Toscanini’s Vietnamese coffee

Who needs half-caff?
By RACHEL NOLAN  |  August 8, 2007

As construction workers dismantled the giant metal T that presided over Harvard Square until this past December, my friends and co-workers began to lose weight. They were not happy about it. But though Toscanini’s may be gone from Harvard Square, thankfully their Vietnamese coffee — a former Square staple — is still available at their location in Central Square.

Ordering it gets you extra-strong cold-brewed coffee loaded with enough sweetened condensed milk to make it the caloric equivalent of a hefty snack. My co-workers call it “ambrosia.” My friends call it “necessary for survival.” (The weight loss, it seems, involved not deprivation but rather trekking farther to find the stuff.)

Why don’t they just make it at home? The classic argument of sensible-parent types is that going out for coffee is a rip-off. I must admit that $2.55 is pricey for a venti Americano at Starbucks. Vietnamese coffee is less of a swindle, as condensed milk is not a cheap item. A can of Eagle Brand — the type that Toscanini’s uses — runs around $3.85. Considering that Toscanini’s gives you half the can unless you ask them to go easy on the sweet stuff, their Vietnamese iced coffee ($2.50; $3/large) is a relative bargain.

Friends who are better traveled than I say ca phe sua da is the drink of choice among street beverage vendors in Vietnam. Coffee hawkers fill the bottom of a glass cup with sweetened condensed milk and brew hot coffee — so strong that it’s goopy even before it hits the milk — straight into the cup using an individual filter. The mix is then stirred and poured over ice.

Aside from local Vietnamese restaurants, Toscanini’s used to be one of two places in Boston that served this type of coffee. (For all the half-caff, part-skim, extra-hot magic at their fingertips, Starbucks baristas will look at you oddly if you request a Vietnamese — although rumor is that they serve it at their stores in Hawaii.) But Boston’s hipper cafés, including Diesel Café and 1369 Coffee House, have jumped on the sweet-and-icy bandwagon.

Still, Toscanini’s variety reigns supreme as the only mixture in which the iced coffee is strong enough to compete with the sweetened condensed-milk flavor. If you’re lucky, you might meet red-dreaded Mike or an equally attentive server who brews ca phe sua da the most authentic way I’ve seen in Boston: stirring in hot coffee to dissolve the condensed milk before adding ice and topping it up with double-strength iced coffee. Delicious.

Available for $2.50 at Toscanini’s, 899 Main Street, in Cambridge. Call 617.491.5877. Also available for $2.50 at the Biscuit (formerly Toscanini & Sons), 406 Washington Street, in Somerville. Call 617.666.2770.

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