As I was finishing up my last year of college, I took a job in a little cafe that was short-lived but had a big impact on my cooking experience. I lived in this cute ground-floor apartment with a private courtyard in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, right across I-5 from the UW and I noticed one morning on the way to the bus stop that the normally empty cafe space at the front of the building had a hum of activity. I was a little bored with school and after an inquiry got a job as pastry chef/barista/cashier for a soft-spoken man named Joseph who was opening a New York/Jewish deli-type place.
The funny thing about this is that Joseph was not from New York, nor was he Jewish–Joseph had been living in the U.S. for about eight years after smuggling himself out of Vietnam on a fishing boat. I’m still not sure how he learned how to make knishes and matzo ball soup, but we had a loyal New Yorker customer base that swore he was making the real thing. Some things I learned:
- Mashed potatoes and caramelized onions in pastry is delicious, especially right out of the oven.
- There are people out there that think celery soda is a great idea.
- Dough sheeters are dangerous.
- Waxed sandwich papers are extremely flammable.
- Fish sauce is vile and yet totally necessary to good peanut sauce.
- An iced mocha does not include steamed milk.
Joseph spent a lot of time teaching me to make Southeast Asian dishes and sauces and having me sample the fruits and foods that he grew up with. Sadly, the cafe didn’t make it and was only open for about six months, but it was a fun (and educational) six months. I’ve found myself thinking about that job this summer because of something else I got from that experience: ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced “brown” coffee). Joseph started every morning with a glass with ice and strong coffee topped with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk and got me to try it on more than one occasion.
- Make some strong coffee. Or a couple shots of espresso.
- Fill a tall glass with ice.
- Pour the coffee over the ice and then add a large spoonful of sweetened condensed milk and stir.
- Freeze the coffee in a popsicle maker and that’s it. You have Vietnamese coffee pops!