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Hẻm Gems: Café Slow Cultivates a Natural Habitat for Creature Comforts

It's incredibly challenging to set yourself apart in Ho Chi Minh City's overcaffeinated café scene. The city's narrow streets and hẻms are brimming with beans.

Street carts feed casual drinkers' caffeine addiction with questionable viscous black liquid, while upmarket coffee chains overflow with crisp white shirts and Italian leather shoes. From dog/cat cafés to bubblegum pink photo sets disguised as coffee shops; there's a cup for every jitterer no matter their budget or inadequate knowledge of Colombian select roasts.

The humble entrance to Café Slow.

Café Slow has nonetheless made a name for itself amongst fierce competition since its opening in July 2020. Nestled at the end of a tranquil hẻm, where the only "traffic" is tiny football hooligans playing in the street, the entrance is rather nondescript. Juxtaposed by the canary-yellow pagoda next door decked out with lanterns and fire-breathing dragons, Café Slow is a touch subtler. The courtyard plays on earthy tones: a faded lime green gate swings open to present red zigzagged bricks, cracked nondescript paint, wooden stools and tree stump tables all crested beneath the canopy of a lazy bồ đề (bodhi) tree.

The cozy interior of the first segment of the coffee shop.

Once inside, your nostrils are enticed by the rich aroma of their coffee blend. There's also the familiar sound of beans being ground I used to associate with expensive coffee shops and flannel shirts, but have since come to appreciate (the grinders, not the flannels). Set in a typical Vietnamese tube house, it's impressive how effectively Café Slow utilizes its space — there's more wasted space in a Tokyo apartment. It can only seat 52 people, yet it boasts a bookshelf, a vinyl player, sofas, a balcony upstairs, and even a piano. At the entrance is a large coworking table where you can become acquainted with the local gaggle of digital nomads, and on the left wall is easily my favorite feature: the bookshelf and vinyl player, complete with a record collection that would make your dad jealous.

Along the wall sits a shelf housing books by Paperbacks Saigon and the owners' vinyl collection.

Above the vinyl player is a "play next" shelf where you can torture the whole shop with your chosen sonic poison, be it Frank Sinatra, Chopin, or the Guardians of the Galaxy Soundtrack Vol. 1 (I wish I was kidding). The bookshelf is also a treasure trove, with purchasable books on marketing, photography, business psychology and even rare manga, all courtesy of Café Slow's partnership with Paperbacks Saigon, an online book retailer with shelves at Café Slow as well as the OHQUAO concept stores.

Spot the puppy!

However, the far end of the shop is where the real magic happens. The coffee counter extends the width of the building, framed by shelves neatly stacked with jars, tumblers and vacuum-packed coffee bags so you can take some of their secrets home with you. Skilled baristas grind and froth and shake and pour some of the most delectable coffees you've ever tasted. Uncomplicated yet so complex, even their cà phê sữa just strikes your palate differently.

Often, the strength of the average Vietnamese coffee can mask delicate flavor notes and induce heart palpitations that make you vibrate like an adolescent hummingbird. This is due to most Vietnamese coffee being made from Robusta beans, which have significantly more caffeine content than Arabica beans; it lends Vietnamese coffee the signature bitterness, bold flavor and punch its famous for. However, the carefully curated blend at Café Slow strikes an incredible balance I realize I've subconsciously been searching for.

The piano corner.

Quỳnh, who co-founded the coffee shop with Phương two years ago, is the mastermind behind the blend. Her coffee journey began years ago while she was working at a Hanoian coffee shop called Kafeville. There, she nurtured a palate for high-quality specialty brews and was painstakingly mentored by the owner, under whose watchful gaze she learned to craft Italian coffee.

"Once you start drinking quality coffee, you can't enjoy cheaper stuff anymore,” she laughs as she tries to unravel the complexity of Café Slow's different blends to someone with a pitiful knowledge of specialty roasts (i.e me). Quỳnh explains that she crafted their signature blends through years of trial and error, working alongside their Taiwanese coffee roaster Koke to better understand the craft of procuring quality beans, roasting them and developing their desired taste.

Their Vietnamese coffee is a blend of 70% Robusta and 30% Arabica. Their Italian coffee is a 50/50 blend of Colombian and Brazilian beans, whose chocolatey and nutty flavor profile is perfect for creamy brews. In contrast, their espresso is a blend of Colombian and Ethiopian beans, giving it a sharp citrus-y finish. They also sell an El Salvadorian single-origin espresso at their Bình Thạnh branch.

While a storm of sensory overload usually deluges the streets of Saigon, the mood in Café Slow is a welcome contrast. Instead, you’ll find solace and hushed tones here, an unspoken rule of consideration brought on by the warm lighting and neutral colors, as intended by Phương’s design. With a background in theater production, he has also directed short films and TV shows, as well as the trailer for an À Ố Show play he produced, which explains his propensity for lighting and mood. He’s been studying classical music since he was six and plays the piano. He’s also an astronaut. Not really but I wouldn’t be surprised.

The upper mezzanine.

Phương’s ethos can be understood by simply ordering a cup of Slow’s cà phê sữa đá. Served in attractive French Duralex tumblers, the presentation is humble but far more than meets the eye with no aspect overlooked: clear perfect ice cubes, a spoon and saucer — simple elegance.

Phương and Quỳnh believe in creating value by retaining a simple menu and using quality ingredients instead of muddling too many flavors. “It’s already so difficult to perfect classic recipes, we didn’t want to overcomplicate things,” they insist. “You can’t have fine dining every night, you’ll stop enjoying it.” They wanted to create a daily blend that would be consistently appreciated instead of premium coffee out of most consumer’s reach.

They don’t have a kitchen, but you can happily sink your teeth into some of the flaky sourdough pastries they sell on behalf of Breadventure, like pain au chocolat, cinnamon buns, and croissants. They also bake dense coffee/cream choux in-house which pair perfectly with creamy flat whites. Phương does have plans to include pasta on the menu, which I, for one, am very excited about, as it will allow me to occupy their sofa real estate for longer.

Another aspect of Slow that, in my opinion, sets it apart is the sense of community you feel when visiting, which might explain the high number of regulars who frequent these walls. The cafe's unofficial mascots also live on site: two adorable French bulldogs called Đậu and Cookie, resembling the salt and pepper that bind everything together in this dish of passion. Another crucial ingredient is the staff members, who are integral cornerstones of their success.

Phương (left) and Quỳnh (right) with Đậu and Cookie.

“We didn’t just want to open a coffee shop, we wanted to create a space for people, a community.”

And in terms of future plans? It’s safe to say they’re just getting started. The pair told me they had to rent out an adjacent building which they plan on renovating to include more seating and more parking just to accommodate the ever-increasing flow of customers they serve. Phương jokes that his biggest challenge is that they have too many customers on weekends and have to turn people away. They recently opened up a second branch at City Garden Bình Thạnh and are working on a third in Thảo Điền, which I look forward to visiting and seeing how they’ve adapted to a larger premises.

Give us affection.

If you’re in the area, go amble down an alleyway and unravel the layered intricacies that make this coffee shop far more than what it is, and leave a calmer, more satiated, and more caffeinated human.

Cafe Slow is open daily from 7am to 7pm every day except Mondays.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 4.5/5
Location: 4/5

Café Slow

27/63A Huỳnh Tịnh Của, Ward 8, D3, HCMC

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