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Apr 3, 2009 12:08 PM

Vietnamese coffee in SF (city)

I will be in SF (financial/convention ctr area) in June for a week, no car, and my schedule will probably not allow lengthy transit trips. But this talk of good coffee places leads me to wonder whether there's any place in the city that does good Vietnamese iced coffee, with or without Vietnamese food?

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  1. There are a plethora of places. Slanted Door To Go in the Ferry Building uses Blue Bottle Coffee (a SF icon) and the Vietnamese coffee is great. Also, you would get to browse a beautiful, historic building with great views of the Bay Bridge. Much more scenic than the Vietnamese spots on the edge of the Tenderloin.

    9 Replies
    1. re: PorktoPurslane

      Thanks. What sort of establishment is this, though? Because to me, frankly, Vietnamese iced coffee is pretty much the polar opposite of a "to go" experience.

      1. re: Gin n Tonic

        The polar opposite of Slanted Door would be Tulan -- where I first tasted Vietnamese coffee. Smallish coffee dripped into sweet condensed milk.

        But something tells me this would not fit your bill either. Tell us more about what expreience you're after.

        Tu Lan
        8 6th St, San Francisco, CA 94103

        1. re: BernalKC

          Please explain in what respect Tulan is the polar opposite of Slanted Door, since I am unfamiliar with both. My only concern was that PtoP called it "Slanted Door To Go", and I wasn't sure what to make of the "to go" part. Is this primarily a take-away place? If so, that's not what I'm after. Vietnamese coffee takes a while to make, and should be consumed slowly.

          But to the larger point: "Smallish coffee dripped into sweet condensed milk" does describe Vietnamese coffee -- the same way "steam forced through finely-ground dark-roast coffee served in a small cup" is a description of espresso. Yet people will argue endlessly about which is the best espresso place. I'm not even asking which is the best VN coffee place, I just want one that somebody who's spent time in Hanoi won't laugh at.

          A good espresso is made quickly but is something to linger with. A good VN coffee is made slowly, and part of the experience is the anticipation as it drip-drip-drips. But then you linger with it as well. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants will serve you a similar sort of drink, but they tend to be focused on the food, and the coffee is an afterthought. I'm looking for a coffeehouse, a place I can go in mid-afternoon, say, and have them do just coffee (maybe a snack.) I may be asking too much.

          1. re: Gin n Tonic

            I suspect Slanted Door is a lot closer to your image. It is 'to go', but you take it out to a nice waterfront promenade in the Ferry Plaza with a cacaphony of foodie businesses. And the coffee itself is of a premium pedigree.

            Tulan, on the other hand, is an oasis in the midst of... a desperate, bowery-style ghetto. I do recall lingering over my coffee at Tulan, and having the coffee arrive a few minutes before my meal was done so it would have time to drip. But the overall experience is that of a low-rent dive. Authentic, with surprizingly good food. But the kind of place you dare not feel the bottom side of your table.

            1. re: BernalKC


              Is that area still that bad? I haven't been in a couple of years. Because even the Bowery hasn't been a ghetto in *quite* some time.

              1. re: Gin n Tonic

                <oops> I guess I' showing my age. Been a while since I was stumbling out of CBGB's in the wee hours...

                6th street, and theTenderloin are still pretty down and out, to put it mildly. Many blocks of SOMA right next to 6th&Mission are gentrified or on their way. But Tulan is smack dab in the midst of a stubborn pocket of desperation.

                1. re: Gin n Tonic

                  >>> I'm not even asking which is the best VN coffee place, I just want one that somebody who's spent time in Hanoi won't laugh at

                  IMO, neither Slanted Door nor Tu Lan will give you what you are looking for. Both get a lot of 'discussion' on the board and neither, I would guess, is authentic.

                  SD is upscale and it's detractors feel it is over-priced and not as good as what can be found in other less California-ized Vietnamese restaurants.

                  Tu Lan's detractors feel it is carelessly prepared swill that is only admired for its cheap prices and coasting on a reputation that faded decades ago.

                  Anyway, I have tried the Vietnamese coffee at Tu Kim thank's to Melanie's report. It is not a coffee shop in the sense of the self-importance some of the Bay Area espresso crowd go for in that category ... the right barista, the right equipment ... etc.

