Thursday, March 26, 2009

Make Way for Trung Nguyen

Lately, as I consider my career direction and the options I currently have, I can’t help thinking how satisfying it would be to open and operate my own café. In fact, I got pretty close to doing this back in 2005 when I flew from Saigon to Osaka, Japan, and convinced the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) to support my plan to open a “writer’s café” in Kyoto. I had a 50-page business plan and was looking forward to running the café out of a traditional wooden townhouse called a machiya.

Wouldn't it be nice to have your morning coffee in a place like this?

Ah, but it wasn’t meant to be. At least not in 2005. Maybe it was good that I didn’t go forward with it, seeing how the global economic situation has migrated south and will probably remain there for at least a couple more years. In Hawaii it doesn’t make sense to consider opening a writer’s café since commercial rents are through the roof and hardly anyone here seems to have a serious enough interest in writing to support this particular concept. (Or maybe they do have the interest but must work so much to afford living here that they’d never patronize it.)

All this leads me toward the subject of coffee.

I’m not a huge coffee drinker, though that’s less a matter of choice than it is of constitution. I love the stuff, but can’t handle more than two cups of it a day, and usually make do with a single, steaming mug of it in the morning. Like many people I know, my coffee habit began in college. Back then I always drank it with milk and sugar, but when I moved to Vietnam I immediately got hooked on it with plenty of white sugary sludge mixed in – sweetened condensed milk, in other words.

In the last few years, however, I’ve learned to drink it black. Now that I have it this way, I'm convinced that this is how coffee is meant to be enjoyed -- with nothing to interfere with the full-bodied flavor of roasted ground beans. I don’t drink any of the specialty items that Starbucks has come up with, as they’re so dressed up that they resemble desserts in paper cups more than anything else. And for the $5 I have to pony up for one of them I could just as easily buy an entire three-week supply of what I consider to be the best coffee available to me in Hawaii: Trung Nguyen (pronounced choong win).

(What about Kona coffee? For me, it’s too acidic and short on flavor, and I can’t justify paying so much for it. Unless I want a 10% Kona blend, which I don't -- ever -- the real thing costs between five and seven times what I pay for Vietnamese coffee.)

If you haven’t tried Trung Nguyen coffee, you really should make a point to if it's available where you live. In Honolulu, the only place I've found it is in Chinatown, but since there are so many Vietnamese groceries and foodstuffs there it's easily found. Trung Nguyen is strong stuff, somewhere between regular black coffee and straight espresso, which is why it goes so beautifully with sweetened condensed milk (and yes, I do make exceptions and drink this sometimes!). Rather than having to settle for the unsatisfying combination of sugary milk and weak coffee, you get complementary flavors that you just can’t get with anything else.

In Vietnam, Trung Nguyen's drinks menu is extensive; their list of coffees not only has translations of the kinds of beans that are used but also a thorough description of how they're expressed on the palate. Trung Nguyen is also famous for ca phe chon, or “civet coffee.” It's said that some coffee plantations actually feed civets coffee beans and then collect the partially digested remains from the animals' excrement and use them for this specialized blend, though Trung Nguyen's website explains that this is a former practice, not a current one. In any case, ca phe chon is robust, deeply bitter, and, yes, also quite clean. It goes best with sweetened condensed milk, becoming almost chocolaty when the two are combined, and is the most expensive item in the Trung Nguyen coffee line. Although I just finished my last ca phe chon from a recent trip to Vietnam, I’m not at all unhappy to return to the more quotidian “Gourmet Blend.”

$5 will buy you 500 g (1.1 lbs) of Vietnamese coffee

It’s worth noting that Trung Nguyen has cleared room for itself in the crowded café landscapes of Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand, and I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before we see it in LA and NYC…and doing extremely well in those places. In Vietnam, Trung Nguyen is seemingly everywhere, running the gamut from provincial holes-in-the-wall to seriously upscale and hip coffeehouses. Other competitors like Highlands Café, though consistently upscale themselves, just don’t compare (although Highlands does serve beer, which earns it an upward tick on my review scale).

