As if that doesn't sound decadent enough, sweetened condensed milk is typically used in lieu of cream and sugar both for practical reasons (it doesn't have to be refrigerated) and for taste (Have you had sweetened condensed milk lately? Think creamy, thick, dulce de leche goodness...in your coffee...everyday!). This is why Vietnamese coffee is a habit I could really get used to.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da)
In Saigon, with so much fantastic coffee everywhere we turned, it was tough to be too discriminating. So, I left it to the locals to show me the way. Vietnam is a country of food-lovers and total coffee addicts. My favorite conversation starter was asking a local: Where is the best food in town? People would bubble over with recommendations and loved talking about their favorite food, where to get it, and how to eat it. Everyone had an opinion.
One afternoon, over a Lazy Susan laden with dim sum, an impassioned discussion over the most delectable banh xeo, the silkiest tofu, the best hand-pulled noodles with half a crab on top, turned into a full-on debate over where to grab coffee afterward. One fellow named Nguyen insisted, "The best coffee is at my sister's place," and after a few nods of acquiescence from his accompanying friends, we were off to taste for ourselves if he was indeed correct.
We hopped on our motorbikes and went caravanning off through the maze of commuters. Put-putting over main highways, over to District 7 we went...on a mission for the perfect Ca Phe Sua Da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). It was spontaneous, exhilarating, and as the wind whipped through my hair, I couldn't help but envision Anthony Bourdain's crew on our tracks, kicking up some dust behind us.
Saigon Motorbike Ebb and Flow
What we came upon was a breezy little oasis of an internet cafe, tucked away amongst sprawling new developments and construction sites. The cafe itself is called Goc Peo, but the main signage outside speaks to the main reason for visiting -- the rich and aromatic Trung Nguyen coffee served.
Coffee time at Trung Nguyen
Trung Nguyen seems to have made a nice business for itself, their chains and signs are all over Saigon, as well as the airport gift shop, and while the prices are expensive by Vietnamese standards, they are still relatively cheap by US standards (a cup of their famous "Legendee Coffee" was about $2 USD). Incidentally, Trung Nguyen has a pretty comprehensive website that explains all about what defines Vietnamese coffee and makes it unique, namely:
1) The topography of the Annamite Range has allowed for a diverse variety of beans to flourish in Southeast Asia. By blending a variety of bean species (Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Catimor) rather than sticking to a single-source (like 100% Arabica), a broader flavor range is achieved.
2) A lower-temperature, longer roasting process that is stable and consistent.
3) Roasting the beans in clarified butter.
Another interesting fact I learned about Trung Nguyen's coffee is that they produce what they call their Legendee Coffee, a "unique enzymatically-treated coffee that releases flavors bound in the beans and not released under ordinary processing." The Legendee Coffee was what Nguyen brought us to taste. Read more about the Legend of Legendee and how modern science has attempted to reproduce the infamously expensive (and kinda gross) Kopi Luwak coffee, made with the help of the weasel-like civit.
My final verdict? The Legendee was worth experiencing, although a little intense for me to want to drink on a daily basis.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Trung Nguyen
Regardless, it was a joy to spend an afternoon in pursuit of the perfect cup with company who really loved their coffee. Company who loved it so much, they continued on their way, buzzing away to the next cup as we rookie tourists bid farewell.