For all of the elaborate jargon used to describe espresso nowadays, a simple truth always remains. Whether we are drinking short doses of a single origin or a blend housing a tricky mish-mash of bean varietals, most coffee enthusiasts, aside from the caffeine itself, are only ever chasing one thing. When a coffee roaster finally discovers it they will unfold every decorative label to outfit their accomplishment. Blueberry. Citrus. Caramel. Chocolate. They are the words now scribbled on blackboards at every second cafe. Yet between these lines the song sounds the same. We want coffee. But we also want it sweet.
Once the summer arrives, this desire for sweetness surfaces more freely. These are the afternoons to forego the business of dark, caramelly roasts for the pleasure of more refreshing hits of caffeine. This is when we ask our baristas to perform strange tasks that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. Add sugar syrup. Dollop ice-cream. Blend with ice and top with a cream gun. Some cafes refuse to participate. Then there are places that choose to do it in their own culturally distinct way. Two Vietnamese eateries in the inner city serve their coffee like the locals drink it in their homeland – in a country where the summers come and go but the humidity never really leaves. Over there, the coffee is always sweet. Roasted dark, filtered straight into the cup and sipped with sweetened condensed milk.
Two Vietnamese eateries in the inner city serve their coffee like the locals drink it in their homeland.
Over here, along Darby and Hunter streets no less, Saigon Feast and Screamin’ Veemis deliver strength, sweetness and refreshment without an ice-cream scoop in sight. If the former is the slower, conservative keeper of the Vietnamese coffee tradition, then Veemis is the brash and radical maverick with no time to lose.
At Saigon Feast a hot coffee ($3.50) arrives steaming in what looks like a stemless wine glass. It suits the atmosphere; tidy and old-fashioned but then hip in a completely unintentional way. The coffee settles into a two-tone – a chestnut base with a bone-coloured crown. It is deliciously, tongue-tinglingly sweet. It appears quite harmless but, believe me, it is anything but. Espresso it is not. Fuming with caffeine it most definitely is.
Around the corner at Screamin’ Veemis, both the iced and hot Vietnamese coffee is everywhere – carried out in trays, perched upon the window sill and sipped at little tables out on the footpath. As though it’s their first day of business, the staff are delightful and excited. I ordered an iced regular ($4) and a hot large ($5), each of which arrived with delicious ginger and pistaccio biscuits. The coffees were equal to each other in strength but somehow not nearly as pungent or overpowering. The flavour of the dark roast, especially in the iced coffee, easily made it through the cold milk and the treacly sweetness.