My coffee shop, Phin, is a gorgeous space on any given day. But on those rare cloudless Seattle mornings, the gentle sunlight of early dawn dapples through the leaves of an alder tree outside and gives the space a fuzzy glow. In these moments, with not another single around, my senses are especially acute as I prepare the phin — a metal filter used in traditional Vietnamese cafes — for my daily coffee.
Grinding the beans is the first and loudest step. The brief commotion ends abruptly with a burst of aromas: chocolate, caramel, grain, earth. I can already taste it. Into a phin the black sand goes, covered with a tamper disk and followed by a steady stream of water from a kettle set at 205 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then comes my favorite part: watching drops of black liquid slowly form under the phin before raining down onto a pool of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the glass. With only gravity pulling the water through a finely ground and tightly packed coffee puck, it usually takes about 10 minutes from the time I start brewing to my first sip. I savor this stretch of quiet and stillness. Even after countless repetitions, this routine is anything but automatic. It is intentional. It is meditative. It is a personal practice.
Phin officially opened in October 2020, nestled in a cozy 620-square-foot retail suite of an apartment building in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood. Nine months in, I continue to find myself in disbelief that I somehow managed to turn my passion into a livelihood. But I’m clearly not alone in this work. Last year, several independent Vietnamese-owned coffee shops opened their doors within months of each other, including Hello Em, also in Little Saigon, Coffeeholic in Columbia City, and Sip House in the U District. Many of my customers are curious about the recent development: Why now? Why here?
In tracing Vietnamese coffee’s evolution from its roots as a colonial-era product to the development of Vietnam’s vibrant cafes to its current rising popularity in Seattle, I see many parallels with my own journey as an immigrant — adapting to my new home while still trying to keep the essence of my home country’s coffee culture alive. My generation has integrated into American society, finding our voices and confidence; now we’re asserting our identity through a new interpretation of what came before us, as we look to push Vietnamese coffee forward in exciting ways.
I was born in Saigon, a city where coffee coursed through all aspects of life. Cafes, almost all independently owned, lined every avenue and alleyway of the city. Without zoning restrictions, many simply operated out of people’s homes, occupying converted living rooms or courtyard gardens. In my own home, coffee was a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I followed closely in my father’s footsteps.
On the way to school every day, Dad and I often stopped for breakfast and, whether we ate phở or bánh mì or my favorite, broken rice with grilled pork, he always included a cà phê sữa with his food. Sometimes he also brought me along as he met his friends for their usual weekend coffee sessions. Sitting on the sidewalks outside of the cafes, I drank orange juice or soda while the adults sipped on their preferred coffees: straight black, or with sugar or condensed milk, iced or hot. Lively chatter and music floated over the cacophonous sound of city traffic, while steam from the brewing phins and tobacco smoke curled overhead like street dancers.
For my dad, getting coffee, either alone or with friends, was an opportunity to slow down, unwind, and alleviate some of life’s pressures. As a result, coffee shops were judged not only by the quality of their coffee but also by their decor, service, and ambience. Beyond the drink itself, the culture of coffee in Saigon brought people together. Cafes were public squares where relationships formed and deepened.
I was introduced to this coffee culture at an early age, but was nonetheless discouraged by my elders from drinking the actual beverage. Vietnamese coffee is exceptionally potent due to its favored use of robusta beans, one of two main coffee species — arabica being its typically mellower counterpart. Generally distinguished by a higher concentration of bitter, chocolatey, and earthy notes, robusta — a resilient species of plant, which grows more readily in the tropical temperatures of Vietnam — has twice as much caffeine as arabica. Its bitterness is often balanced out by the sweetness of condensed milk, a combination that dates back to the French occupation, when the colonizers sought a more transportable product to a country with a dearth of dairy farms.
My education in Vietnamese coffee was interrupted when my family left Saigon and immigrated to Seattle in 1995. We arrived right at the height of the Pacific Northwest’s burgeoning coffee shop scene — but the experience was daunting. I never could wrap my head around the myriad drink varieties and oversized cups, compared to the smaller portions Vietnamese cafes usually serve. More baffling still was the prevailing American association of coffee with work productivity, which stood in stark contrast to the spirit of Vietnamese coffee culture.
