Vietnamese coffee is having its moment right now in the States, with Vietnamese cafés and roasteries popping up all over the coast. It was also one of Vietnam’s largest export destinations for coffee beans in 2018. The trend hasn’t yet cottoned on in Singapore, but there’s no doubt it’ll get its due, which owner and founder of La Saigon, Ly Bui, is confident about.
“There are many Vietnamese restaurants in Singapore, but most of them focus on the food. There are very few Vietnamese coffee houses here, even though Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world (after Brazil),” the soft-spoken owner shares. Ly is one of the few café owners in Singapore certified in Q grading, an internationally-recognised way of grading coffee beans. The route to gaining certification is an intensive one, with 22 tests to be passed. But why bother with the certification at all, when a barista course would do?
“You can make good coffee from barista training,” Ly acknowledges, “but if your beans are not good, there is no point.” The certification is just one facet of Ly’s dedication to quality. She also works directly with farmers in Vietnam to ensure she gets her preferred pick of beans and roasts them in small batches locally every other week to ensure they produce the freshest brew possible.
Fine Robusta beans (a grade higher than normal Robusta) are hand-picked and sun-dried to be used in La Saigon’s drip coffee ($4.50 for black, $5.50 for white), while Arabica beans are used in Italian-style espresso-based drinks (from $3).
“You can tell it’s good coffee when you see the bubbles on top,” Ly smiles. True to form, the drip coffee produced by her Fine Robusta beans give a good “bloom” – the bubbly layer caused by a chemical reaction between the beans and the hot water, and an indication of how fresh and potent the flavour of the coffee is. There is a subtle sweetness to the brew at La Saigon, enjoyable even without sugar, and a pleasant acidity that doesn’t tip into sourness, unlike beans from other countries. The finish is clean, with a lingering aroma. The addition of milk also brings out a fuller flavour, enhancing the bean’s chocolatey taste.
And lest you think the joint is only dedicated to good coffee, Ly is quick to point out that she gives just as much attention to its food. “We started with banh mi, and we do it as fresh as possible, by marinating our own meat, making our own sauce. Then we started serving pho and bun (dried noodles). We make the stock ourselves and use natural ingredients to create sweetness in the soup. We use Australian beef which is better quality.”
The banh mi (from $7) served at La Saigon is unlike any other we’ve tried – the baguette has a crisp, fragrant skin, with an absolutely chewy and flavourful centre – nothing like the jaw-numbing rolls you find in supermarkets – while the filling is moreish and generous. The pho (from $14.90), its best-seller, is equally good, and it’s served up in a bowl large enough for us to dunk our faces into. The broth has hints of cinnamon, star anise and fish sauce, while the noodles are smooth.
Finding such stellar cuisine at a corner café on the second floor of Alexandra Central is nothing short of a marvel, but La Saigon is not done defying expectations. At the corner of the humble joint, small bottles of yoghurt are being fermented, made from Ly’s grandma’s recipe. The yoghurt is used in the café’s dessert special: yoghurt coffee ($5.50).
Ly explains how she came up with the idea. “We wanted to do something different. It’s made purely from fresh milk, and we ferment it ourselves. Then we put it together with our espresso. It comes out a little bitter, a little sweet and a little sour. Perfect.”
Perfect is what we’d say about La Saigon too.