Dip, sip, slurp-- C-ville Coffee goes East
I fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine at a little restaurant called Pho Pasteur on Baxter Street in New York City's Chinatown. At least three times a week, I'd trade the toxic smell of paint fumes (I was subletting a room in an artist's studio in lower SoHo) for the intoxicating aroma of cilantro, ginger, curry, and star anise. After a few months, I figured out that the only way to eat pho- or Vietnamese noodle soup- was to toss aside my Emily Post etiquette, grab a spoon and pair of chopsticks, and slurp away– loudly.
Until recently, it has been virtually impossible to slurp authentic Vietnamese pho in Charlottesville. Crystal's (now Indian Milan) closed last year just months after opening, and bargain lunch spot Saigon Café is actually mostly Chinese (that's where the owners are from). But thanks to Toan Nguyen and his wife Betsy Patrick, pho and other Vietnamese specialties are now available from 5-9pm at C-ville Coffee.
I know, coffee and Asian food seem unlikely companions. But you may be as surprised as I was to see how well java jibes with peanut sauce, lemongrass, and fresh (i.e. not fried) spring rolls.
How did this combo come about? "We were tired of going to D.C. to get our fix of pho," Nguyen says to my understanding nods. "Plus, we always planned on doing a noodle shop, even before a coffee shop."
That noodle shop plan is still in the works (Nguyen says to give them a couple of years), but in the meantime the couple decided to exploit the potential of their enormous, family-friendly coffee house by building a sizeable kitchen in the back and offering a short menu of Vietnamese dishes at night.
Right now they're too busy at lunch (sandwiches, salads) to offer noodles, too– but that could change if the bowls catch on like I think they might. If you show up after 5 (actually they start taking orders at 4:30pm) you can pick from a selection of noodle bowls (grilled skewers of pork, beef, chicken, or tofu, and sliced fresh veggies and herbs on rice or egg noodles), bowl ingredients (in case you want to "create your own") and, of course, pho.
Wine and beer are new sipping options, surely appealing to tired parents at the end of the day...
For the uninitiated, fresh yet filling pho traditionally starts with a broth made by simmering beef bones with water, ginger, star anise, cinnamon sticks, vegetables, and nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) for several hours. Thin slices of beef and rice noodles are then added to the broth, sometimes (as in NYC) with a handful of cilantro. Nguyen, who lived in Vietnam until the age of 10 and really knows his pho, says his wife's recipe (yes, she's the chef!) is pretty close to perfection.
But is Vietnamese food kid-friendly? Given C-ville Coffee's identity as one of the best places to hang out with a toddler or two, I had to ask. "Kids go crazy over the chicken with peanut sauce," Nguyen says. "I was surprised to see these totally American looking kids just slurping it up."
Just one tip: Go early.
...while The Corner goes tropical
As we wait to see exactly what will take the place of Liquid, the downtown smoothie café that closed with 2003 (wraps and a bar in a Jetson-style decor, I hear), we can know that tropical smoothies will be coming (back, since Liquid started out here) to The Corner this spring.
As the huge banner announces, Tropical Smoothie Café– a smoothie, wrap, and sandwich franchise owned by Whit Douglas and Thomas Beers of Virginia Beach– is the new occupant of the space formerly occupied by The Garment District on University Ave. Project manager Debbie Brown tells me that Artisan Construction Inc. hopes to finish the transformation of little dress shop into a contemporary-looking café by March 5.
Maybe we'll have thawed out by then.
C-ville Coffee goes East.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO