This sweet treat of chicory and condensed milk is the direct descendant of French cultural influence.
Vietnamese coffee in New Orleans, as the addicted well know, is jet fuel java sweetened with clouds of condensed milk, with a slightly bitter tang lent by chicory blended in with the beans. Served hot, iced or even frozen, this coffee drink mirrors the original in Vietnam, with the addition of the only New Orleans chicory twist.
Chef Anh Luu is crazy about it. Luu is the acting GM and executive chef at Bywater Brew Pub, which owner Nahum Laventhal opened in November. Here, she spotlights her trademark Viet-Cajun cuisine, which reflects her personal journey as the first in her family to be born in New Orleans, at Charity Hospital in 1986, to be exact.
It’s worth a mention that Hanoi and New Orleans are at the same latitude and near oceans, with both cities steeped in French influences, Luu said.
“Coffee culture in Vietnam is really big, just like here,” she said. “A lot of people roast their own beans. Drinking coffee in Hanoi is a real experience – it’s really dark and deeply flavored – almost like a shot of espresso.”
She plays around with the coffee drink, serving in a warm coffee cocktail drink, chilled when it’s hot outside and concentrated as a dip for her beignet bites.
Originally milk wasn’t in the picture – the country’s tropical clime made fresh dairy an anomaly. That was until a French guy named Nicolas Appert devised a way to condense milk – taking out most of the water, replacing that with gobs of sugar and voila, a shelf-stable milk product was born.
According to Gail Borden Jr. followed suit in the U.S. in 1853. According to the Nguyen coffee supply website, coffee wasn’t introduced to Vietnam until 1857, when a French priest brought a single arabica tree to the country. Slowly, Vietnam grew to become one of the main coffee producers in Asia and is now the second largest coffee producing country in the world second only to Brazil.
The chicory connection
When a large wave of Vietnamese people came to New Orleans in 1975, they brought their coffee culture with them.
The way Tung Nguyen’s heard the story from an elder over a bowl of pho, Café du Monde is a major player in the evolution of Vietnamese Coffee here in Nola. Nguyen, whose Em Trai Sandwich Company is based in the Marigny and also in Auction House Market in the Warehouse District, said he was told that since Café du Monde would hire the non-English speakers, they took jobs – and to this day, most of the workforce there is Vietnamese. “They had access to the Café du Monde coffee with chicory and used Café du Monde beans and it just stuck.”
At his places, Nguyen adds his own take on the classic. “I make it different than most,” he said. “I use five times the amount of condensed milk to make a concentrate and then add it to CR Coffee Shop’s chicory-heavy Roch Blend for cold brew.”
Where to find Vietnamese iced coffee in NOLA
Besides Em Trai and Bywater Brew Pub, where else can the caffeine-deprived enjoy versions of this Hanoi-meets-Big Easy treat?
Michael Gulotta is a fan, offering versions at both his Vietnamese meets New Orleans restaurants. At MoPho, off City Park Avenue, classic blended frozen Vietnamese coffee meets bubble tea, with tapioca pearls adding some chew to the experience. Maypop in the CBD goes boozy with its frozen Vietnamese coffee cocktail, blended with rum and chicory liqueur
Count on most Vietnamese restaurants to pour the special brew hot or cold. Mr. Bubbles Café on Canal offers a potent iced version in two sizes along with a frozen rendition that is the perfect antidote to steamy weather.
Pho Tau Bay, a family-owned place that was one of the pioneers of Vietnamese cuisine on the West Bank, serves made-to-order hot and cold Viet coffee at its location on Tulane. If you haven’t checked this place, get to it. The menu is extensive, with a vast offering of rolled-to-order fresh spring rolls, vegetarian, beer, chicken and spicy beef versions of pho and vermicelli bowls fragrant with lemongrass. The sweet coffee drink makes a perfect dessert.
While not all coffee shops are hip to this sweet, strong and slightly bitter treat, many are. At The Orange Couch, a groovy spot in the Marigny, the Vietnamese coffee comes cold, with the 20 ouncer a good option to pair with local baked goods.
Uptown at Le’s Baguette Banh Mi Cafe on Dryades, a perfectly blended iced Viet coffee is the cherry on top of a menu of top-notch bahn mi sandwiches and vermicelli bowls.