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Hẻm Gems: Cà Phê Sữa and Cơm Tấm With a Side of Espionage History

Kimchi is not a common cơm tấm accouterment. The extra helping of chili pepper heat, palate-cleansing bitterness and cabbage leaf crunch doesn't taste out of place beside a fully loaded plate of broken rice, it’s just not a common feature of the southern staple. This is not so at Cà Phê Đỗ Phủ-Cơm Tấm Đại Hàn, where the story behind kimchi’s existence on the plate is more interesting than the meal itself.

To understand why the quaint Tân Định cafe serves kimchi with their cơm tấm, we have to go back several decades. The Biệt động Sài Gòn insurgent group originally gained strength during France’s colonization of Vietnam and experienced a revival in the 1960s when it again tasked itself with coordinated, undercover strikes, this time on occupying American forces and their allies. Trần Văn Lai, an important figure in the group and who was fictionalized in the film Biệt Động Sài Gòn, owned numerous homes throughout the city that he used in his role as a clandestine stockpiler of weapons and disseminator of information while working as a furniture upholsterer.

Some of Lai’s homes and their stashes have been returned to their original states and comprise a tour that Saigoneer took part in last year. The most impressive relic is of course the hidden basement on modern-day Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street that stretches beneath two homes, and, by 1967, was filled with over two tons of guns, explosives, grenades and munitions. But another building working towards the same goals did so in a much subtler way. The simple two-story home at 113A Đặng Dung Street contains a small dresser with a false bottom that could store missives and contraband.

A convulsion hiding place should be a common feature of every home.

Despite the large National Liberation Front of South Vietnam flag hanging out in front of the cafe, for years I knew nothing of the home’s history. I didn't think of it as anything other than a typical retro-style cafe outfitted with antiques conveniently located near my apartment at the time. The spacious second floor with a large balcony was always a nice place to sip coffee. And while the wooden furniture grows uncomfortable before long and the lack of air-conditioning causes the space to grow rather stuffy by mid-day, it’s perfectly peaceful during the cooler times of the day. When Saigoneer visited not long after its 7am opening time a few Sundays ago, we had the entire airy second floor to ourselves to savor a filling breakfast and bask in the atmosphere of a past era in Saigon.

Cà phê Đỗ Phủ stands out among Saigon's vintage coffee shops because most things belong to this home and not just brought in for "the vibes."

Despite its plethora of artifacts, from tools to electronics to photos to appliances, Cà Phê Đỗ Phủ is not a museum. The items serve to establish the mid-20th-century aesthetic rather than explain it. So while some of the items may be obvious, like a Soviet-era thermos resting atop a dusty cabinet, others are less discernable. If you didn’t know what an outdated fuse box looks like and haven’t had the experience of going to a public school that still used them long after they were replaced elsewhere, the switch beside the bathroom door, for example, would go unexplained.

The walls are adorned with old letters and photos from the past life of Trần Văn Lai.

Similarly, some items seem to have a habit of moving around. I was eager to show the rest of the Saigoneer team an incredible collection of old currency the restaurant kept in a binder, but I couldn’t locate it on the most recent visit. And while there is some explanation behind the tricky cupboard and hints at the history of Biệt động Sài Gòn via photographs, one would need to do some additional reading or research to fully appreciate the incredible role the building played in the city’s history.

The scene could pass for any Vietnamese home in the 1990s.

This returns us to the topic of kimchi. Why is it being served here? As the proprietor explained to me last year: back in the 1960s, Lai and his compatriots believed that the best way to carry out their sabotage efforts safely was to hide in plain sight. And what better way to appear innocuous than by operating a restaurant patronized by your foes? Thus, they decided to serve the curious side dish to lure Korean soldiers into the cafe and better camouflage their mission.

The cơm tấm is very decent for a coffee shop, even though when we visited, the kimchi hadn't been delivered yet.

Still homemade to this day and delivered in the mornings, the kimchi is of the decidedly Vietnamese version, meaning it's not nearly as spicy as the Korean variety and therefore, doesn’t overwhelm the greasy pork chop, broken rice or small bowls of soup and fresh vegetables. Expected cơm tấm variations served with shredded pig skin or pork egg loaf are also available alongside the average cơm tấm sườn trứng. And while some online reviews have docked it a few points because it's not grilled outside in an endearingly rickety metal grill, the food is mediocre at worst. When considering cơm tấm in Saigon, mediocre is pretty damn tasty.

Seats are not too comfortable, but you are unlikely to stick around long enough to notice.

Good but nothing special would describe the drinks as well. The standard assortment of coffees and teas are joined by fruit juices including a neon green blended pandan beverage that we removed from all photos for this article as the extreme color stood out. The menu includes a butter beer as well, but those expecting the saccharine Disney World interpretation of the Harry Potter concoction are advised to look elsewhere. Made with actual beer, as well as caramel and butter, it sounded intriguing, but not appropriate for 8am, so we passed on it. If you do try it, please report back to us.

The house has balconies on both side, allowing for much ventilation.

Cà Phê Đỗ Phủ would be worth recommending even without its historical significance thanks to the good cơm tấm served in a chill atmosphere in a quiet part of the city. But knowing the story behind the kimchi and the building’s important role in Saigon’s history elevates it. Every establishment in Saigon has a story to tell, but few are so intriguing as to warrant a visit just to linger in their setting.

Cà Phê Đỗ Phủ-Cơm Tấm Đại Hàn is open from 7am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5
Price: 3/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 4/5
Location: 4.5/5

Paul Christiansen writes to earn money to one day buy a durian farm in the mountains.

Cà Phê Đỗ Phủ

113A Đặng Dung, Tân Định Ward, D1


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