Trung Nguyen Cafe on Tran Hung Dao Street in District One, Saigon

Highlands Cafe in District Seven, Saigon

For directions on how to make Vietnamese coffee with a Vietnamese slow-drip filter, visit this comprehensive blog entry at Wandering Chopsticks:

A regular coffee maker should work just as well as a one-cup filter, though you'll want to experiment at first with how much coffee you use. My only word of advice is to forego Café Du Monde’s “French Roast with Chicory” blend, which the above link recommends, and which virtually every Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S. uses, and opt instead for Trung Nguyen. I think you'll find that there’s a world of difference between the two.

Ca phe sua da at a Trung Nguyen Cafe in Saigon

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  1. A writer’s café sounds like such a neat idea! Maybe you can still make it happen? I love coffee and always drink it black. Wish I could try the Trung Nguyen coffee you are talking about - it sounds good!

  2. The world of coffee is just opening up to me now. I'm also starting to wean myself from milk and sugar (the former proved to be much easier to give up than the latter) and it's been a revelation. I can actually taste the differences between the various beans that we buy or have brought back from travels to South America and the Philippines! The first brew is always a test of the right combination of grounds and water.

    I recall that you'd mentioned having civet coffee and the fact that you're content with Trung Nguyen's Gourmet Blend is a ringing endorsement of this coffee. I wonder if I can find it at one of the Asian markets here? I hope so - from your description, it sounds delicious.

  3. Oh, I forgot to say: I hope you haven't given up on your idea of a writer's cafe! It's a marvelous idea and it's time will surely come for you.

  4. vietnamese coffee is too thick to my liking

  5. I've also often thought of opening a cafe, although in my imagination I'm still the waitress! I've always suspected all cafes were writer's cafes, or newspaper reader's cafes, or book lover's cafes. I think that might just be a reflection of what I do in a cafe when I am not working though!

    Although the idea of writing a great American novel seems to base itself around a Starbucks, I have every confidence that you can change that.

  6. I never used to be a coffee drinker... then I spent several months in San Fran chillin' with serious coffee drinkers who introduced me to "real coffee", that is to say properly roasted and brewed fresh coffee and espresso drinks.
    I really enjoy Vietnamese style coffee, but my favorite is still a deep dark espresso, piping hot, bitter as hell, with that slight oily sheen on the top.
    Oh, also, I avoid starbucks at all costs- I mean, what the hell is going on with their "macchiato"? Last I checked, it's espresso with foam, not cafe latte with flavored syrup and whipped cream.

  7. I live in Hobart, Tasmania (you might need to Google that it is fairly remote, ha ha) and we used to have one Starbucks. Recently, it was shut down because no one ever went there.

    Turns out people really can vote with their feet. Hooray for Hobart and all the awesome switched on people who live here. Even if it is in the middle of no where.

  8. Indeed, I agree: a writer's café sounds so good,...maybe one day?
    My husband drinks his coffee allways black. He prefers the best coffee beans. He varies. We buy our coffee beans in a local coffee shop called Corica! It is the Best in Brussels! I drink my coffeewith hot milk: Koffie verkeerd, called in Dutch. It is a typical girld drink, I know. Great post, Sapuche!

  9. Couldn't agree more with your description of Starbucks' concoctions as desserts in paper cups.

    Thanks for the Vietnamese coffee recommendation. I've only had Café du Monde, so I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for Trung Nguyen.

    I sure hope your dream of running a writers' cafe comes true, Sapuche. Sounds like something that will give you much joy as well as monetary reward.

  10. A writer's or a reader's cafe sounds very good to me. I allways liked black coffe without sugar to enjoy the flavour and to recognize the blend. And the smell...hummm
    I will try to discover and buy your vietnamisse coffe here in Portugal.

  11. 5 Star Foodie: Thanks, and yes, perhaps one day I can give my café idea a shot. I hope you can find Trung Nguyen coffee where you live, though I’m not sure how widely it’s distributed around the U.S. If you find it and try it, let me know what you think!

