Coffee in Jakarta: quality, history, branding and something Swedish

Once we’d decided to cut Sumatra out of our itinerary, we actually had a few days to spare in Jakarta. We made the most of them with some fantastic coffee finds, bringing together all sorts of reasons for liking a coffee shop.

Most people in the west will have come across Java coffee or Sumatran, but once you’re in Indonesia, expect to be hit with the subtleties of coffees from East or West Java, from South or North Sumatra (Aceh being a popular coffee source tragically associated in my mind with the tsunami 10 years ago, but not usually thought of as a coffee region on the northern tip of Sumatra), and then the wonderfully exotic Papua, Flores, Bali or Sulawesi.

We may only have gone to Java and Bali on this journey, but our appetite has been whetted for future trips to other islands, for the tea as well as the coffee. Indonesia, we’ll be back!

Our first experience of coffee in Jakarta was actually our favourite. Tanamera Coffee has everything I look for in a coffee shop: friendly, welcoming staff, coffee roasted on-site, a good vibe and buzz from happy customers, not to mention good air con to escape the Jakarta heat and excellent wifi.

Tanamera Coffee in Jakarta

Oh, and the coffee, was exceptionally good, too.

Best coffee in Jakarta at Tanamera Coffee

Tanamera Coffee was not that easy to find, mind you. If you’re not local to Jakarta, you may not realise that Thamrin City Office Park is not the same as Thamrin Plaza shopping mall or Thamrin City Hotel. And our taxi driver gave up pretty quickly, forcing us to ask about five people before someone had heard of the coffee shop…

Once you find Thamrin City Office Park, you can’t miss Tanamera. And if it’s anything like the day we were there, you’ll see a crowd of people outside sipping their coffee. It’s a mixed crowd, by the way, with as many westerners as locals, so word has got around the community clearly without the need for bloggers like us!

Outside Tanamera Coffee in Jakarta

All the coffee on offer was sourced direct from the farmers, all over Indonesia and roasted at the back of the premises here. You could choose between a single origin or a blend for the espresso machine.

Sacks of coffee at Tanamera Coffee in Jakarta

We loved this place and lingered for much longer than we would normally (partly due to the torrential rain that began to fall shortly after we arrived, forcing us to order a second coffee).

Tanamera Coffee in Jakarta

A really good coffee shop in Jakarta. Thanks to Aga for making us welcome (and thanks to Aidan the Aussie from WA who we didn’t get to meet, but who had the idea of setting this place up in 2013.

Bakoel coffee shop doesn’t appear in most people’s ‘top coffee shops in Jakarta’ lists, but we loved the place just for its sense of history.

Bakoel Koffie founder

It was founded in 1878 by a guy called Tek Sun Ho, whose portrait still stands proudly on the wall of their branch in the leafy district of Cikini. It has a Dutch name (Bakoel Koffie) and makes the most of its Dutch colonial past, with photos of the coffee shop from 1920 and 1938.

Inside Bakoel coffee shop in Jakarta

The building still has a colonial feel, with ceiling fans rather than air conditioning, a leafy garden at the back and lots of old coffee making equipment around the place.

Bakoel coffee beans

There’s a choice of three blends on offer for your coffee: Black Mist, Heritage 1969 and Brown Cow, using blends of Sumatran, Java and Sulawesi beans. Yet another rain storm forced us to stay here for a second coffee, too, doubling our usual daily caffeine intake, but this is a great coffee shop for feeling a connection to history…

Bakoel Koffie in Jakarta

We don’t usually review coffee shops that are chains, preferring the individuality of the small business run by its owner or at most a place with two branches. But in Jakarta, there are several local chains, and we came across Anomali Coffee because we needed an early start one morning and these guys open their doors by 7am.

Anomali Coffee in Jakarta

The coffee was good, the atmosphere perhaps a little too big and urban for my liking, but I did love their branding. These guys have the best designers for the packaging of their coffees, so good that we bought a small pack of their Aceh beans to bring home with us.

Great packaging design at Anomali Coffee in Jakarta

And it’s at Anomali Coffee that we realised the variety of Indonesian coffee you can get. They had probably the widest range of coffee for sale from a fantastic list of Indonesian islands, enough for a European visitor’s mind to boggle, especially as I’d never even heard of Flores or Toraja and had no idea that Papua was a place for coffee…

Indonesian coffee map

On our last afternoon in Jakarta, and on our way to afternoon tea (but more on that on the tea in Jakarta blog tomorrow), we stopped by Crematology in Jalan Suryo.

