CHICAGO - Many Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago are on Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood, but Ca Phe Dá in Pilsen offers Vietnamese food served at a slightly higher level.
The owners of Haisous on 18th Street opened the tiny coffee shop next door, where the pastries and sandwiches are truly remarkable.
Owner Thai Dang's passion for the food of his childhood knows no bounds. His latest effort - Ca Phe Dá - offers a lot more than just the ubiquitous cup of strong Vietnamese coffee. In some cases, it's served classically, in drip form; you simply mix it up with sweetened condensed milk then pour over ice; in other versions, he adds a whipped sabayon, or egg custard, scented with fresh vanilla bean; again, mix it up before drinking. The coffee is exquisite.
"Roasted by my sister-in-law's family, sent here to us every week, and so we just specialize in few items of Vietnamese-style coffee with condensed milk and then we have banh mi all day and after 5 o'clock you can get hot item food," said Dang.
Those banh mi - or sub sandwiches - begin with a shmear of homemade mayo and a dose of hot sauce, plus thinly-sliced cucumbers and your choice of several options like grilled chicken or braised pork. Shredded lettuce, a mound of freshly-picked herbs and lettuces, as well as thinly-sliced and pickled daikon radish and carrot add a final bit of crunch. Early in the day, try one of their pastries.
"The lychee Danish, the pandan brioche and then of course the coconut bun, all made in-house," he said.
The brioche is colored green from pandan, a native leaf that has a beguiling aroma; served with a side of coconut jam, it's Southeast Asia in every bite.
Later in the day, after five, Dang offers a few heartier options.
"Com Binh Dan, which I grew up eating and also in Vietnam is like the worker's meal. Right now our menu has braised pork belly with hen egg and pickled mustard green," he said.
Just mix up the egg with the protein and the rice, and get a satisfying meal for just ten bucks. Dang's wife and partner, Danielle, handles the beverage program next door at Haisous; here, she offers a few cocktails as well, all made with crushed ice and fresh herbs, even some with tropical jackfruit. But Dang says he hopes the coffeeshop can serve as a gathering place for his new neighbors in Pilsen.
"For the locals, that they could come in, grab a banh mi, have a coffee...kind of like casual feel, all day, every day," said Dang.
The café is really meant to be an all-day affair. From pastries and coffee in the morning, to iced coffee and sandwiches in the afternoon, and more substantial dishes after five p.m. including some cocktails.
EXTRA COURSE: A coffee drink at the café which uses a bit of coconut milk, and turned into a coffee smoothie.
Ca Phe Dá
EXTRA COURSE: Special coffee drink at Ca Phe Da
1800 1/2 S. Carpenter St., Chicago