Coffee

Will the Real Vietnamese Coffee Please Stand Up?

A phin filter atop a glass with sweetened condensed milk. It takes about five minutes for the coffee to brew.
A phin filter atop a glass with sweetened condensed milk. It takes about five minutes for the coffee to brew. Lauren Drewes Daniels
Recently there was a coffee kerfuffle that captured the attention of much of East Dallas, a bean roaster in Brooklyn and Yelp. The full story is here, but in the shortest of all explanations, Melody Vo wanted a proper cup of Vietnamese coffee and didn't get one.

It became a rather publicized event, and in the end made us think, well, what exactly is proper Vietnamese coffee? So, we called Vo and set up a lunch date.

Both of Vo’s parents are from Vietnam. She, however, was raised just south of Denton, and when she was young, a special treat for her was to make her mother's coffee in the morning in traditional Vietnamese style using a phin filter. During the time it would take to brew, they would spend a few quiet minutes together before the busy day. So, the coffee holds a bit of sentimental value.

For my introduction to Vietnamese coffee, Vo suggested we visit Ngon on Lower Greenville.

click to enlarge A peek inside the phin filter, then the resulting coffee atop sweetened condensed milk. - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
A peek inside the phin filter, then the resulting coffee atop sweetened condensed milk.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
There are a few things that make Vietnamese coffee unique. The first is that in Vietnam robusta beans are used to make coffee, as opposed to the more popular Arabica. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta beans, which contain more caffeine and yield a different, more bitter flavor. A call to a local coffee shop describes the beans as "sour." Many Vietnamese coffee shops in the U.S. use Cafe du Monde’s chicory-laced beans for a close alignment of flavor.

The bitterness of the beans is tempered with a thick, 1- or 2-inch pour of sweetened condensed milk.

At Ngon, as in Vietnam, after the coffee has pushed through the filer, it settles atop the sweet milk which is stirred together, then poured over ice.

click to enlarge Viscosity keeps the three lovely layers of liquid separated until a spoon whips them altogether. - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
Viscosity keeps the three lovely layers of liquid separated until a spoon whips them altogether.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
The result is eye-popping rich and sweet, much stronger and sweeter than any other coffee I’ve had anywhere. Just looking at it now induces a mild sweat.

Jittery Euphoria
But, as potent as Vietnamese coffee is, egg coffee is an entirely different beast. It’s Ali standing smugly over Sonny Liston. And being honest, the name “egg coffee” isn’t doing this magical treat any favors; it’s not a raw egg in coffee, rather a light and fluffy meringue-like topping sweetened with condensed milk.

When this dessert arrived at our table at Ngon, Vo was perched on the edge of her seat anxious with the energy of a kid in a candy store.

click to enlarge This dessert coffee has a meringue-like layer at the top. - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
This dessert coffee has a meringue-like layer at the top.
Lauren Drewes Daniels

For coffee lifers, this dessert is the apex of jittery euphoria. It’s a magical creamy concoction, but it also pounces the nervous system, which for me was already on DEFCON 4 alert after the regular iced coffee. After a few slurps with a spoon, I had to tap out for the sake of my stomach lining, if nothing else.

Vo, on the other hand, has an amazing coffee game. Her mother raised her to have a stomach of steel. Before bounding for the door to get back to work, Vo poured what remained of her rich egg coffee over her iced coffee, saying that this would help her stay awake for the rest of the day while sitting at her desk. And hear color.

I’d pick one or the other next time, but for certain, this is a drink (or dessert) that when done right is truly unlike any other.

Ngon Vietnamese Kitchen, 1907 Greenville Ave. 469-250-7183, ngonvietkitchen.com. Open Sunday through Thursday 12 p.m.-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 12 p.m.-10 p.m.
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.