While we absolutely delight in the fact that L.A. is in the midst of discovering its coffee culture, we also like to remember that in this city of melting coffee pots, there is more to coffee than just the shots expertly pulled out of a La Marzocco. Take, for example, Vietnamese coffee, that extra-strong jolt of robust, dark, French-roasted beans swirled with sweet, goopy condensed milk. This will give you bigger wings than that staid can of Red Bull in your desk drawer.
As the story goes, the French established coffee plantations in Vietnam soon after it colonized the country. It cultivated the cash crop -- today, Vietnam is the world's second-largest producer of coffee, after Brazil -- but, with dairy hard to find in Vietnam, the full import French's cafe culture did not affect Vietnam much until the introduction of shelf-stable condensed milk. The result: a caffeine- and sugar-laced coffee drink that has a creamy, rich consistency. In a good cup, you'll taste undertones of caramel and chicory. This week, when summer finally sets in, the drink over ice -- cà phê sữa đá -- might be more satisfying than anything raucously throttled in a blender.
A diminishing number of very traditional Vietnamese restaurants will make you a cup of coffee the very traditional way: leisurely, at the table. A cup with a few tablespoons of condensed milk is set down. A metal drip filter that is a cross between a French press and a three-dimensional Tetris piece sits on top of the cup. This phin holds the coffee grounds, often from Cafe du Monde or Trung Nguyen, which are compacted by a damper that is screwed in tight. Hot water is poured into the filter, and your coffee slowly drips-drips-drips into the cup. When it's done, or when you can not wait any longer, the milk and the coffee are swirled together and, if requested, poured over a tall glass of ice.
Inexactly, this process can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. In our drive-through culture where 3G is not fast enough, though, 5 to 10 minutes is a lifetime. This is why, we suspect, many shops make the drink sans phin. Instead, it is made with espresso, or, especially at bánh mì shops, pre-made in batches.
Most Vietnamese eateries, particularly those in the San Gabriel Valley, San Fernando Valley, and South Bay, will brew a very good cup of hot or iced coffee. We picked a few of our favorites in those areas, plus several more in L.A. proper, where you can get a damn good cup of Vietnamese coffee.
10. Infuzion Cafe. If Infuzion Cafe were located far east of Santa Monica, it probably wouldn't have a "What's Boba?" section on its website. But, it's located off of Third Street Promenade amongst a sea of Coffee Beans and Starbucks, so the explanation appears to be necessary. In addition to several different flavors of boba, the café has a decent "cafe sua da," offered on the menu in all its untranslated glory. 1149 3rd Street, Santa Monica; (310) 393-9985; Monday to Friday 6:30 a.m. - 7:00 p.m., Saturday 7:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m., Sunday 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
9. A-Grocery Warehouse. In the middle of this Asian grocery located on the stretch of Sunset between Celaya Bakery and Dodger Stadium is a little area with prepared foods, boba, and, yup, cà phê sữa đá. It's made with crushed, not cubed, ice, so this possibly is the closest thing to a Vietnamese coffee-flavored Slurpee that you will ever get. While you're here, you might as well grab all the ingredients to make the coffee at home: tins of Cafe du Monde and pallets of condensed milk can be found in the market section of the store. 1487 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 482-4803; Daily 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.
8. Chimney Brick Toast Coffee House. Chimney Brick Toast uses beans from Pasadena-based Jones Coffee Roasters in all its drinks, including its Vietnamese iced coffee. The drink is made with espresso and just enough condensed milk so that the drink is strong at first, then mellows out as the ice melts. To gild the sugar lily, complement your drink with an order of the beignets. 1100 N. Main Street, Los Angeles; (323) 343-0030; Monday to Saturday 7 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 9:00 a.m. - 5 p.m.
7. Fresh Roast. You smell coffee the second you walk in, and no wonder: Fresh Roast's roaster sits right there, in-house. All the drinks are made from these beans, including the Vietnamese coffee, which is available iced or hot and made with espresso. The cup we ordered hit a good balance, but if you need it any sweeter, the owner will kindly add more condensed milk. 308 S San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 451-5918; Daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.