Coffee Chronicles: Vietnamese Coffee Converts The Purist

"If the iced version was blended and topped with whipped cream, it could knock a Frappuccino out of the park."

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[Photographs: Allison Hemler]

The thought of putting an inch of half-and-half and three sugar packets into eight ounces of coffee is a terrible enough thought to turn me onto tea permanently. Or so I thought, until I had my first cup of Vietnamese ca phe sua nong, disturbingly strong black coffee with a layer of sweetened condensed milk.

This weekend, we visited The Viet Nam Restaurant in Spring Valley, New York—thirty minutes outside of New York City, and the only restaurant on Main Street which seemed to be full on a Saturday night. A drive through the "downtown"—if it can be called that, since nothing was open and every other store was for ren—will assure you it lacks any appealing food or coffee options other than IHOP or our hotel, which served Fairfield Inn's "Bold Beginnings" brew. Yuck.

Intending to find some alcoholic cure for suburban misery on the menu, I instead discovered the "Ca Phe" section, and ordered one cup hot (ca phe sua nong), one cup iced (ca phe sua den, each $3.50). The drinks came to the table in white porcelain cups topped with metal filters filled with boiling water. The grind inside appeared to be similar to an auto-drip and probably measured about 2-3 tablespoons for six ounces of water. The thin layer of sweetened condensed milk sat at the bottom of the porcelain cup, to be stirred before drinking.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

My first sip followed dishes of goi cuon (spring rolls filled with shrimp), banh mi, com ga xao xa ot (lemongrass chicken and rice), and bun xao do chay (sauteed mixed vegetables with tofu on vermicelli noodles). Chili powder, fish sauce, and onions don't usually leave one wanting a cup of coffee, but for a first taste, one doesn't need a perfect pairing. It's not often a cup of brewed coffee can stand up to milk and sugar and still taste as strong as it was prepared, but this was something different.

According to various recipes across the web, it should be made with double the amount of coffee you're used to—and it was very clear that my version would've been nearly undrinkable without the milk. I didn't want to like its sweetness, but found it strangely addictive—dangerous, when you calculate the caffeine content.

Within a minute, my companion's iced coffee was gone, as the ice further dilutes the strength of the coffee. Our waitress said the coffee was her favorite drink to sit and linger with, both morning and evening. However, I saw it more as a dessert drink, especially if it was scalding hot. If the iced version was blended and topped with whipped cream, it could knock a Frappuccino out of the park.

Making Vietnamese Coffee at Home

Any Vietnamese restaurant will have the concoction, but the preparation may vary as much as a latte will at any cafe around New York. The drink can be made at home just as easily. The metal filter can be found easily in an Asian grocery store or a number of online outlets, but a similar strength can be accomplished with stove-top espresso. Friends tell me many Vietnamese restaurants in the United States use Cafe du Monde preground coffee with chicory, but a good espresso blend or any beans that lack acidity should work. In my dreams we'd all make our own sweetened condensed milk, but restaurants that sell huge plates of food for $6 may not stray from the canned variety. And stay far, far away from the restaurants that premix the coffee for you. Most of the fun comes from stirring the milk at the bottom, lifting your spoon, and letting the thick globs drip off.

Some NYC-area recommendations:

Nha Trang One, 87 Baxter Street (b/n Walker Street and White Street), Manhattan
Viet-Nam Banh Mi So 1, 369 Broome Street (b/n Elizabeth Street and Mott Street), Manhattan
Hanco's, 85 Bergen Street (b/n Hoyt Street and Smith Street), Brooklyn
Ba Xuyen, 4222 8th Avenue (at 43rd Street), Brooklyn
Nha Trang Place, 249 Newark Avenue (at Coles Street), Jersey City, NJ

And if you happen to be in Rockland County:

The Viet Nam, 304A North Main Street (at Eckerson Road), Spring Valley, NY

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