Map of Stockholm on Crematology coffee shop wall

The coffee here too was excellent, the venue spacious and relaxing, but my curiosity drew me to the wallpaper over by the bar, which appeared to be a map of Stockholm, all in Swedish.

As I was paying, I casually asked why they had a map of Stockholm on their wall, and the barista suggested I ask the owner, who was sitting just by the wall.

CrematologyCoffeePortrait

20 minutes later (and by now running late for that afternoon tea…) I was still chatting with Elliot Davernas, the Swedish guy who set up the Crematology concept.

If you like an ethical approach to your coffee, Crematology has to be the choice for coffee in Jakarta.

Elliot has a hands-on approach to managing this coffee shop, and prides himself on prioritising home-made rather than factory produced, even for the furniture that fills the coffee shop. In fact, one week from the opening of this place, he told us, they didn’t even have a bar to work from because Elliot wanted all hands on deck to MAKE the bar from the solid block of wood he had acquired – all part of the team-building spirit that makes this one of the most egalitarian places to work in Jakarta, with jobs rotated regularly and everyone able to do anything to keep the place running.

Elliot’s passion is not only contagious, it’s addictive. I reckon even I would have joined in with the furniture making if I’d been on his team, though I’m not sure they’d have had such a smooth surface if I’d put the finishing touches to it.

It’s a shame I didn’t have  time to try more of the coffees and cakes on offer here at Crematology. But I’m really glad I asked why they had that map of Stockholm on the wall. After all, I always liked a coffee shop with a good story to tell. And Elliot can certainly tell a few of those.

But it did make us late for tea. And that was an even more special occasion, about which more to come in tomorrow’s blog entry…

Ideas and inspiration from coffee shops in Singapore

I’d heard good things about the coffee scene in Singapore, but it’s the kind of place we usually rush through on the way somewhere else. This visit was no different, with just 24 hours in the country before we headed towards Indonesia, though this time we prioritised the coffee. And I’m very glad we did.

Nylon Coffee in Everton Park was very special.

Nylon Coffee Roasters in Singapore

They just do coffee (rather like some of the coffee shops we’d found earlier on the journey in Vienna or Budapest), so the only question you’ll be asked on entering the shop is: “How do you want it?” (If you’re desperate for a cake or something else to nibble with your coffee, there is a bakery next door, by the way).

They roast their own beans, so your nose will guide you the last few yards to the coffee shop entrance, with the aroma wafting out into the street.

Nylon coffee roasters in Singapore

And their menu is pretty simple. It’s espresso, white, iced, long black or filter. And there are three sizes to choose from. They do a seasonal blend in the espresso machine (Central American beans in there for our visit), though there are more options if you go for the filter.

On the menu at Nylon Coffee in Singapore

Who needs a more complicated menu than that?

No sugar is needed in coffee this good, so no sugar is offered and in fact there was no sugar in sight anywhere in the coffee shop. What a contrast to the coffee scene in many other parts of South East Asia.

Good coffee in Singapore at Nylon Coffee Roasters

Best of all, there’s nothing pretentious about this place. We got to meet Jiamin, one of the co-owners, and I immediately warmed to her attitude, especially when I mentioned that I hadn’t enjoyed my coffee in another venue in Singapore earlier that day.

“Coffee is very subjective,” she said, and you know what, I really think it is. A place I don’t like might be someone else’s favourite, though in our case it’s usually as much to do with atmosphere and welcome as it is the actual coffee quality.

So Nylon Coffee Roasters was one of my favourite coffee shops on the whole 25-country journey, even if it was standing room only, and there’s no wifi!

The fact that Nylon Coffee was so busy on the afternoon we dropped by shows what a destination coffee shop it has become for locals in Singapore, especially as it is tucked away at the back of a residential block well away from any main streets.

Outside Nylon Coffee roasters in Singapore

If you’re going for the first time, you might need a hand with directions, mind you. Once you find the arched entrance to Everton Park (just off Everton Road), you can avoid doing the tour we did of every retail outlet by nipping round the back to the right after the arch and then walking along the side of the block. After 100 yards or so, you’ll find Nylon. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Chye Seng Huat Hardware coffee shop in Singapore

Chye Seng Huat Hardware is a completely different type of coffee shop, actually more reminiscent of those trendy mums and toddlers places you find in Dulwich or Stoke Newington.

