Lately, articles about “banh mi” started to appear in the Bay area publications.
What should have accompanied those articles was Cafe sua da (Iced cafe-au-lait).
The coffee chamber sat on the cup. Hot water drips down, one drip at a time, on top of condensed milk.
Bitter and sweet, hot and cold.
It’s a night-and-day difference from coffee found sitting all burned up at a 7-11 near you.
Because of the long wait, friends start chatting.
So and so just got another divorce.
So and so is still alive.
The Brits got their tea from India. The French got their coffee from its former colonies, among them Vietnam.
Gotta have that coffee. You can hold the OJ.
“Cafe sua da” is found at practically every corner of Vietnam.
I found it in Dalat, at 4 AM, Hanoi at 1PM.
In Orange County, you can have it served by half-naked coctail waitresses.
Everything social seems to revolve around Cafe Sua Da.
Between the Banh Mi, Pho and Cafe Sua Da, you pretty much complete your hunt for Vietnamese export cuisine.
And the interesting thing about all three: you can order them at all hours in the day and anywhere from Bellaire (TX) to Bolsa (CA), from New Orleans to New York.
When cultures collide, there are gives and takes. In this case, Vietnamese contributions abroad have been mostly in manicuring, cuisine ( as mentioned) and fashion (ao dai).
Last week, in the suburb of Washington D.C, police moved in to make arrests at some coffee houses (charges false or true remain to be sorted out).
But one thing for sure, the crooked and straight both want their Cafe sua da.
I stopped by there once, jet-lagged and all, to find out I was their first customer. Traditionally, the first customer is supposed to usher in either luck or curse of the day (during Tet, it’s for the entire year).
So, to avoid this superstitious entrapment, I ordered my cup to go.
It did not come out right, because Cafe Sua Da is meant to be shared with chatty friends.
It’s a culture of coffee that Howard Shultz of Starbucks found fascinating during his visit to Italy. In the Vietnamese American case, it offers a half-way home at a Starbucks price, without the pretense of having your name scribbled on the cup to be belled out later as if you were a regular. The difference between Cafe Sua Da and Cafe Starbucks was more pronounced during this downturn: Starbucks lost customers to McCafe, while Cafe Sua Da still holds, one drip at a time.
Cafe Au Lait has survived , transformed and migrated from North to South Vietnam, and from Southern Vietnam to Southern California. It’s still coffee, but the way it is served, sitting on top of the cup, has been the beverage of choice for many of us to start the day. When the coffee is right, everything seems to go all right from there. Now you know my hang-up and why I can’t stand the burned coffee smell at 7-11 or McDonald. Perhaps because of the way it is served there or the speed at which they collect your money. Yet who am I to ask for more, when for years, on campus, I could make do with vending machines. Those machines, I heard, now serve instant noodles. They said when you were hungry, your brain picks unhealthy food. Hungry or not, between instant noodles-vended coffee and Banh-Mi-and-Cafe- Sua- Da , I pick the later every time.