Ca Phe Sua: A Rich Coffee with Richer Culture

Vietnam’s cafés, at first blush, are not unlike Paris’. The difference lies in the details. Tables and chairs are squat, often plastic. Hunched patrons nibble on sunflower seeds. And dark, potent coffee settles atop a thick layer of sweet condensed milk. Stirred together, the two make ca phe sua (coffee with milk), the inspiration for our cake’s sauce. 

Coffee drinkers in Saigon prefer sweet, milky iced coffee served in tall glasses, while Hanoians like it strong and chase it with iced green tea. Hanoi also claims egg coffee: a frothy blend of condensed milk, eggs, butter, sugar and cheese. It’s one of many riffs on ca phe sua, along with yogurt coffee, coffee smoothies and coconut coffee. 

No chicory is involved in Vietnamese coffee, and there is no decaf. Brewed to order using a phin—a small four-piece metal filter—ca phe sua typically drips directly into the glass, warming the condensed milk below. In Vietnam, it would be enjoyed slowly. It doesn’t always last that long in our kitchen.

Actually, this is not a coffee cake. Nor is this chocolate cake even Vietnamese in origin.

But the Vietnamese coffee-­inspired sauce spooned over it is so show-stealing, the name seemed only fitting.

It was inspired by a dessert from The Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco: a chocolate chiffon cake dipped in a cold-brew coffee soak and drizzled with homemade condensed milk, which also goes in the whipped cream. Though it’s billed as a Vietnamese chocolate tres leches cake in his cookbook, “it’s technically a dos leches cake,” Charles Phan writes in “The Slanted Door.”

We liked that, despite a soak, the cake wasn’t soggy. For ease, we skipped the soak entirely, making a decadent Vietnamese coffee-like sauce instead.