After reading my review of Rice Paper `"A great second choice," Sept. 2`, Lisa Harris e-mailed this question: "Where is the best Vietnamese iced coffee to be had around Colonial and Mills? I assume one does not receive the blank stare Americans give when you order it."
Because I didn't want to answer on mere conjecture I spent last weekend tasting Vietnamese iced coffee. So thank you, Lisa, for inspiring this fun, yet jittery, project. And rest assured, ordering it does not induce blank stares. In fact, in general, no sooner was the order just out of my mouth than servers merrily set about stirring the creamy, caramelly condensed milk into the tar-colored brew. Here's what I learned on my field trip:
The General Foods International-style version of Vietnamese coffee is served at Lollicup ($2.75). Made from a powder, the coffee has a caustic freeze-dried milk powder note that's not good. The flavor is swallowed up by a manufactured taste with a hint of nuttiness. The thin and watery texture put this contender solidly in last place.
My hopes for Bale ($2) serving a great Vietnamese iced coffee ended the moment I saw the counter person saunter over to an espresso machine. Don't get me wrong, I love Italian espresso, but it really doesn't work for Vietnamese coffee. I've tried making it myself several times, and it always ends up tasting like a thin double shot, overmilked and oversugared.
Strictly speaking, Tasty Wok ($2) is not a Vietnamese restaurant, but it's in the area so I thought I'd give it a try. This was the longest wait that I endured on my mission. Though it meant that they were not rushing along the brew time, when my coffee arrived, I was not impressed with this rather unbalanced and flabby version.
There are floral overtones in Vinh's ($2) iced coffee, and the texture was neither too watery nor too heavy. This was the sweetest version we tried, and it was brewed with the proper Vietnamese equipment. Still, the coffee flavor, while good, was bullied by the wallop of sugar.
Viet Garden's ($2.25) cup of coffee was the first runner-up, characteristically sweet and thick with condensed milk. The bite of the coffee gave a little kick, not a whimper, on the finish. The acidic twang lingered and the sweetness hovered and then disappeared in time for the next sip. The consistency was a bit thin but still rich enough to be indulgent.
And the winner is … Little Saigon! Not only did they serve the most flavorful, but, at $1.85, also the one with the best value. Rich and full-bodied, with a chocolatey, earthy aroma, the coffee had enough of a kick to be gripping, and the milk had just enough sugar to be pleasing. All the elements were bold, without being too corrosive or too cloying. It was just right.