Again, we spent a while finding the way in to this place, pushing and poking the front door and windows on Tyrwhitt Street street before we realised the entrance is around the side, where everyone is sitting out on the terrace.

This is an old hardware shop near to Little India, which is how the coffee shop got its rather unusual name. It’s in an art deco building, with a lot of the fittings from the old hardware store giving the place a real urban coffee shop feel, as you would find in many big western cities.

Inside Chye Seng Huat Hardware coffee shop in Singapore

Education is a big part of CSHH and they’re keen to show the whole coffee-making process, from the green beans to the coffee cup. So there’s different coffee stuff going on all over the premises, with a roaster, a workshop, an annex with a retail space, the coffee shop itself and more activities we didn’t get a chance to see upstairs.

CSHHBeans

But, like Nylon Coffee, there’s nothing preachy about the approach in CSHH. And they were happy to chat about their coffee and the coffee shop concept even though the queue was building up behind us.

Good coffee in Singapore at Chye Seng Huat Hardware

The coffee was fantastic quality, again. And with two choices of espresso blends on the hopper, we had no option but to stay for a second cup.

Oh, and unlike Nylon, these guys do food. It was our choice for an excellent breakfast, though beware of the small tables if you do choose to eat (yes, we had a spill, which seems almost inevitable if you try to fit two cups and two plates on one table…).

Great breakfast in Singapore at Chye Seng Huat Hardware

So, coffee in Singapore is a fantastic experience, and we barely scratched the surface of the scene over there. If you really want to check out all the good coffee shops there, you’ll need at least a week. But if you only have 24 hours like us, we’d highly recommend Nylon Coffee and Chye Seng Huat Hardware.

A traditional coffee in Kluang; an exciting Liberica in Johor Bahru; and a lively local place for breakfast

A lot of travel guidebooks tell you it’s worth stopping at Kluang railway station for a coffee, but they don’t tend to go into the history of this place, which goes back almost 80 years.

Kluang Rail Coffee

We got lucky with a coffee connection made in Kuala Lumpur when we met local lad Ony, who insisted we stop off on our way south towards Johor because he knows the owners of the Station cafe.

This meant we not only got to try the coffee experience in Kluang, but were also shown around by Chiang Lim Jit, one of the family members whose grandfather set up the station café all those years ago.

Visit to Kluang Rail Coffee with one of the owners

It’s a fantastic story, involving immigrant workers from Hainan in China, who came to Malaysia mainly to work for the Brits, whose army camp was nearby. The Hainanese had great culinary skills, and part of that involved making the coffee.

It’s intriguing, mind you, to wonder what happened a couple of years after they opened up shop when the Japanese rampaged their way through these parts: did the station café remain open? Did the Japanese even drink coffee? We didn’t get time to ask these questions, so if anybody knowns anything, do let us know…

Coffee in Kluang at the railway station

The coffee they use here used to be grown just two stations up the line, but is now sourced a little further away nearer to Johor. It’s still a quality Liberica bean, though.

This is no ‘third wave’ artisan coffee shop in the modern western sense of the word, however. And we didn’t really get to see exactly how the coffee is prepared: the staff were so in awe of Chiang’s techniques when he turned up, that he was hidden from view as the waiters all huddled around him to watch.

We could see it involved pouring the coffee from a great height, though, or was it just the water being poured over the coffee beans or powder? In any case, the result is what is known as a traditional coffee (as opposed to your espresso or more modern ‘pourover’) and you have the option of black, with sweetened milk or with evaporated milk.

It’s a strong, rich coffee, and it’s very very popular round these parts. The café was full shortly after it reopened for the afternoon at 2.30pm (yes, they close for lunch!), and we were told its regulars include Singapore border officials who think it’s worth hopping on the train up for a cuppa, and the Sultan of Johor, who has been known to arrive driving his own private train to get here.

Inside kluang Rail Coffee shop

It’s also hard to know what exactly goes in the rather tasty toasty things they serve up to have with your coffee. There’s a secret family recipe to their kaya, which comes on toast or steamed, but is basically roasted sugar and butter – it is delicious!

