THINGS NEVER GO exactly as planned when opening a restaurant, and that goes double when it opens one week before Gov. Jay Inslee issued the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Thanks equally to the owners’ inspiring flexibility and their original coffee drinks, Columbia City’s Coffeeholic House is an extremely welcome bright spot.
Husband-and-wife owners Chen Dien and Trang Cao are both just 24 years old — over email, Chen wrote that their youth leads some customers to refuse to believe that they’re the owners. Their first week was limited to takeout, coupled with requests to maintain social distancing and try contactless payment, followed by a week when they closed to takeout while orchestrating the delivery of dozens of donated drinks to hospital employees. Next up were online, prepaid orders, which are picked up from a table 6 feet from the counter, where drinks are prepared. It’s not the hangout space they envisioned, but for now, it’s workable, with the seating stashed in the loft until in-house dining is possible.
Another change: In early May, their cross street at 37th Avenue South became one of Seattle’s “Stay Healthy Streets” and closed to car traffic, which has led to frustration from some customers struggling with parking when picking up their orders. All that Chen and Trang can do is plead for patience — and hope that people within walking or cycling distance enjoy the new route. On a cheerier note, they offered free space to Duvall’s Cha New Life Garden over Mother’s Day weekend; the farm sold 60 farmers market-style bouquets to coffee customers. That same weekend, neighbor Super Six came through when Coffeeholic’s ice ran out.
Chen grew up in Saigon, moving to the United States in high school. He and Trang have years of experience in coffee and bubble tea shops, dating to their first jobs at age 17, and their business is inspired by cafes in the United States and Vietnam. They pitch in wherever it’s needed, but she focuses more on inventory and staffing, while he prioritizes customer service, recipe development and marketing. All their beans are imported from Vietnam and roasted by Brooklyn-based, millennial-woman-owned Nguyen Coffee Supply; they’re grown organically by a fourth-generation farmer in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Their menu offers espresso bar standards, but the house specialties, all brewed via the phin method, are downright brilliant.
Phin filters are four-part metal filters; you might have spotted the single-cup-size set over glasses of sweetened condensed milk at Vietnamese delis or pho shops. Coffeeholic has those, plus a much bigger commercial phin they use for high-traffic weekends. I compared it to pour-over brewing, and Chen’s answer was illuminating: “The different thing is that inside the phin we have a tiny gadget that has holes, which helps gravity to put more pressure on the coffee grounds. This makes it drip slower than regular Western pour-over, and because of that, the coffee comes out bolder and thicker.” He also notes that it takes more labor than espresso. The result is bold flavor with higher caffeine (close to cold-brew coffee levels).
The specialty drinks include cà phê sũa ᵭá (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and my personal favorite, bac siu (also known as bac xui), which increases the milk for a milder, creamier beverage. To gild the lily, I request the 65-cent add-on of cheese foam, which is richer than whipped cream, with a flavor like salted cream cheese — imagine a sprinkle of salt on coffee cheesecake, and you’ll understand the appeal. Their most popular drink is the Coffeeholic Dream, which perches the cheese foam atop a hazelnut iced coffee. Or skip the coffee entirely — on a hot afternoon, a cup of sweet-tart passion-fruit juice is almost absurdly refreshing.
Chen’s optimism is downright awe-inspiring, summed up best when he wrote, “I think every single moment is our best moment, since we are living our dream — running our own coffee shop!” Here’s to living that dream for years to come.