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.
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.
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.
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).
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.