Kaya toast in Kluang

There’s talk of developing the railway through here, making it a fast track across Asia and pulling down the railway station building. The family have opened up other coffee shops round Kluang, but we think the original place is a fantastic piece of history they surely have to preserve: the kitchen is still in the same position it was 78 years ago, as is most of the seating area; the only major change since 1938 is that the owners no longer sleep on-site waiting for the first train to pull through in the mornings.

Sadly, because the train departures from Kluang are so few and far between, we had to transfer to the bus for our onward journey south; now that’s something they could do to improve travellers’ access to this wonderful café in Kluang…

We found a fantastic coffee shop in Johor Bahru. My Liberica has a good story of its own, too.

My Liberica coffee shop in Johor Bahru

It’s run by four brothers, who each have a different role in the business, one focusing on the coffee plantation where they grow their own Liberica beans, one leading on the roasting side of things, one doing the marketing, and the fourth keeping an overall eye on the business.

The great part of this story was that to start up their coffee business the brothers had to persuade their father to swap part of his palm plantation over to coffee, and if you’ve been to Malaysia you’ll know how hard that must have been, with hectare after hectare of land now covered with palm oil trees as far as the eye can see.

It’s especially exciting because the liberica bean represents a mere 2% of total worldwide coffee production, and it’s certainly not a bean I’d come across before hitting south east Asia.

Speciality coffee in Johor Bahru at My Liberica

My Liberica has the feel of a western style artisan coffee shop, with lots of choices of how dark you like the roast, how you like your coffee prepared and which bean or blend you want. They even do the infamous civet luwak, which we’d seen on the road since Vietnam, but avoided trying.

And best of all is the My Liberica philosophy: “It’s OK to enjoy or dislike your coffee how your palate prefers; a coffee can be a matter of compatibility or fate.”

We chose a cappuccino made to perfection on their Marzocco machine, while the barista fiddled around with syphons and flames for someone else that morning. This is the kind of coffee shop we’d return to day after day if we lived in Johor Bahru and we’d love one day to visit their coffee plantation…

Great coffee in Johor Bahru at My Liberica

It’s not an easy coffee shop to get to, mind you, with no public transport within a mile of the place, so we had to get a taxi to and from the Taman Molek area, but we tried another coffee shop right in the centre of Johor and didn’t like it nearly as much. So if you’re anywhere near Malaysia’s second city, get yourself to My Liberica for a fantastic coffee experience.

Of course, there’s also that new coffee shop opened up by the guy we’d heard about who used to be based in Kuala Lumpur. We managed to miss the soft opening of Atlas Coffee Embassy by a few days, and he was opening up properly a week or so after our visit. But this means the choices for coffee in Johor Bahru are good ones.

We can’t leave Malaysia, though, without a mention for our favourite place for breakfast in Johor Bahru. Hua Mui (on the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby) has been around for decades, but the original owner’s granddaughter is still in charge.

Breakfast in Johor Bahru at Hua Mui

You’ll get a fabulous egg toast with a rich milky cup of tea for next to nothing here, and you’ll feel most welcome as one of the few westerners among a crowd of locals.

The way they prepare the tea reminded us of the Kluang coffee maker, with the kettle held way up high and poured deftly into our cups from about 6 feet up – it’s apparently another Hainanese family doing things the Hainan way.

Preparing tea at Hua Mui cafe in Johor Bahru

It’s the usual sweetened milk and it probably isn’t the best quality tea, but it’s a fabulous experience and our top tip of all in Johor Bahru.

Traditional tea in Johor Bahru

We returned there a second time, by which we were recognised and made even more welcome by the staff, before we embarked on the lengthy and arduous border crossing into Singapore by bus, but that’s another story…

We benefited from Bangkok’s burgeoning coffee scene

If you’re going to have a coffee in Bangkok, it’s good to get there early. At least, that’s my take on it, since I prefer my coffee hot, while the outside temperature in the Thai capital by mid morning is better suited to smoothies or other cool drinks.

Gallery Drip Coffee in Bangkok

Of course, Anita got round that problem with a big iced coffee at the Gallery Drip Coffee bar in Bangkok.

Iced coffee at Gallery Drip in Bangkok

I was a bit hesitant about making this coffee shop our first port of call because I prefer to start my day with a cappuccino or other espresso-based coffee and I feared that Gallery Drip just might be all to do with drip coffee!

Cappuccino at Gallery Drip coffee in Bangkok

It is, but this is a great coffee shop and if you look at my coffee with hot milk, you’d barely know it wasn’t a cappuccino.

