Delving deep into the matrix of alleyways in Chinatown (or not), you will notice that there are so many heirloom restaurants that serve either noodles, dim-sum, roast chicken, and other dishes. This article is not about those. This article is going to focus solely on coffee and will take you to a very special and unique heirloom café in our beloved Chinatown of Saigon. Read on to discover about the delicious drum roasted and net-filtered coffee.
PS: If you do wanna learn about Chinatown food specialties, you can click here.
But First… How To Know Your Coffee Is Real
Vietnam began to produce coffee in 1857, during times of French colonization. After the , roughly in the early , farmers boosted their Robusta coffee production in order to capitalize on the good market price. Today, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter, with 95% of our production being Robusta. In Saigon, sitting on a sidewalk in an early morning, sipping the brown bitter yet sweet liquid, chit chatting while watching traffic filling the streets is a crucial part of the city’s culture.
If you have not yet tried a cup of street coffee, then you haven’t fully experienced Vietnam yet. However, it is not true that all ‘ca phe sua da’ (Vietnamese traditional coffee with condensed milk) being served in places is what you are expecting! Better watch out. There are only a few coffee stalls that offer the pure ground coffee. Others serve an impure mixture of coffee mixed with soybean powder, corn powder and a bunch of other chemicals.
Hence, follow these rules to identify what you are being served:
Firstly, the easiest way to have an assurance on the coffee quality is to observe the liquid color! True coffee, having been roasted finely, produces a brown liquid (similar to the color of a cockroach’s wing). It looks a bit transparent. The black liquid you may see in the majority of Vietnamese coffee stalls represents either over-burnt coffee or chemically tainted coffee.
Secondly, watch the coffee filtration process as your cuppa is being made. If when the vendor pours hot water into the ground coffee and the mixture bubbles and gets swelled up…you’re good to go! Haha, you thought I was going to say the opposite, right? The impure coffee will not react the same way, and create a rather aggressive smelling, sticky mixture when hot water is .
Notice: These two rules are general. It does not guarantee 100% accuracy.
Ba Lu Cafe – Unique Drum Roasted Coffee in Saigon
This 60-year old coffee shop in the old Chinatown of Saigon, is a totally unique experience. The owners roast their coffee beans right on the street and anyone can watch. It’s not an easy process, it takes a lot of strength to turn the roasting equipment over the fire continuously – which is why the brother does it. We talked to the sister while her brother was busy doing his thing. Ms Hoang, the café owner, who has spent 52 years of her life with this business talked really fondly about her brother and her shop. Without any hesitation, the old lady proudly introduced their coffee mix ratio: 1kg of Arabica beans with 9kg of Robusta beans. This is a beautiful quality cup of coffee right there.
The owners roast their coffee beans right on the street and anyone can watch.
Fun fact #1: Only several specialty coffee restaurants in Saigon roast their own beans. A lot of these prefer to not add flavors into their coffee in order to maintain the truest taste of the coffee bean.
Fun fact #2: Ba Lu Café is located near a market that sells thousands of commodities in the morning and delicious food in the afternoon. Your trip to Chinatown will be even better!
The Drum Roasting Coffee Process
The 3:00 PM sky was butty the day we went to Ba Lu Cafe. Saigon at the end of the rainy season gives us quick showers that last around 5 – 10 minutes, and then its sun again. At one end of the Phung Hung street, near the old market of district 05, Ms. Hoang’s brother was preparing their roasting equipment: a wooden stove, firewood, and an old manual coffee roaster. It started to rain. The huge umbrella was opened over the roasting equipment so he could carry on.
Half an hour after firing everything up, the brother placed his heavy drum roaster filled with 10kg of pure coffee bean on the top of the stove. He sat on one side of the drum roaster, with the rotating stick held tight in his one hand, and started to constantly roll the drum roaster upside down over the naked flames. The manual rolling action must be conducted non-stop within one and a half hour to ensure all coffee beans are equally roasted.
Half an hour later, salt was added into the roaster. According to the owners, they use salt to clean the beans and add extra flavor to the taste. Then the man kept on rolling. Once in a while, he shakes the drum roller to spread the beans finely on the bottom of the roller. Roughly forty-five minutes after the salt was added, the slight aroma of roasted coffee will start to seep through the drum roaster. The emanating smoke changes color from slight transparent blue to a dark white, almost gray. At this point, butter is added into the mixture to further enhance the taste. The owners revealed that the butter brand had been chosen by their father 60 years ago, and has remained unchanged over decades.
Some fifteen minutes later, the coffee was taken out and spread widely on a mattress. Wine was poured over the beans to intensify the coffee flavor. This is the final stage of the roasting process. It usually takes them about one week to consume 10kg of coffee (due to the fact that they only use this coffee for their own café).
Fun fact: Robusta is bitter and is not rich in aroma and after taste. Thus, most of the traditional roasting methods in Vietnam adds butter or wine to the bean during their roasting process to enhance the coffee flavor. This routine has been changing step by step since the Arabica bean started to become popular in the country.
How of Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee
Hardly could you find any café in Saigon today offering you this filtering method! Instead of using Vietnamese traditional ‘phin’ nor any modern techniques, they use a net to filter the coffee. This method originated from the Chinese, however has become so rare in the modern Saigon.
If you’re interested in learning to make coffee using our simple phin filters, click here: How to Brew the Perfect Cup of Vietnamese Coffee.
One net includes 3 full spoons of coffee powder, which can be turned into 8 – 10 glasses of coffee. After placing the coffee into the net, boiled water will be poured in through the net. You will see the coffee mixture swelling in the video, so hey, rest assured, this is real coffee! The net filter method lets the water seem through the beans within 3 – 5 minutes. Limiting this amount of time helps to retain its nice taste: a slight saucy flavor of the bean and medium bitterness of the caffeine. If you are a Westerner, we are sure you are familiar with the light taste of Arabica made with a V-sixty or a French express. This net coffee will be similar to yours, which means it is different from the common Vietnamese black coffee.
If you are not too much into coffee, let’s try their coffee with milk. They made their glass with a 7:1 coffee to condensed milk ratio. However, since their coffee was light, the amount of milk beautifully balanced the bitterness of coffee. It was nice to try this combination with ice in such a heat-filled afternoon in Saigon.
However, guess what, they open their café from 2:00AM in the early morning. Saigon at year end would be freezing then. Ok not as cold as countries with snow, but you get our point. Do you want to have a hot cup of pure coffee with milk, Chinese style, while observing the old Chinatown kicking their new day off?
Let’s grab an Uber here!
Name: Ca Phe Ba Lu (Ca Phe Rang Sieu Dat Cua Ong Lu Ba Hoe)
Address: 193 Phung Hung, District 05, Ho Chi Minh City.
Opening Time: 2:00 AM – 6:00 PM daily
Price: 10,000 VND – 15,000 VND
Notice: You should have a Vietnamese guide with you, unless you speak Cantonese.
Read more: Egg Coffee in Saigon
If you enjoyed reading this article and would like some more fun info about what to see, do and eat (and a bunch of interesting cafes!) in Vietnam, follow us at the Christina’s blog!