When Thu Pham was growing up, she and her three siblings would drink a glass of milk every day for breakfast. “And whenever we ran out of milk, my parents would take condensed milk and pour hot water into it,” Pham remembers. “That was my source of calcium for the day.” So when Pham was brainstorming ideas for her Vietnamese cafe in Kensington, she thought of ways to bring nostalgic tastes from her childhood — first in Westminster, California, then in the Olney neighborhood of North Philly— onto the menu.
The result: Pham’s luxe signature Vietnamese latte, made with not only sweetened condensed milk at the bottom and a shot of espresso (roasted right on premises) on top, but also additional extra frothy milk mixed in. Behind the counter at Càphê Roasters, three days before Pham’s dream shop is set to open, Pham stops stirring the milky drink. “It’s super awesome,” she says.
Pham has been roasting Vietnamese coffee on J Street for over three years now, selling her beans wholesale and doing drinks pop-ups around the city, but the goal was always to open a full-service breakfast and lunch cafe, with dinner and hopefully a liquor license down the line. And while Pham will be handling drinks — like her lattes, avocado coffees, egg coffees, and sweetened condensed soft serve smoothies — she brought in Jacob Trinh of Trinh Eats as the cafe’s head chef to handle breakfast and lunch.
Many in Philly would recognize Trinh for his pandemic XO sauce business and his residency at Kampar Kitchen, where he cooked inspired Vietnamese dishes like chicken thighs in lemongrass marinade and banh khot mini pancakes, but at Càphê Roasters, he’ll have the chance to explore flavors from his heritage even more. On the menu, Trinh will serve a few kinds of banh mi, Korean bibimbap made with Vietnamese broken rice — “We’re calling it broke bibimbap,” he says, as a tribute to Pham’s business partners, who are Korean — and house-made chả lụa, or Vietnamese sausage.
As the first and only Vietnamese coffee roaster in the city, Pham is hoping to put a focus on the special ethically sourced beans she imports from Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar, with more beans coming from the Philippines and Nepal later on. But she’s also conscious of not displacing other Vietnamese businesses along the Kensington Avenue corridor.
“There are a lot of restaurants around here that only Vietnamese people know about,” Pham says. Cafe Mi Quang is right down the street from Càphê Roasters, and the restaurant is known for a specialty Vietnamese soup based-dish called mì quảng, so Pham and Trinh vowed to not overlap with their menu. “We want to make sure we can send people there, too,” Pham says.
For now, as Pham gets her cafe off the ground with a soft opening this Saturday, October 2, she’s hoping most of all that people come to the J Street coffee shop with an open mind. “I want people to know that this is a really special neighborhood,” she says. And Càphê Roasters, with its menu of fresh drinks, peanut brittle and beet salads, and banh mi, is just one part of it.
Càphê Roasters is located at 3400 J Street, G1 in Kensington. It will have its soft open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on October 2nd and 3rd, then 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on October 4th, with a grand opening to come shortly thereafter. Website.