Gallery Drip Coffee is on the ground floor of Bangkok’s Art & Culture Centre (BACC). If you’re looking for it and happen to enter on a higher floor of this building, don’t be diverted to one of the other coffee shops on the way down, as we almost were. Gallery Drip is worth waiting for.

Gallery Drip coffee shop in Bangkok

The coffee shop itself is not air conditioned – which can be a bit of a drawback in such a hot city – but they have fans, and if you take one of the seats on the outside of the coffee shop, you can benefit from the gallery/mall air conditioning.

What I liked most about this place, apart from the taste of the coffee, was that they go for coffee grown as locally as possible. So we had a blend of Thai coffee, grown near Chiang Mai (which is apparently their all-year-round coffee), and a bean from nearby Laos.

Coffee shop in Bangkok

And because this is all about drip coffee, they grind each cup individually, making every coffee a personal creation or work of art by the baristas there.

In the window of Gallery Drip coffee in Bangkok

A coffee shop like this in the UK or America might tend to be a bit snobby about their coffee and how they make it, but the guys running Gallery Drip were both friendly and approachable. In fact, when I began to chat with Reggie (a DC expat now living in Bangkok), they began to join in, even offering us other brews to taste. These are genuine coffee lovers who love to engage with others who enjoy their cup of Joe.

Reggie was also a great source of ideas for where else to go for coffee in Bangkok. I had a list of places recommended by others on social media, but we either couldn’t find these, they were too far away from where we were staying or were closed on the days we were in town.

So we ended up for our second Bangkok coffee at a wonderful place called Ink & Lion.

Ink & Lion Cafe in Bangkok

This is not the easiest place to find, if you don’t know it or aren’t familiar with Bangkok’s strange street naming methods. Its address is 1/6 Ekamai 2, Sukhumvit 63.

Basically we walked up and down Sukhumvit 63 street several times before resorting to asking some guys in a London pie shop (yes, really, in Bangkok!), and it just happened that one of them knew the place.

Their description, and the best guide to getting there for now at least (December 2014) is behind the derelict Irish pub at the start of Sukhumvit 63.

Good coffee in Bangkok at Ink & lion

I loved their coffee options, with two blends on offer for the espresso machine: one just had Thai coffee in it; the other a fantastic mix of Thai, Indonesian, Brazilian and Ethiopian. Or they had a whole range of single origins if you wanted your coffee made by some other non-espresso method.

There had been quite a mix of westerners and locals in Gallery Drip, but in Ink and Lion, we were the only westerners there, suggesting that Bangkok is developing its own indigenous coffee scene.

Inside Ink & Lion coffee shop in Bangkok

Ink & Lion is quite an arty place and the owners apologised that we were visiting in between exhibitions, as their walls are normally covered in local artists’ work. But we’d guessed as much given the selection of arty magazines lying around on the shelves alongside the chess sets laid out for customers’ use…

If you’re into American-sized muffins and other cakes, you might at first think there isn’t a lot to eat here at Ink & Lion, but actually their mini scones and cheesecake are both delicious and filling.

Mini scones at Ink & Lion cafe in Bangkok

And finally, how did they get such an unusual name? Well, the ink is linked to the arty scene the owners come from, as well as being the colour of coffee. And the lion is the motif on their rather attractive Marzocco espresso machine.

Marzocco machine in Bangkok at Ink & Lion

Oh, and if you’re heading that way, please note that they are not open on Wednesdays.

So, we can’t claim to have reviewed the Bangkok coffee scene, with only two coffee shops visited out of the many places that have opened in the last five or so years.

But we were delighted with what we did find. We loved the fact that both venues are run by locals and both used coffee grown locally. And they both combined quality with friendliness, something that can be hard to find at times.

And thanks also to Reggie from DC (yes we shared a love for Swings and Peregrine Coffee in Washington) for his great conversation and tremendous coffee tips. Just a shame we didn’t get to try more of them!

A Kiwi devoted to coffee in Phnom Penh and a hotel devoted to tea

We were delighted with the places we found for coffee and tea in Phnom Penh.

The Feel Good Coffee Roastery is the kind of place we’d be going to every morning if we lived in the Cambodian capital. And as it was, by the time of our second visit there, we were already beginning to see familiar faces among both the staff and the customers, which is always a good sign for a local coffee shop.

