by Mark Van Streefkerk
Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee-producing country, a fact largely unknown to most consumers, though that is changing for those who visit Hello Em Viet Coffee & Roastery. Hello Em is Seattle’s first Vietnamese coffee roastery. Co-owners Yenvy Pham and Nghia Bui carefully oversee every part of the process from sourcing and importing beans from Kon Tum and Buôn Ma Thuột to roasting in house on a Neuhaus Neotec air roaster. The roasted beans make up their signature coffees: the anh roast, a single origin robusta, and em roast, an arabica blend of coffees from Vietnam, Oaxaca, and Ethiopia.
Since their official opening in the Little Saigon Creative space on Jan. 24, it’s common to see wait lines for the new Vietnamese coffee stop to extend down the block on weekends. The main attractions? Offerings like cà phê trứng, espresso with egg crème, cà phê cốt dừa, coffee with coconut cream and toasted coco, or cà phê tắc, an espresso drink with kumquat sauce.
Equally enticing are pastries like durian and matcha cake rolls and mochi clouds and a selection of Bánh mì-nini, or pressed Bánh mì sandwiches. Ăn Sáng is a breakfast sandwich with fried shallots and eggs, and the Việt dog is a Vietnamese take on the Seattle hot dog. Hello Em also offers condensed milk bread, Sữa đặc, “which is something a lot of Vietnamese kids grew up with,” said Bui. “A lot of people my age see that — ‛Oh my childhood!’ That’s the number one thing they always say when they see that on the menu, ‘I remember this from when I was a kid.’ It’s been pretty popular.”
The egg crème in Hello Em coffee drinks is made from egg yolks. Not wanting to waste the egg whites, however, Pham whips them with condensed milk to make the fluffy Egg Cloud that floats atop the coffee. A delicious, and Instagrammable, drink, egg coffee is popular in north Vietnam. The recipe originates from a milk shortage during the First Indochina War in the 1940s. Eggs were used as a substitute, sometimes whisked with condensed milk, sugar, butter, or even cheese, to sweeten robusta coffee.
Of the two main varieties of coffee, arabica and robusta, arabica is what most specialty coffee lovers are familiar with. Known for its sweeter flavor profiles — think berry and citrus notes as well as chocolate and spicy flavors — arabica is prized by specialty coffee lovers especially in the West. Most of the world, however, relies on robusta, a heartier plant that has a higher caffeine content than arabica (2.7% to 1.5% to be precise). Robusta has a strong, earthy flavor that can be bitter and is used mostly in instant coffee and lower-grade coffee blends. Robustas have been gaining more attention recently for their pest- and disease-resistant attributes and the fact that robusta plants produce more coffee than arabicas.
The name Hello Em is a nod to Vietnamese American identity, Bui explained. “When you refer to someone like your little brother, little sister, or your significant other, [you say] ‘Hey em, what are you doing?’ It’s something cute. In Vietnam, it’s something you say as a greeting to someone close to you. It’s a blend between English and Vietnamese because that’s how we are. We are Vietnamese American. We grew up in America, we’re also Vietnamese.”
Pham is also the co-owner of the Phở Bắc Sup Shop and has strong family and community ties to the area, including being heavily involved with Friends of Little Saigon (FLS). FLS was founded in 2011 as a nonprofit organization that seeks to advocate for Vietnamese Americans in a quickly gentrifying International District. When FLS opened the Little Saigon Creative in November of last year, Hello Em was a natural partner for the space.
“To be honest, for a lot of the Asian community … they’re kind of brushed aside because [they’re] immigrants or they don’t have a voice,” Bui said. “Friends of Little Saigon, that’s what they’re here for. Basically trying to represent the Vietnamese community, the Asian community, the neighborhood in general.”
The Little Saigon Creative space is a community hub with offices and meeting spaces. A focal point of the space on the central wall features a visual history of Little Saigon and a map of Vietnam, showing where Hello Em sources their coffee beans. To the right of these installations is an art gallery, featuring the artwork of local artists in “Owning It,” Little Saigon Creative’s first exhibit.
To celebrate Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Little Saigon Creative is hosting a photo booth through the end of the month and a Flash Sale that ends this weekend. Due to COVID-19, a smaller-than-usual Lion Dance will embark from Little Saigon Creative at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13, and make its way to Phở Bắc Sup Shop. Most of the larger Tết celebration has moved online due to the pandemic. Check out the virtual events on the Seattle Center website.
Featured image by Mark Van Streefkerk.
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