At the time, phở and bánh mì had already found their place in Seattle’s food scene, while Vietnamese coffee stayed hidden on the back of menus. But Vietnamese immigrants never gave it up, finding ways to recreate it rather than adopting local alternatives. Cafe du Monde, the yellow-tinned dark roast coffee and chicory blend out of New Orleans, became the default Vietnamese coffee, since it most closely resembled the flavors of home, and one could find it in many Seattle shops.
Few today would recognize names like Thanh Thanh, Tao Ngo, and Tam Thanh, but these were some of the first Vietnamese cafes in Seattle. Tucked away in White Center and Rainier Beach, they quietly served a small but dedicated niche of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants pining for a taste of their coffee roots (and not used to the relatively weaker coffee offerings around town). To me, these shops, along with the restaurants and delis that kept Vietnamese coffee on their menus, played a huge role in sustaining the coffee culture, paving the way for the next generation, my generation, to take it over.
Phin began to take shape in my mind when I learned of a Vietnamese roaster in Brooklyn, Nguyen Coffee Supply, which had been gaining attention and critical praise for its complex specialty roasts with bold, nutty flavors. More Vietnamese roasters followed, including Ca Phe Roasters in Philadelphia and Fat Miilk in the Midwest (Chicago, St. Louis), focusing on single-source beans from my home country. The crop of new roasters drew my attention.
By that time, I had been in school for the better part of a decade, first studying chemistry at the University of Washington. During these years, I held a couple of part-time jobs at community organizations, before progressing to administrative and operational roles at local nonprofits that focused on community building and social justice. My science background came in handy for coffee-making when it came to precisely measuring and weighing everything using the metric system. But my interest in community empowerment became an even bigger part of my vision for Phin. When I saw the growth of Vietnamese coffee roasters in the U.S., I wanted to be a part of that wave, and felt the timing was right to develop a space that would hopefully have a positive impact on the neighborhood.
I’m well into my 30s now and what some call a 1.5 generation Vietnamese-American — I inhabit a kind of middle ground between the two cultures, and Phin reflects this cultural duality. Somewhat poetically, my preferred blend of coffee is 50/50 robusta and arabica, representing the best of both worlds. The cafe I built has little nods to my past in Saigon, like the pseudo balcony designed to look like the windows of a person’s home, and the walls painted with lime, a material that was used to paint most buildings where I grew up. I brew coffee using only Vietnamese roasts and a phin. Doing so takes a lot longer than other methods, which can be a big ask for people in a hurry. But paper filters often take out the finer grounds and oils from the coffee as it’s brewed, and the phin draws out the complex flavors of whatever beans I use (whether robusta-based or those aforementioned blends). Employing a method that is so prevalent in my home country is an important expression of my identity.
There are others redefining what Vietnamese coffee can be, using espresso machines and moka pots, experimenting with different types of roasts, or creating inventive flavors with syrups and creams. “Everyone has their own interpretation,” says my friend Yenvy Pham, who opened Hello Em just a few blocks away in early 2021, with its own roastery that sources directly from Vietnamese farmers. Depending on where you center yourself, you can see the younger generations of Vietnamese owners and baristas making their own marks.
But I continue to look for that connection to the past generation. Because Phin opened at the height of the pandemic, my dad — in an age group that has a higher risk of severe COVID complications — wasn’t able to enjoy the shop right away. Several months later, when he was fully vaccinated, I invited him out to have coffee on one of the days that we were closed for business since. With just the two of us at the shop, I prepared a phin of cà phê sữa for him for the first time.
In classic, unsatisfiable Asian dad mode, he critiqued the drink right away, indicating where the coffee and the shop needed to improve if I was ever going to get folks like him to come. This was something I had expected.
I let my dad finish before explaining that while Phin is deeply inspired by the coffee shops of his era, it was never meant to duplicate them. It couldn’t possibly do that and survive in a city three decades removed and 7,000 miles away from the Saigon cafe scene I remember from my youth. In my eyes, traditions are guides, not anchors. I designed my coffee shop around the phin not out of staunch devotion to traditions but because the phin is both a connection to my predecessors and a proclamation of my Vietnamese heritage. The phin is my coffee mother tongue, and with it I can speak proudly and freely.
He was quiet, taking sips of coffee and nodding along as I spoke. Whether he agreed or not he wouldn’t say. But in what I took as a sign of approval, he finished the coffee I made. And asked for one more.
Bao Nguyen is the owner of Phin coffee shop in the Chinatown International District.