Text and photos by Stacie Joy
Curious about Vietnamese phin coffee?
I sure was, which was why I was holding off on my daily caffeine ration before visiting Lê Phin Café, a sunny, delicately appointed new Vietnamese coffee shop at 259 E. 10th St. between Avenue A and First Avenue to talk with owners Khuyen Thi Kim Le and Duc Manh Nguyen (the wife-and-husband owners go by Kim Le and Dan Nguyen).
Kim recently published a piece about phin on coffee-publication site Sprudge, so I had an idea of what to expect, and since the labor- and time-intensive phin takes a while to create, we had time to chat about the café, Vietnamese coffee and local reaction to the highly caffeinated drink.
Ten years ago, after I got admitted to grad school, I was still trying to figure out my move from Vietnam to the U.S. I would have never imagined myself opening a coffee shop!
I remembered trying to squeeze a few bags of coffee and a phin into my carry-on before the trip, hoping to bring a little bit of home with me into the next chapter of my life.
Over the next few years, through all my ups and downs, all the moves, all the struggles, the habit of having a cup of phin coffee every day has probably been the single consistent and familiar thing that I could keep in my life, comforting me through those moments of diaspora blues.
It is hard to explain such a strong attachment to something so simple, all from the daily life I used to have back home. I guess that emotional attachment is where it started, or at least where the first sparks started for me.
After my graduation in 2015, while still trying to figure out what to do next, I made a trip home to Vietnam and one of my relatives invited me to visit his coffee farm in Bảo Lộc. That was the first time I got to see the whole process. The work that goes into the single cup of coffee that I had been drinking without understanding much up until that point. Tasting those fresh, high-quality beans was eye-opening to me. But more important, I was overwhelmingly surprised by how little the farmers in Vietnam make, despite their hard labor.
The light bulb kind of went on at that moment. After that trip, I came back to the U.S., started researching and learning more and more about coffee and coffee production. I got my certificates and eventually became a coffee-quality grader and also started a small business exporting Vietnamese green beans to Japan. Then Covid hit.
My exporting business halted right when I was planning to test my own roast in the United States market. I was struggling quite a bit before finally deciding to open my own coffee shop. It is a completely different business than curating and exporting beans, but it takes me back to where it all started, that comforting feeling from my daily cup of phin-brewed coffee. I want to share that joy and comfort with more people, and for me that was a great place to begin again.
I have always loved the East Village and spent a lot of time hanging out here. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant at first to settle here, since there are already so many coffee shops in the area. I was not sure if I could handle the competition!
I spent four or five months wandering different neighborhoods, looking at quite a few locations for my shop, from Brooklyn to Queens through Manhattan. But whenever I asked myself, Where would I want to spend a cozy morning sharing all those random stories over a cup of coffee with friends from all walks of life?
I could not think of anywhere else than this neighborhood. The multicultural and unique characters you come across, this artistic essence, this dense urban feel yet welcoming vibe that reminds me of home, all of that made me decide to take a leap of faith and settle here.
My husband and I spent many months looking for a location and many more months renovating this place after we signed the lease. Almost every day of that preparation period felt challenging. We put our entire savings into this but we did not have much, so we did a lot of things by ourselves, from floor plan and interior design to finding suppliers and contractors.
Almost everything was new and every little thing could go wrong, sometimes it felt like I could never get the shop ready for opening. But it finally did open. And then I guess the most rewarding part was to be welcomed by everyone, more than we could ever imagined: Our neighbors come by every day with a smile, customers come back bringing a friend, random people spend an afternoon at our shop and start talking to each other, sharing all little these stories. This place has quickly become a little oasis for not just us but many of our old and new friends, and that brings me joy every day.
Did you model Lê Phin on any of your favorite places/cafes?
Not really. We did not hire an interior designer and basically just gathered the items that we liked, all preloved furniture, and tried to put them next to each other in a way that seemed to make sense.
The only thing is this yellow accent color that we used for our shop, which is a shade that you can easily see everywhere in Vietnam, especially in the older, French-influenced buildings.
What has been the reaction from patrons to date?
People have been very excited about our special drinks. I started having some repeat customers come to the shop and order phin pour-over coffee, straight black — no milk. It proves that the phin is really capable of brewing a delicious cup of coffee.
What’s next for the two of you? Any future expansion plans?