Best coffee in Phnom Penh at Feel Good Coffee

But Feel Good ticked many more of our boxes, too.

Roasting coffee at Feel Good in Phnom Penh

They roast the beans on-site, they source as locally as possible, with coffee from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, and owner Mark has set up a fantastic business structure where his baristas part-own the place.

Good baristas at Feel Good Coffee in Phnom Penh

And I respect Mark’s decision to go with locally-grown coffee, even though it’s mostly the coarser Robusta bean, and to make the best coffee he can out of that rather than going for imports from far away. It’s a philosophy we both share in a world where air miles are doing about as much damage to the environment as anything else these days.

Coffee in Phnom Penh at Feel Good coffee roastery

His cappuccino with an Arabica-robusta blend was a pretty good coffee, though you could pick up the robusta fairly quickly on the first sip.

Single origin tipica from Laos

What was especially exciting, and you could see the passion in Mark’s eyes when he spoke about it, was that just a week or so before our visit they had sourced a really good single origin tipica bean from Laos. This was a fantastic coffee, and I appreciated the patience of all the Feel Good staff, who were willing to grind just enough for my one cappuccino each time we visited.

We could see also how the staff co-ownership idea pays off; there’s a real pride in everything the baristas at Feel Good do; Sophorn came 2nd in the national barista championships last year and was enthusiastically telling us where to go in Battambang and Siem Reap once he could see we were gluttons for more good coffee.

Great carrot cake in Phnom Penh at Feel Good Coffee

Of course, Mark being a New Zealander means there has to be carrot cake to have with your coffee. And, yes, we can confirm, the carrot cake at Feel Good is well worth having.

What a great place. And what’s more, they have a spa upstairs with massage and other treatments. Plus a big kitchen where they have started not only cupping and tasting, but Khmer cooking classes. Feel Good really is all about feeling good.

The best thing of all, as we sat and drank in the atmosphere on the sunlit terrace, was to realise how far Cambodia has come in the 16 short years since Pol Pot died. It feels extraordinary to think that only 20 years ago, people were fearing a return of the Khmer Rouge, and now we are able to sit peacefully enjoying a cappuccino and carrot cake.

Hats off to Mark and all his team for a fantastic coffee shop in Phnom Penh.

Tea in Phnom Penh was also pretty special.

Tea House Hotel in Phnom Penh

Sadly the Tea House Hotel had no rooms available for the nights we were in town, but we did manage to go there for afternoon tea.

This is the first time I had ever seen a tea-themed hotel. Apparently the Cambodian-French owner is a great tea enthusiast, so when you walk into the airy open hotel lobby you have tea canisters on all the shelves beside you.

Tea urns in the lobby of Tea House Hotel in Phnom Penh

And then over in the restaurant area – by the hotel pool, indeed – you can take afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea in Phnom Penh at Tea House Hotel

High Tea is available only from 2pm to 5pm, but that suited our needs so we turned up there just after lunch, escaping from the Phnom Penh heat.

There’s a nice selection of teas on offer – from the very good TWG in Singapore – with an English Breakfast, a Darjeeling, a Puer, various oolongs and a Moroccan Mint, not to mention the green teas.

And then there’s a wonderful tiered stand for the food. It’s an exotic mix, too, with spring rolls, quiche, small sandwiches, cakes, scones and brownies. They’re all bite-size portions, but the overall amount is more than enough even for hungry stomachs.

And there’s a nice transition up the tiers from savoury to sweet, with the middle tray providing some fascinating local traditions, including a Cambodian layer cake in a fabulous green colour (though we didn’t catch the name of the leafy plant it is supposed to be from).

Tea in Phnom Penh at Tea House Hotel

With the breezes blowing through the hotel lobby and over the hotel pool, this was a great place to while away the afternoon. And at about US$8 a head, it’s fantastic value for money.

Who’d have thought you’d get such good afternoon tea in Phnom Penh. What would Pol Pot have made of that?

Great tea in Saigon but coffee is a bit all over the place

We didn’t really know what to make of Saigon. We didn’t even know what to call it, or whether the name you give the place has political or social connotations like Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

And it was hard to gauge the coffee scene there, too. There’s an excellent overview of cafés in the city by a blogger called Vietnam Coracle, though many of them are so hidden away that we tried and failed to find them.

http://vietnamcoracle.com/best-hidden-cafes-saigon/

We did manage to find this old block of flats that has now been largely converted into retail spaces for cafés and vintage clothes shops, although some apartments are clearly still occupied as residences, and one old woman frantically pointed towards the cafes as soon as she saw us.