    Tangled Noodle: That’s awesome that you got to bring back fresh coffee beans from South America and the Philippines. I’m really curious about coffee culture in the Philippines. My sense is that Vietnam has more cafes per capita than any other country in the world (one reason why I love it there), and I’m surprised that the “importance” of coffee in places like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos pales in comparison. And yes, I was disappointed to learn that the civet coffee I bought at Trung Nguyen wasn’t actual coffee made from beans pooped out of a civet. I’ll just have to buy my own civet and experiment at home with Hawaiian coffee beans. :) I’m pretty sure you can find Trung Nguyen in Minneapolis, seeing how the Vietnamese population there is fairly sizeable. And thank you for your encouragement about my café idea. I hope the time comes soon!

    Btw, do you think there’s a particular brand of Filipino coffee I might be able to find in Hawaii? I’d love to try it!

    Foodbin: Sorry to hear you’re not a fan of Vietnamese coffee. It may take some getting used to!

    Maggie: I’ve never been to Hobart, but my parents have. They loved it there! That’s amazing that the one Starbucks in Hobart was closed because of a lack of customers. It seems like the only place in the world where that has happened – maybe it’ll start a trend! Are there other big coffee chains there, like Gloria Jeans? (They’re in Vietnam now, though Starbucks has yet to open there.)

    I think you’re right that a café by its nature is a gathering place for people who like to read and write, but my idea was to make it something like a kind of “writer’s colony” full of writing resources, separate writing spaces, and good coffee and eats. Oh well, maybe one day. Thanks for your kind words and encouragement!

    Sweet Charity: San Fran’ll do that to you! I wish I liked straight up espresso, but I find it’s a little too strong. Maybe I need to hang out with your San Fran friends so that I, too, can acquire a taste for it. The other problem is that I’m not really a “sipping type” of guy, which is too bad because I’d often like to enjoy my food and drink slowly rather than dump it down my throat like a caveman. Glad to hear you avoid Starbucks. I was actually given whipped cream on a black coffee there once. They told me they automatically do that unless the customer tells them in advance that they don’t want it…Eh? Huh? Wha?

    Sophie: I’ve never been to Belgium, so I don’t know what kind of coffee is readily available there…but I’m sure that in Brussels you can get the good stuff! I’ll put Corica down on my list of places to go in Belgium some day – I appreciate the recommendation! Ah, I see that koffie verkeerd is Dutch for “latte” – actually, that sounds good right now, too!

    Leela: I hope you can find Trung Nguyen where you live. And thank you for your wishes that I can open a writers’ café one day. I doubt it would offer much monetary reward, but I think it would give me a lot of joy like you said! If you find Trung Nguyen, by the way, I’d be curious to know what you think of it!

    Borboleta Africana: Yes, the smell of fresh coffee is one of the best smells there is! I have no idea if there’s a large Vietnamese population in Portugal, but if you have a Chinatown then you may be able to find Trung Nguyen in one of its stores. I can’t remember the taste of the coffee I had in Portugal (about 12 years ago) but I loved the cafes I came across in Lisbon. It would be a wonderful place to open my café!

  12. I love drinking coffee... can drink the whole day only coffee, hehehe....

    I usually drink Vietnamese coffee only when I have lunch at Vietnamese restaurant (don't dare to drink it late).

    So to pronounce 'nguyen' is 'win'? Interesting.

    Indonesia is ranking number 4 for coffee in the world, we have a lot kind of famous authentic coffee like Toraja coffee, Bali coffee, but too bad that the promotion of our coffee isn't really good to make it well known worldwide.

  13. I love the idea of a writer's cafe! Too bad we don't have one over here. =(

    Love the way you describe the Trung Nguyen coffee...makes me want to have it like now!! >D

  14. Great post, and I love the idea of a writers' cafe - I cannot think of a more magical place to have it than in Kyoto, but I am sure where ever you find the place - it will be perfect for that time.