                  However, the coffee is well done and nicely balanced. It is not the sugar bomb so many Vietnamese coffees are. Also, without the hype Tu Lan gets from the tourist guides, about the only people at Tu Kim are Vietnamese.

                  1. re: rworange

                    Thanks for the recs. As noted, I'll be in town for a week, so I can try most of these, I think.

                    How sketchy is that area between O'Farrell and City Hall these days?

                    1. re: Gin n Tonic

                      It is about the same as it has been for decades. I wouldn't walk it between midnight and sunrise, but if you keep aware of your surroundings, it is ok.

                      During the week is better thn weekends since there are more people and traffic. I was at Tu Kim at 7am (though I drove) and there are enough people on their way to work and the night workers, so to speak, are pretty much gone. Oddly at 11 am on a Sunday there was more sketchy street action outside A La Turca than there was at 7 am at Tu Kim.

    2. Here's my report on some of the small banh mi cafes in the Tenderloin. My favorite coffee is at Tu Kim.
      Most of these places have a continuous process for coffee making, that is, there are always a few dripping for the next customer so that you don't need to wait long.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Thanks for that info, and that banh mi review is a great resource. But ... now that you've opened that door, and it seems like you might know ... taking this thread completely OT, is there any place in that area to get bun cha?

        1. re: Gin n Tonic

          Feast your eyes on this menu:

          655 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94109

      2. I would not get Vietnamese coffee at Slanted Door. I find it too watered-down. If downtown, try Golden Flower on Jackson; in the Mission, Sunflower also has good Vietnamese coffee. Both are good for take-out -- you can call in your order in advance.

        I haven't tried Melanie's Tenderloin favorite, Tu Kim, so I can't compare it with Golden Flower or Sunflower.

        If you really love Vietnamese coffee, you can buy all the ingredients and gear here and bring it home (assuming you don't have access to a good Chinese market at home). I make it all the time and it's very easy. You'd need:
        1) coffee, preferably with chicory: Cafe du Monde from New Orleans is a widely available close approximation since New Orleans coffee, like Vietnamese coffee, contains chicory
        2) condensed milk: I like Longevity brand, which is just cream and sugar with none of the other ingredients (corn syrup, etc.) other brands include
        3) a Vietnamese coffee drip filter

        You'll find all three in Chinatown easily -- perhaps as you walk around with a cup of iced coffee from Golden Flower in hand.

        6 Replies
        1. re: david kaplan


          Golden Flower Vietnamese
          667 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94133

          Sunflower Authentic Vietnamese
          3111 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103

          1. re: david kaplan

            Thanks for the recs. As noted, take-out Vietnamese coffee is (to me) a non sequitur.

            And thanks for the references for at-home work, but I already have everything I need at home (paid something like 65 cents for the drip filters at Dong Xuan market). Despite that, and despite working at it for some time, I have yet to duplicate what I had at numerous places in Hanoi. Incidentally, I find I prefer French Market coffee (probably at least as widely available as the Cafe du Monde brand.)

            1. re: Gin n Tonic

              Trung Nguyen is the brand I favour but I have never had coffee in Hanoi, so no idea if it would compare. At less than $5 Cdn a pound, it is also very good value if you can source it nearby.

              1. re: Gin n Tonic

                And for further reference if and when you have a chance to leave the City, Vung Tau in San Jose (also Milpitas and Newark) brews my favorite version in this region. Very syrupy and rich.

                1. re: Gin n Tonic

                  I agree the customs and ritual are an essential part of the Viet coffee experience. Twenty-five years ago, I was killing time before an early morning appointment. I walked into a Vietnamese establishment in downtown San Jose and asked to be served a classic breakfast. I had never had Pho before and had no idea what to do when they placed the coffee setup on my table. The waiter walked me through the rituals and a new world opened up for me. Noodles for breakfast and a kickass demitasse of sweet espresso, and another and another.

                  For the home version, I just don't have the time on a day to day basis to wait for the complete process. I stumbled upon this alternative but haven't tried it yet. The article is by Andrea Nguyen and she makes it sound really tempting. I already have the burr grinder and I'm wondering if others have tried this press.


                  1. re: fresnohotspot

                    I missed this post last April but I'm so glad I saw it now -- I just bought an Aeropress (to make red espresso) and I never would have thought of making Vietnamese coffee in it. I'll have to try it now :-).