Vietnamese foods, made by fermenting both milk and sweetened condensed milk for a sour and sweet treat. Another borrowed French staple, flan, comes topped with shards of shaved coffee ice. It’s a welcome diversity of options that speaks to a more comprehensive understanding of Vietnamese coffee culture. “Like Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamese coffee has adhered to an oversimplified, singular narrative of representation,” explains Tu David Phu, a first-generation Vietnamese American chef raised in Oakland who competed on Top Chef, season 15. “Most people think Vietnamese coffee refers to one specific coffee style. In actuality, Vietnamese coffee encompasses an entire coffee culture with a lot of different styles.”

Just a few blocks away from Phin at Hello Em in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood, the approach to Vietnamese coffee is decidedly more experimental—although the story has roots at one of the city’s oldest classic Vietnamese restaurants. Co-owner Yenvy Pham is one of three siblings who now own and operate Pho Bac Sup Shop, the legendary boat-shaped noodle shop first opened by their parents in 1982. Along with co-owner Nghia Bui, Pham expanded to coffee with this new-school Vietnamese roastery serving drinks like a cà phê mây (“cloud coffee”), a lighter egg coffee variation that folds in the typically discarded egg whites, and a bright kumquat-and-cream coffee inspired by the orange-zested Cafe Nico from the nearby Seattle coffee mainstay, Espresso Vivace.

All the creativity notwithstanding, the duo is also committed to exclusively spotlighting beans from Vietnam. “We’re not a 100 percent Vietnamese coffee shop—we stay true to our identity, both Vietnamese and American,” Bui says. “But we do want to focus on bringing in beans directly from Vietnam. There’s value in it; there’s benefit for our people. And the Vietnamese beans are not bad quality, like people used to think they were. It’s just underrepresented.”

To that end, Bui and Pham took a trip to the highlands of Buôn Ma Thuột to establish their sourcing, assisted by Bui’s family, who’ve worked in coffee for years. In addition to seeking arabica beans, they also hunted down a premium robusta—wanting to showcase the often maligned bean in a more positive light. After all, it’s the robusta profile that’s endemic to and synonymous with Vietnam—and it’s largely the palates of foreigners who’ve deemed it inferior.

But a new generation is decolonizing the reputation of robusta. “Our flagship offering is a standard Vietnamese iced coffee made with robusta,” says Erik Quiocho, the Filipino American co-founder of Kasama Cà Phê, with Vietnamese American Kevin Ho Nguyen. The Bay Area pop-up spotlights Southeast Asian coffees like the Đà Lạt-grown robusta from Brooklyn-based Nguyen Coffee Supply. “We wanted to pay homage to that brewing method and champion that flavor profile as our standard offering.”

The same robusta is also the default bean at Kansas City’s beloved Cafe Cà Phê coffee truck. Owner Jackie Nguyen, an actor who previously toured with the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, uses it for all of her espresso and drip coffee–based drinks. These include a classic cà phê sữa đá called The Saigon, as well as the mocha-and-rose Paris by Night Latte, a cheekily named ode to the popular, multi-hour Vietnamese music and variety show that every Vietnamese American remembers on TV at home, at restaurants, and in barbershops. You really had to be there. “My recipe creation process was totally selfish—it’s all the flavors and things I love,” Nguyen says. “And as for the names, I kept thinking, ‘What would I find funny or cute?’ And Paris by Night is an inside joke for Vietnamese people. I asked all my Vietnamese friends if I should name it that, and they said 1,000 percent.”

It’s worth noting that while Vietnamese coffee-inspired drinks—those mixed with sweetened condensed milk—have popped up on many café menus over the years, it’s only been very recently that these establishments were being operated by proprietors of Vietnamese heritage, let alone offering beans from Vietnam. But it’s that proximity to the culture, and a sense of community, that define this new generation of Vietnamese cafés—whether they’re serving drinks that are more traditional or entirely new. “It’s not just understanding the origin of the beans— there’s more. There’s a story behind it,” Jackie Nguyen explains. “Coffee is a huge part of Vietnamese culture. There are coffee shops everywhere. It’s old men sitting around for hours, smoking cigarettes, and sharing stories about their day at work. I wanted a space that would showcase the flavors as well as the culture.” The space in question? The Cafe Cà Phê truck recently completed a residency inside the Firebrand Collective, a female- focused co-working space in Kansas City.

And there’s more to Vietnamese coffee culture than just the way it’s made—it’s how it’s enjoyed. In Vietnam, coffee can be fast, but it tends to be a more leisurely affair. It’s the act of waiting for a slow-drip coffee brewed through a phin, rather than stopping for a two-minute grab and go, or conversations shared over a late afternoon coffee that rolls into dinner. It’s inherently social. And Vietnamese cafés are hubs of daily life and interaction.

For the team at Hello Em, the social component is built-in, literally: The coffee shop sits inside of and collaborates with the Friends of Saigon Creative, a community gathering space for a local nonprofit servicing Seattle’s sizable Vietnamese enclave. Meanwhile for Jackie Nguyen in Kansas City, with an Asian population of less than 3 percent, building community meant becoming an ambassador not just for Vietnamese coffee but the Asian community at-large. Following the tragic events in Atlanta in March, Cafe Cà Phê hosted a Stop Asian Hate vigil with hundreds of attendees, including U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, joining Nguyen in lighting Vietnamese incense to commemorate the lives lost.

“In actuality, Vietnamese coffee encompasses an entire coffee culture with a lot of different styles.” —Tu David Phu

Like brewing coffee in a phin, growing a community is a daily practice—a labor of love that requires patience and education. “We take every opportunity to educate customers who may not be too familiar with Vietnamese coffee or just have a surface-level understanding,” Quiocho says. “We’re here to amplify and reposition Southeast Asian coffee as a serious player in the space. Our customers aren’t just Asian Americans. We’ve had the opportunity to connect with a diverse audience and cultivate a small but strong community that shares a passion for Southeast Asian coffee.”

As more players enter the Vietnamese coffee space, chef Tu David Phu believes it will become increasingly diverse, showcasing more farms, roasting styles, and brewing techniques—akin to terroir-driven agave spirits. “I predict Vietnamese coffee culture will be the ‘mezcal of the coffee industry,’ ” he says. “There is a distinct approach and style to coffee culture that is uniquely Vietnamese. But, most importantly, it’s irresistibly delicious.”

Indeed, for Vietnamese cafés like Hello Em and Cà Phê Dá that are already importing their own beans, potential opportunities await. When asked if he would ever consider packaging and selling his own beans, chef Thai Dang says, knowingly, “I can’t confirm or deny anything, but it’s been very exciting to see this new coffee movement, and to be a part of it would be even better. Especially during this time, this is something good for our people.”

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