    I have to say, seeing the civit coffee caught my eye, and I really enjoyed the post and your impressions. I think that is what I love so much about food and the way blogging has opening up the exploration - it means something different for everyone.

    I confess to liking my coffee with a little milk, but I agree too many additions disguise the flavor. I've often thought it would be fun to have a coffee tasting - like a wine tasting party to sample side by side the different varieties of coffee and learn to understand the different nuances that come to light.

  15. You've made me homesick (although I can't claim truly claim VN as home) for good vietnamese coffee slow dripped into a thick sludge of condensed milk. That may not be the way coffee is meant to be, but it sure hits the spot.

  16. I was in Vietnam once, about 11 years ago, and I distinctly remember how good the standard of coffee was, even the stuff you would get in out of the way places. I would have my doubts about being able to get Trung Nguyen here in Ireland but I will have a looksee in my local Asian supermarkets, just in case!

  17. I started working on a biz plan to start a cafe. Got cold feet while looking location and decided to wait until the kids grow. maybe a bed and breakfast closer to retiremtn is my plan B. Good luck!

  18. What a interesting story. I have ambitions to open a bakery or cafe of my own someday, but also have ambitions to be financially stable and have enough money saved when I do it. So it could be a while. :)

    Thanks so much for the coffee recommendation. I have had Kona and I was equally unimpressed. I still rate Blue Mountain from Jamaica the best in the world.

    How good a coffee is for me depends greatly on how you are supposed to drink it in a particular location. I've enjoyed exploring Brazilian coffee although I've been told the very best stuff is exported. The thing is it is meant to be taken almost in a shot so not the kind to linger around with me while I'm at the computer. And holy moly do they add the sweetener. Some you get around in the little thermos at shops I can barely get down. I tend to find a favorite almost every were I go. In Vienna I was a big fan Julius Meinl. Now I have to find this Trung Nguyen. Great post!

  19. I hope you do find Filipino coffee in Hawai'i! 'Cafe de Lipa' seems to be the most well-known indigenous brand. Others are Cafe Amadeo and Pan de Manila (this one is actually a bakery chain). Lipa and Amadeo are out of the Batangas and Cavite provinces respectively, where coffee production is really starting to take off and the beans used are the same species (Liberica?) found in Thailand and Vietnam. In the meantime, I'm going to look for Trung Nguyen on our next foray to the market!

    If you do get that civet cat, can I buy a share? Otherwise, our only other option would be force-feeding some poor squirrel, which probably wouldn't go over well with PETA or the SPCA!

  20. Can I travel with you please? I am very strong and carry luggage well. Also, remind me to tell you about my poke disaster in the San Fernando Valley, it is too fresh a loss to go into now...GREG

  21. Selba: Strangely, considering that Indonesia is one the world’s biggest coffee producers, it’s hard to find Indonesian coffee in the U.S. I had Balinese coffee, and it was beautiful – we were shown how villagers hand-picked their own, roasted the beans, and made it into the freshest coffee I’ve ever had. It was amazing, really. I hope Indonesian coffee becomes better known soon! And I’m with you about drinking coffee too late in the day – no more after 3 pm, though I should probably cut my consumption after noon. Insomnia, yaaaa!

    Bangsar-bAbE: I wonder how a writer’s café would do in Malaysia. Is their a serious literary scene there? There aren’t a lot of Malaysian authors available here, so I have no idea. Now, enough reading -- go get yourself some good coffee!

    Oysterculture: Yes, it would have been nice to open a café in a place like Kyoto, but maybe the future will give me a second chance there! I wholeheartedly agree with you about how blogging has opened up food exploration in really interesting ways. It’s truly fascinating to see what food means to people from different parts of the world, or even from one’s own neighborhood – we all have different experiences, and thus different perspectives. I like your coffee-tasting idea, too. If you do this, please write and publish a post on it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Alan: It definitely hits the spot like that. I actually went out and bought some of that delicious sludge, knowing, I guess, that it just sometimes makes a busy afternoon pass more enjoyably. Thanks for the comment!

