It was big news when 85°C Bakery Cafe, Tim Ho Wan and Paradise Dynasty arrived in O.C. Now it’s time for java junkies to start buzzing. Trung Nguyên Legend, one of the most popular coffee bars in Vietnam with 110 locations in its home country, has chosen Westminster for its first U.S. store.
The grand opening on Oct. 1 was packed, leaving fans searching for chairs or waiting patiently until tables cleared. A step-and-repeat photo background with an equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte greeted guests, and his words about coffee were printed on some of the service pieces: "Strong coffee, much strong coffee, is what awakens me. Coffee gives me warmth, waking, an unusual force and a pain that is not without very great pleasure."
Trung Nguyên Legend’s menu sports portraits of famous geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein, pairing them with the “virtues” of particular drinks: the Napoleon section is labeled “energy coffee,” the Mozart section is “creativity coffee,” etc.
Guests at the opening were eager to try an upscale version of the traditional inky brew that immigrants brought to California. Café sua da, Vietnamese-style coffee, served hot or iced with creamy, sweetened condensed milk, has become an iconic part of the Orange County culinary scene no matter one’s ethnic background.
It’s not just because the phin brewing method — think French press flavor on steroids — has increased in popularity since the ‘70s, but also because the coffee itself has gone uptown. Peet’s and other purveyors are selling premium beans grown in Vietnam and coffee bars specializing in these drinks, which were at first found only in Little Saigon, are continuing to pop up in other parts of the county with BlK Dot, Phin Smith and Nam, to name a few.
Vietnamese coffee is suddenly trendy. But it wasn’t always so. Until 1989, the Vietnamese government purchased all coffee at a set price; there was no incentive to improve its quality. So, while Starbucks and indie roasters were extolling the virtues of single origin beans from Latin America, Africa, Hawaii and Indonesia, coffee from Vietnam stayed in the background, grown more as a commodity.
But now consumers are recognizing that the terroir is unique and that the Vietnamese coffee industry has attuned itself to quality; the care with which beans are grown, harvested and roasted is astounding.
Even Robusta beans, which are typically considered inferior in flavor, are treated with respect in Vietnam. The traditional taste for café sua da is a perfect vehicle for Robusta beans, which many coffee drinkers believe stand up to the sweetness of condensed milk better than the more delicate Arabica beans. Trung Nguyên Legend sells and blends both types, numbering them accordingly.
“We start off with No. 1 and as the number gets higher, the more premium the coffee is,” said Jennie Tang of Los Angeles-based distribution company H & L Wholesale Food Corporation, which is partnering with Trung Nguyên Legend in this venture. “So, No. 1 is 100% Robusta with a bold flavor, more body and higher caffeine content. And No. 2 and No. 4 are a blend of Arabica and robusta. Arabica is milder in flavor, a little bit more acidic. It's a nice balance between the Arabica and Robusta. No. 3 and 5 are 100% Arabica,” Tang said.
Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world after Brazil and Trung Nguyên Legend is Vietnam’s largest coffee manufacturer. Along with the beans, it sells high quality instant coffee and operates a chain of franchised coffee bars with international locations in countries such as China and Japan.
The 1,300-square-foot storefront in Westminster is clean and spare with a black and white color scheme. Order at the counter, then settle inside or perch outside. Servers can make your coffee to go, but the real experience is inhaling and anticipating its intoxicating flavor while it drip brews. That takes about 7-8 minutes, but this is coffee well worth the wait.
How can something this strong not taste incredibly bitter? The company has had 20 years to perfect its blends and even offers a “civet” coffee. The traditional process entailed feeding beans to civets, small mammals native to tropical forests in Asia and Africa, and retrieving and cleaning those beans after they had been partially digested.
Trung Nguyên Legend’s “civet” coffee has nothing to do with the animals. “It’s a special bio-fermentation process. I believe it's 20 stages,” said Tang. “They developed a way to roast and process the coffee so that the flavor is similar.”
That coffee, called Legend on the menu, is the one not to miss. It has a richer flavor than the other brews and a real heft that’s almost meaty. Traditional civet coffee has been described as earthy, chocolatey, caramelly, strong and smooth. Trung Nguyên Legend’s version lives up to those tasting notes; it’s the priciest drink on the menu ($8.50-$9.50) and it is sophisticated and satisfying.
The coffee bar serves espresso drinks ($2.50-$5.75), phin coffees ($4.75-$7.50) egg cream coffees ($6.25-$6.50) and blended iced drinks and teas ($6.25-$6.50). Legend specialty coffees are $6.25-$9.50. Cold brew is available too.
This promises to be a destination java stop, so, for those who have a long drive, we recommend leaving with some beans and paraphernalia to brew at home. Don’t forget to snag instant packets premixed with sweetened powdered milk.
PHOTO 1: Trung Nguyên Legend in Westminster offers exceptional instant versions of its signature coffee drinks. PHOTO 2: The color scheme in the coffee shop is black and white. PHOTO 3: The opening day display. Photos by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC
Many Americans would refuse any instant coffee, but don’t turn your nose up at these. They’re so delectable you might find yourself tucking them into your purse or briefcase, even in your suitcase when you travel — they’re that good.
So, the first part of the magic with Trung Nguyên Legend is the attention to the beans. “There are other coffee shops serving amazing Vietnamese coffee too and they're also a part of the community,” Tang said. “But I will say what makes us unique is that we grow coffee. We have our own plantations. We have our own factories. We offer quality coffee from bean to cup.”
The second part of that secret sauce is an indelible connection to the motherland. “It’s been really nice connecting with people from the community,” Tang said. “So, when I ask, ‘Have you tried us before?’ And they're like, ‘Yeah, I've had it in Vietnam.’ And then what they say is that it tastes like home — it’s so nice to hear that.”