Nobody appreciates a warm summer day like a Seattleite. We are a city of fleece-wearing, umbrella-snubbing, hot coffee drinkers who shed that stereotypical Seattle persona the moment it hits 65 degrees. Short shorts and iced coffee? Yes, please!
Nobody appreciates iced coffee like the Vietnamese, though they'd surely balk at our idea of summer, since 65 there is probably considered sweater weather. If you've never had a ca phe sua da--and I can't imagine this could be true in a city with as many great pho joints as Seattle--it's a tooth-achingly sweet beverage that combines very dark roast coffee brewed extra strong with a nearly equal amount of sweetened condensed milk, poured over a glass full to the brim with ice. As the ice melts from the heat of the potent fresh brew, it waters it down a little, though the effect is still more sippable dessert than guzzlable toddy. It's the port of the coffee world.
It's been about eight years since I spent a month traveling around Vietnam, ordering this caffeinated sugar bomb everywhere I went, but the craving hasn't left me. It's the ultimate drink to pair with spicy, flavorful Vietnamese dishes, and the perfect drink to cool down with on a hot afternoon. And while I've had many serviceable versions at restaurants around the city--Greenleaf, for example, makes a very good one--I recently went searching for one using locally roasted beans: a Seattle twist on a Vietnamese classic.
I found my holy grail at Ba Bar in Capitol Hill, where you can get a Vietnamese iced coffee made with Caffe Vita beans. Traditionally, the brew used is a coarsely ground French roast that imparts a bold flavor (win) and burnt finish (lose). While the sweetened condensed milk covers a lot of imperfections, the result is still generally an initial sugar shock followed by a bit of an unpleasant bitter aftertaste. Ba Bar's version, however, is strong and smooth in all the right ways, balanced in its sweetness, and without that lingering smack of too-dark coffee.
Delicious and locally sourced, yes, though truly authentic it is not: they apparently use espresso instead of brewing with the traditional Vietnamese phin, a cylindrical aluminum filter that fits on top of the glass and allows the coffee to drip slowly into the waiting pool of sweetened condensed milk. Purists may be disappointed, but I think the quality of ingredients makes up for it.
Enjoy this delight to go from the walk-up espresso counter just inside the front door or order it with your meal in the dining room. I recommend going on the weekend so you can also order the bahn cuon, which are delicious steamed rolls of rice noodles filled with ground pork, mushrooms, and shallots. The food there is hugely underrated and totally awesome.