Càphê Roasters Is a Dream Realized, With a Menu to Match
Thu Pham's exquisite Kensington spot is the perfect showcase for her indulgent Vietnamese coffee. But don't sleep on the food menu, featuring a fried chicken bahn mi that should not be missed.
Opening a restaurant is the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is find a space and be better than everyone else.
Be prettier. Be comfier. Be friendlier and warmer and more delicious than all the other restaurants doing the same thing, or maybe all the other restaurants everywhere. You want the secret? The formula? That’s it. Not originality or Instagram or a manifesto or location, location, location. Just be better.
I’m kidding, but not entirely kidding. I’m kidding, but I’m also thinking about the fried chicken banh mi at Càphê Roasters on J Street in Kensington that was maybe the best fried chicken sandwich I’ve ever had — crisp panko shell and a gochujang glaze, the sting of pickled carrots and daikon, a snap from thick-cut cucumber, a spike of jalapeño, and a smear of house mayo, all on a fresh, crispy, chewy Ba Le baguette. I’m thinking of the almost candied sweetness of the thin-sliced Chinese sausage set off against the dark umami hit of the XO seafood sauce aioli on a breakfast sandwich, and the way it snapped my head back, being so unexpected after years spent eating breakfast sandwiches that were the sum of their parts and nothing more.
Stepping down into the cafe is a little like walking into a dream — this beautiful place, all polished woods and soft couches, whitewashed brick and marble counters. Pham has been roasting here for years (along with partner Raymond John): the only Vietnamese coffee roaster in the entire city, the only place you could find beans with that particular dark, deep, chocolaty, woodsy flavor. She buys Vietnamese beans from small-hold producers in Lam Dong, Thai beans from village farmers in Pa Miang, and brings them all the way here. Pham did wholesale and mail-order from this space, and pop-ups all over the city. But this cafe? This was what she really wanted. A place where people could come, sit, drink, eat, hang out. Di uống cà phê is the phrase in Vietnamese — “Let’s get coffee.” Not just a request, but a cultural thing. All about place and people. About community.
The dream you’re walking into is hers — equal parts nostalgia, ambition, and community service. She’s chasing memories of the flavors she grew up on (condensed-milk sweetness, pickling brine, grill char) and giving back through 12 Plus, the local educational nonprofit she worked for when she met John, its co-founder.
She had the coffee handled. She’d been perfecting it for years. The food? There, Pham needed help. So she reached out to Jacob Trinh, who’d been doing pop-ups and selling his own brand of XO sauce through Instagram, and asked him what he thought about pitching in.
Trinh’s menu is short, tight and brilliant. It’s fusion that feels more authentic than anything proclaiming its authenticity — modern and smart and classic all at the same time. There’s fried mochi with pumpkin jam, a Caesar salad with pho herbs and banh mi croutons, and wings that taste like they’ve got a half-dozen stamps on their passport — Korean and Japanese and Chinese and more. Those Ba Le baguettes are (as ever) perfect where they’re deployed, but the J Street Sando comes on a brioche because it’s a play on the hundred other egg sandwiches being peddled around town. The com tam thit nuong, with its broken rice, whole pork chop scented with lemongrass, pickled veg, and an over-easy egg, seems almost plain in comparison — until you dump the house nuoc cham over everything and it brightens up like a sunrise.
And behind all of this — beside all of this, in front of all of this — is Pham’s coffee. Strong-strong, a little bitter, as complicated as French wine or Russian dark chocolate. It’s coffee with a past, coffee with something to say. Dripped over sweetened condensed milk (and coming out that perfect rich caramel brown), it’s ideal. As a Vietnamese latte (topped with foamed milk), it’s an indulgence. As a latte float (more milk, plus a scoop of condensed-milk ice cream), it’s pure, sweet decadence.
So, is opening a restaurant the easiest thing in the world? A kind of build-it-and-they’ll-come Field of Dreams fantasy? Of course not. It’s actually one of the hardest. Opening under any circumstances takes luck and bravery, full-on Technicolor vision, and an ego like a rock star. It takes daring and support and for a million different things to go right just when you need them to.
But being the best still helps. That wasn’t a lie. And trust me, a cup of Pham’s coffee and one of Trinh’s chicken banh mi? That’s enough to make a believer out of anyone.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Published as “Dream a Little Dream” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.