Arty cafes now mix with old homes in this Saigon apartment block

I loved the idea of using such rundown residential blocks and giving them a new lease of life, but the cafés we found here were a mixed bunch, with more focus apparently on appearances than on the quality of the coffee.

Of all the venues in that particular block, we liked best of all a café called Things. Mind you, it was possibly the hardest one to find, being right up at the top of the block, round several corners and up some more steps to get to the virtually unmarked front door.

The path to Things Cafe in Saigon

But inside, it felt like being in someone’s home – which it may well have been (it was just quite hard to tell). The coffee was good, here, though, which is why it gets our vote, and the welcome was warm.

Inside Things Cafe in Saigon

Funnily enough, inside this whole building, Twitter seemed to be blocked, suggesting that the authorities are also uncertain what to make of the ‘alternative’ scene growing in here: from our brief visit, though, it seemed very far from being a hotbed of radical seditious thinking and the owners of Things spent the whole time we were there messing about on Facebook…

Coffee at Things Cafe in Saigon

The address of that block of flats, by the way: Ton That Dam 14, in District 1.

There are a couple of cafés mentioned on the Vietnam Coracle blog in another street, which we walked up and down twice before giving up on finding them (Ngo Thori Nhiem, in case you want to give them a go yourselves).

But at the start of the same street (77 Ngo Thori Nhiem, to be exact), we did find Moc Coffee, which seemed much like the kind of coffee shop we had found in Hanoi, with customers spilling out onto the pavement, and a good cup of Vietnamese Coffee on offer.

Spilling out onto the pavement by Moc Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City

We liked this place, especially as Mrs Cuppa got a phone call while we were there, with some very very good news. So for coffee in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City), we’d recommend a trip to Moc Coffee.

Moc Coffee in Saigon

We did manage to find Tram Café, another recommended by Vietnam Coracle.

The hidden garden at Tram Cafe in Saigon

This is certainly easier to find, with a flashing neon sign out in the street (Tran Huy Lieu). And it’s set in absolutely stunning gardens, with fountains and fish, a stepping stone walkway to the inside area, and a beautiful dimly-lit interior, the kind of place you’d go for a casual first date in Saigon, I’d say.

Tram Cafe in Ho Chi Minh City

It is more of a restaurant than a coffee shop, though, so although we loved the place, it’s probably not a venue we’ll add to our reviews when we post them. However, if you’re in Saigon and want somewhere different for a good lunch, this is the place to visit.

And finally, tea in Saigon.

RoyalTeaWord

Vietnam has much more of a focus on coffee than tea. But the Royal Tea House in Pham Ngoc Thach Street was one of the nicest tea rooms we had visited for some time.

Royal Tea House in Saigon

The Tiendat family has been in tea in Vietnam since 1956, so they must have seen a fair few changes in that time, and there’s surely a book to be written on their experiences as they went from post-colonial tea family to the struggles of war with America and then carrying on through the post-war Communist regime.

We didn’t get a chance to ask owner Krystal many questions, though she did take the time to talk us through some of the teas her family has produced, and would probably have been open to a longer chat if we’d had time.

Best tea in Saigon at Royal Tea House

But you can feel her passion for the tea that runs in her family and her pride in the tea room she has set up not far from central Saigon.

We loved this place as a cool haven away from Saigon’s stressful streets.

And with their rather nice coconut mini cakes it felt about as close to a traditional afternoon tea as we’d seen in quite a few weeks.

RoyalTeaFrontName

So our top tip for tea in Saigon has to be Royal Tea House. And if you like the tea as much as we did, you may be tempted to buy a packet; they produce black and green teas on the family plantation in Dalat, and they source other teas on the menu from Taiwan and China.

So, we’re pretty sure we found the best place for afternoon tea in Saigon.

But on the coffee side of things, Saigon remained a bit of a mystery, as it did in general to be honest. We probably missed its hidden gems, but they remained so hidden that we’re not even sure we’ll rush to go back and find them…

They roast their own coffee in Chengdu, you know

I know Chengdu is a popular tourist destination, for its panda centre as much as for its location on the route to Tibet, but we were amazed just how many western-style coffee shops there were dotted around town. The ones we found were all run by Chinese, though we didn’t see a single local actually having a coffee in one!

