Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee beans, with a caffeine culture that’s as distinct as that of any other place in the world. It may not obsessed over by American coffee geeks like Italy with its precisely pulled espresso or Australia with its flat whites, but whatever: It’s doing more than just fine by itself. Take the country’s coconut coffee.
Served hot or cold, it’s a dreamy drink, the bitter, earthy beans mellowed out but also enhanced by the milk’s slightly sweet, lush flavor. A good one makes you wonder what’s going wrong in all those American cafés where coconut milk has mostly served to convince customers it doesn’t belong with coffee. Coconut coffee, on the other hand, is the sort of thing you can imagine gulping down when it’s sticky-hot and 90 degrees — and with summer staring New York down, you just may. The distinct drink is now being served by Nguyen Coffee Supply at Cafe Phin, New York’s first Vietnamese café from what is purported to be the country’s first specialty importer of Vietnamese coffee. There, the coconut milk is mixed with a little condensed milk for sweetness, and whole milk.
Named for the French-style siphon with which Vietnamese coffee is traditionally made, the café occupies one of two bars at the Lower East Side’s An Choi. It’s a daytime-only operation, open bright and early Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. (It’s also cashless, a policy which has caused controversy at other businesses.) Both the café and the company are the brainchild of the multitalented and energetic Sahra Nguyen. A graceful talker, she bubbles over with excitement when she pulls the lid off a family-sized phin to check out what’s brewing. “Do you see it bloom? It looks like a brownie,” she says.
Nguyen came to coffee in a roundabout way; before launching NCS in November she self-published a book of poetry, ran a production company, created a web series for NBC News, and co-founded Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen. The coffee she imports from Vietnam, roasts in Brooklyn, and serves in Manhattan is the coffee that I — as someone who likes medium roasts that aren’t overly acidic or burnt to bitterness — had been looking for. (“Yes, I’m personally not a fan of really high-acidic coffee or citrus coffee,” says Nguyen. “That was a very big trend, it’s not for me.”) All the coffee is brewed by phin here, and the family-sized ones are used to brew batches for specialty drinks. This brewing method gives the coffee a particular flavor as much as any other does. At Cafe Phin, both of the available blends are offered unadulterated and brewed using the phin, either black (cà phê đen) or with condensed milk (cà phê sữa, or cà phê sữa đá). Nguyen prefers and makes hers less sweet, with half an ounce of condensed milk.
A well-made Vietnamese coffee is caramel-y and refreshing — there’s a reason people obsess over it. But the standard preparation is just the cusp of the coffee culture in Vietnam, where you’ll find you’ll find creative drinks like Hanoi’s famous egg coffee, in which egg yolks are whipped with condensed milk; cà phê sữa chua, or yogurt topped with coffee; and smoothies blended with tropical fruit. At Cafe Phin, there’s a version of the frothy Italian shakerato, which Nguyen makes with sea salt and which she decided to put on the menu after visiting a café in Saigon that served a version of the drink. But Nguyen’s contribution to this canon of unique drinks is her ube iced latte, a strikingly photogenic dose of caffeine.
Ube is “a popular purple yam mostly in Filipino culture, but my family eats it a lot. I thought it’d go really well with the robusta beans, because it has a sweet flavor and balances out the nutty profile,” Nguyen says. The yam gives the drink — which mixes ube extract, vanilla extract, simple syrup, and coconut milk — its seductively purple color,. It’s a thoroughly thought-out drink, just one that plays with coffee rather than exalts its traditions. “I’ve always been a huge coffee drinker. To be honest, I wasn’t a very refined coffee drinker before I started researching and working on NCF,” Nguyen admits.
Cafe Phin at An Choi, 85 Orchard St., at Broome St.