New cafe offers customers authentic Vietnamese coffee

Kim Dam, the owner of Portland Ca Phe, sits in front of a painting of Vietnam in her coffee shop.Steven Tonthat / OPB

(OPB): Kimberly Dam, the owner of Portland Cà Phê, wants to offer all of the popular coffee drinks one could normally find in any standard coffee shop, but with a twist: using coffee beans harvested and imported from Vietnam.

“What I wanted for Portland Cà Phê was to showcase that it could be enjoyed in any way that you like your coffee; a plain espresso, a drip coffee, a latte, and you’re getting it with Vietnamese beans,” says Dam.

On the corner of Southeast 28th Ave. and Holgate Blvd, customers are treated to the sounds and smells of freshly brewed coffee and toasted bánh mì, Vietnamese sandwiches filled with roast pork or chicken and fresh herbs.

“I like waking up in the morning and having a routine, knowing your regulars, just having a good time,” says Dam. “To me, it’s a low-stress job, it’s just something that I really enjoy doing, creating relationships with people in your community and just making friends.”

Her shop’s namesake comes from “cà phê,” the Vietnamese words for “coffee.” Dam, who is Vietnamese American, partially drew upon her own experiences visiting Vietnam and watching the local coffee scene.

“That’s all they would do,” she laughs. “They sit outside and drink coffee or tea and catch up with their loved ones. And they would drink coffee all day long.”

Dam dreamt of bringing that same communal atmosphere to Portland.

Truly authentic Vietnamese coffee, she said, comes down to using specific regionally-grown beans. Most coffee shops in the U.S. will use arabica beans, which are sweeter. Coffee beans grown in Vietnam are generally robusta beans, which are more bitter and are harvested in the central highlands.

Vietnamese iced coffee, known as cà phê sữa đá [cah-FEH soo-ah DAH], is an espresso-strength coffee made from those robusta beans, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and served iced.

“A lot of times when people talk about cà phê sữa đá, they talk about how strong and caffeine it is … Usually it’s made really bitter, dark, and you’re mixing it with condensed milk, so you’re just getting this really sweet, strong drink,” explains Dam.

Dam hopes that her coffee shop will help change the narrative about Vietnam’s contribution to the coffee industry.

“I just hope to see more Vietnamese coffee beans being available at other cafes, other businesses, and for the narrative to change that Vietnamese coffee is not only cà phê sữa đá,” she said.

Dam had always wanted to own her own coffee shop, but life had other plans.

“In 2016, my father suddenly passed away. So I had to switch gears to ensure that my mom was taken care of because he was her sole provider at that time,” she said.

She took a job working at Kaiser Permanente in their social services department as a way to ensure that her mother was taken care of financially.

While at her family’s Vietnamese sandwich shop in Northeast Portland, House of Bánh Mì, Dam noticed that her mother was making cà phê sữa đá, with Café Du Monde, a chicory-mixed coffee brand from New Orleans, La.

Café Du Monde is a staple within Vietnamese communities in the United States. Many refugees in the 1970′s adopted Cafe Du Monde as their coffee of choice because of how closely the brand resembled the rich, strong flavor of the robusta beans back in Vietnam.

As the years passed, what started as a simple coffee replacement became part of Vietnamese culture in the U.S.

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