Our first coffee in Chengdu was a completely chance find. We’d been wandering more or less aimlessly. Without wifi, without a map and with only a few basic words of Chinese, it is not easy to start navigating a coffee trail in a big city like Chengdu.

And even when we did find a street that seemed to have a fair range of decent-looking cafés at round about 10am, they were mostly shut, and had the look of bars that opened around midday.

We decided to take refuge in a hostel that claimed to serve good coffee. And that’s how we discovered The Loft, with its own coffee shop and a really nice, relaxed vibe. (It’s in Xiao Tong Xiang by the way)

The Loft hostel in Chengdu for good coffee

The coffee was in a different league to anything we’d drunk since we left Istanbul. A smooth, rich roast that was not too strong and left the palate craving more, that’s the kind of coffee I love.

Good coffee in Chengdu at The Loft hostel

As I ordered my second cup, I commented on how good it was, and was told that the roaster was one of China’s top coffee guys; he lives in Chengdu, they said, and runs his own coffee shop in another part of town. We made a note of the address and got ourselves over to Let’s Grind the next day.

Now, the thing about coffee shops in China is that – just as we’d found in Iran – they don’t tend to open for the early risers on their way to work or the university. Many only open at 12, and sure enough when we got to Let’s Grind at about 10.45am, it was boarded up and very much shut.

We went somewhere else down the same street and had a coffee that was not half as good as at The Loft, and felt very disgruntled, especially as there were no opening times on the door of Let’s Grind.

Let's Grind for coffee in Chengdu

Well folks, I’m pleased to report that Let’s Grind opens at 11am, so we went in for another coffee as their first customers of the day. Sadly, the owner and champion roaster guy (whose name I have written down somewhere, but it is lost in a pile of papers in my backpack – so I’ll add that it once we are at the end of our journey) was away for a few days in Shanghai, but his staff of baristas made us a fabulous cappuccino, and brought some cheesecake out of the fridge for us to wolf down while they had their breakfasts of meat and noodles.

Lots of coffees roasted by Let's Grind in Chengdu

They have a wonderful blend for the espresso machine, a whole range of options for the pourover coffees and some delicious-sounding single origins, all roasted locally in Chengdu. Let’s Grind is a real coffee lovers’ paradise.

Let's Grind menu in Chengdu

We returned with some other coffee-loving Brits we’d met a couple of days later. Again, we arrived at 11am, just as they were opening up, only to find out that the grinder had completely broken and they were unable to make us our coffees.

We had visions of the little café in Osh where they individually hand grind the coffee for each cup, but there didn’t seem to be a plan B for Let’s Grind. You could tell the barista was very upset, and we couldn’t help wondering what she’d be doing for the rest of the day, but we had to move on, with only the memory of the wonderful coffee we’d had on our first visit.

Go to Let's Grind for best cappuccino in Chengdu

Still, top tip for coffee in Chengdu has to be Let’s Grind in Tangba Street (that’s Tangba Jie and it’s an extension east of Dongsheng Street/Jie)

We only managed to try one other coffee shop during our time in Chengdu. Corner Coffee was well-placed just between Mao’s statue in the centre of town and the People’s Park (about which more in our blog on tea in Chengdu).

Corner Coffee in Chengdu

The coffee was not as good as Let’s Grind or The Loft, but it was a decent brew in a nice little place, with tasty cakes to go with it.

Coffee and cake in Chengdu at Corner Coffee

Coffee is blooming in Chengdu in a far bigger way than we’d seen in Xi’an, and there are far more independent coffee shops opening up in small premises. In that way, it’s growing into a coffee scene more like an average big city in the UK.

And with local roasters like the guy at Let’s Grind (name to follow, sorry) upping the quality, things are looking great for the future of coffee in the city.

What we’d struggle with is the timing of the opening hours. Very few are open early in the morning, and most open long into the evening, so coffee seems to be a sociable drink for afternoon/evening rather than a morning booster.

It’s not even a lunch time drink, since it’s rare outside the big chains like Starbucks to find anything savoury to have with your coffee in Chinese coffee shops. Cakes you may find, but even that not always.

Of course on this trip we haven’t been to Beijing or Shanghai, so it’s quite possible the coffee scene is developing differently and more quickly there, but Chengdu felt like it was a long way ahead of Xi’an.