    Daily Spud: What brought you to Vietnam 11 years ago, and what places did you visit? You’re right about the high standard of quality of VN coffee all over the country. It’s always such a special pleasure to venture into some remote village and find a group of old Vietnamese men in French berets sitting around a table with small glasses of coffee. If there’s any sort of Vietnamese community where you live, there may be a chance to find Trung Nguyen. Good luck finding it!

    Nurit: I’m sorry to hear that you got cold feet over opening a café, but I’m sure that with children to take care of it would have been very difficult. It may be a good idea to wait until they’re grown, like you said, or try your bed-and-breakfast idea instead. Thanks for your comment!

    Lori: You’re right about how coffee differs in terms of how it’s drunk around the world. It’s really fascinating when you think about those differences! I’ve never been to Brazil, so I don’t know what the coffee culture there is like, but I’m sure that it’s infinitely explorable. I’ve learned to enjoy espresso, but I usually need sugar with it and can’t make it last long enough to enjoy for, say, half an hour while I work. It’s usually down the hatch in 45 seconds. Good luck getting to the point where you feel confident enough to open a bakery or café! I’m sure that time will come soon. Do you have an idea of where you might do it – in Brazil, for example?

    Tangled Noodle: Thank you for the coffee recommendation. I’m going to go on a “Café de Lipa” hunt this week sometime -- I think I know more or less where to find it. If they don’t carry it, I’m quite sure they’ll have other Filipino coffees. I’m also going to tuck away the great info you offered about the coffee-growing regions of the Philippines for whenever I finally travel there! I hope you’re able to locate Trung Nguyen in Minnesota. If you are, and if you end up buying some, let me know what you think of it! And sure, as soon as I figure out how I can abscond with a civet from the Honolulu Zoo I’ll put up shares online. You can count on a discount…

    Greg: Heh. Well, having someone to carry my luggage does sound tempting! And I’m definitely curious about your poke disaster in the San Fernando Valley. You can bet I’ll remind you to tell me about it! I’m always available to commiserate over a ruined poke experience.

  22. Well we are not big coffee drinkers either, but the scent of coffee is amazing. It's intoxicating! The experience of relaxing at a coffeehouse is very, very nice. It's all about the experience. But if you can suggest a nice coffee for the novice, that's nice too.

  23. I'm sharing this post with my friend who is quite obsessive about her coffee. What a great read. I agree about the Starbucks drinks - and when I occasionally break down to have one of their seasonal drinks, I always ask for only 1/4 of the mix-in. I like to taste the coffee and not have a cup of syrup to start my day. Have you tried illy coffee or espresso? My absolute favorite. I'm eager to try the Trung Nguyen if I can track it down.

  24. That would be really cool to open a place! Maybe in Taipei? I would be very curious to see if you could find some good Vietnamese food here...

  25. Just discovered your blog when Tangled Noodle mentioned your using rau ram in one of your recipes like I just did the other day. I travelled to Vietnam with my husband last year, and we couldn't believe how many Trung Nguyen coffees and hipster Highlands cafes there were - especially since we've been years back and there was nothing like it! I definitely prefer a more espresso-like flavor to my coffee - great post!

  26. Duo Dishes: I agree that the smell of fresh coffee is intoxicating, and it’s hard to imagine a place I’d rather relax in than a café. Okay, that doesn’t include the beach, but…As for a nice coffee for the novice, I think Trung Nguyen is pretty excellent, but everyone’s tastes are different. As Bread and Jam notes in her comment above, Illy is a good quality coffee. It’s a bit pricey, but it tends to be really mellow and smooth. Thanks for your comment!

    Bread and Jam: I’m glad to hear you liked this post enough to share with your friend! I have no problem with Starbucks per se – I think they’re an environmentally friendly, and socially progressive, corporation -- relatively, anyway -- but they also have the nasty habit of putting independently run coffeehouses out of business. I still go there sometimes, though. I think your habit of getting only a partial mix-in is smart. As you said, who wants a cup of syrup to start the day? :) I have tried Illy coffee and like it. It’s a bit pricey, and I’ve had bad experiences in Illy Cafes in Vietnam and Japan, so I tend not to buy their product out of a childish, still-simmering resentment. :) Good luck finding Trung Nguyen!

    Joanh: Well, I have to admit that it’s crossed my mind to open a writer’s café in Taipei, but it would have to be after living there for some time to see if the concept would even work. I didn’t find any Vietnamese food in Taipei while I was there, but I did run into a couple of Vietnamese women working in a Taiwanese restaurant! If there aren’t many Vietnamese restaurants in Taipei, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before they spring up. Thanks for your comment!

    Nutritiontokitchen: Ah, I’m glad you found my blog. I owe Tangled Noodle a big shout-out for pointing you in my direction! (Tangled Noodle: Heeeey! Thaaaanks!) I checked out your site last night right before going to bed, and I’ll be spending more time there soon, for sure! I agree that the entire landscape of Vietnam, especially the big cities, changes in the blink of an eye. There have always been numerous cafes in Vietnam, even fifteen years ago when I first visited, but the scale of them is unlike anything you can find in the U.S. I love them! There was a café called 9@ on Ly Tu Trong Street in District 1 that I used to go to a lot, but when I returned to Vietnam earlier this year after a two-year absence it was gone. The place, I heard, had cost well over a million U.S. dollars to build. Thanks for your comment!

  27. I Love Vietnamese coffee. You should really consider opening your own cafe. that would be awesome.

  28. I was in Vietnam around 2 years ago, and I can attest that Vietnamese coffee taste ridiculously good. I want to move there just so I have coffee that great to wake up to! However, if you get the chance, try buying your coffee from the markets instead of buying the pre-packaged Trung Nguyen. Its cheaper, and I think its tastes better, since they grind it fresh for you on request, or you can bring the beans back and grind when needed =) Even the best grade coffee in the market is usually better value than Trung Nguyen, and I personally think the flavor is so much better =D

  29. A Girl Has to Eat: I'd love to...and hope to eventually. Thanks for the encouragement! And yes, if it's not clear already I'm a big fan of Vietnamese coffee, too. : ) It's good, highly addicting stuff!

    Irreverent Cook: I don't blame you for wanting to move there just for the coffee. I think Vietnam boasts the greatest cafe-culture in the world. It's everywhere! I agree with you that buying coffee fresh from the market is the best bet by far, but here in Hawaii I can only get Vietnamese beans pre-packaged. There were plenty of times when driving my motorbike through Vietnam that I passed a street with fresh coffee roasters and the aroma nearly toppled me from my seat. In any case, thanks for the suggestion!

  30. I thought it only appropriate to report back and say I am drinking Nicaraguan coffee fresh off the plan - my husband just got back from a surf trip there and this was a souvenir. Its delicious and distinctly different than the coffee I am accustomed to in the States - definitely a bit more bite. The chocolate bar was the same way - very dry and crumbly without a lot of cocoa butter.

  31. I'm a fan of Trung Nguyen coffee as well. Well, yeah, 'cos I'm Vietnamese :) I am staying in Europe and everytime coming back and forth vietnam and finland, I brought a lot instant G7 Trung Nguyen coffee with me:)I'm quite lazy to make coffee in vietnamese traditional way though So good. My friends here- Fins and Korean - all like that instant coffee. That means that Trung Nguyen coffee can meet taste buds of both Westerners and Asian, right?:)
    So glad to see people have positive feelings for Vietnamese coffee:)

  32. Hi Lyn: Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! Actually, I'd seen the instant G7 coffee but never tried it...until last week! I was really surprised by how good it was. Even so, I prefer using the Vietnamese filter. It's pretty easy to use. ;) It must be hard finding good, cheap coffee in Finland. The last time I was in HCMC, I could buy coffee on the sidewalk for 5000 dong. In Hanoi, the cheapest is about 10,000 dong. In Finland, I'm guessing you have to pay the equivalent of 70-80,000 dong! You should open a Trung Nguyen cafe there!