Food & Culture
A Pandan Treat
How a Vietnamese coffee shop became one of the city's best under-the-radar waffle spots
By Stefanie Ellis August 2, 2023
Whether it’s a hot puff of steam pushing through a tightly packed mound of grounds, or beans whirring in a grinder perfuming the air with their bitter oils, in almost every coffee shop on the planet there’s only one scent that dominates: coffee.
So, it can be a little surprising to walk inside Phin Vietnamese Coffee & Etc. and get hit square in the nose with the aroma of freshly baked waffles. As you wait for your cà phê sa — slow brewed in a metal filter known as a phin, with beans from Vietnamese roasters who buy from farms in Vietnam — there’s another show happening next to your cup. A pale-green disc emerges from the waffle iron, tricking your senses into believing you really came in for coconut and caramelized sugar. After one bite of this not-too-sweet, crunchy, and slightly chewy showpiece, Phin is now your go-to spot for pandan waffles, or banh kep la dua in Vietnamese.
It’s not uncommon for visitors to the cozy spot beneath the Thai Binh apartments in Little Saigon, which opened in 2020 by International District stalwart Bao Nguyen, to become accidental waffle converts. For those well versed in pandan — a tropical plant prolific in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam — the presence of it in a waffle is a familiar comfort. But for those unfamiliar with its versatility, it can feel like pure magic. Nguyen says the easiest way to describe it to the uninitiated is that it functions a lot like vanilla.
“It has a sweet fragrance to it, such that a few drops can change a whole dish,” he says. “Vanilla is not native to Southeast Asia, so for a long time, people used pandan to flavor things rather than vanilla. The combination of coconut milk and pandan is also very common across cakes and other desserts.”
While it’s possible to make your own extract when fresh leaves are accessible, Nguyen uses a vendor that freeze dries fresh leaves and then turns it into a powder, which is what’s in Phin’s waffle mix.
But let’s not get sidetracked by the gorgeous green color and slightly vegetal, floral notes of the pandan. Just as no food has a singular story, neither do most entrepreneurial journeys. To think of Phin as a place just to grab a waffle is to discredit the meaningful history that brought the waffle here in the first place.
This particular story began in Vietnam, where a young Nguyen watched, with curiosity, whenever the older generation made pandan waffles.
“I remember the grandmas in Saigon, where I grew up, would have a charcoal burner and an old-school waffle iron,” he says. “They’d put the waffle maker on the charcoal, pour the batter in and flip it, cooking it over the charcoal. I still remember how good it smelled.”
Fast forward to Seattle in the 1990s, when Nguyen immigrated to Seattle with his family. He ended up in White Center, where he attended Evergreen High School with Hanh Hoang, whose family also immigrated from Vietnam at the same time. Hoang went on to earn her D.O. from Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima, while Nguyen studied chemistry at the University of Washington and entered into nonprofit administration with a focus on community building and social justice.
Could they have known they’d come together years later as romantic partners who share a waffle iron and strong work ethic? Probably not, but it ended up being the perfect match because Hoang has had a heavy hand in Phin’s brightly hued success, having developed the shop’s desserts — including the recipe for that illustrious waffle, along with the popular flan with shaved coffee ice — leaving Nguyen to focus on the art of traditional Vietnamese coffee making and general business operations.
“Our skills complement each other,” Nguyen adds. So, too, do their memories.
More than two decades ago, Nguyen remembers wandering around the stalls at his temple’s Tt (Lunar New Year) night market, delighting in the sights and smells from the food vendors. No matter how many competing aromas there were, there was always one scent that drew him like a magnet: pandan waffles from The Waffle Lady.
“I remember it was a steaming tent, and it smelled really good,” he says. “There were lines of kids waiting to get the waffle with their red envelope money. It was usually a cold night, so getting a fresh, hot waffle was a fun and delicious treat.”
But, as magically as she appeared, The Waffle Lady was gone. Nguyen says she just stopped coming. And despite her popularity, no other waffle competitors showed up in her place.
He and Hoang felt compelled to carry the torch — or iron, as it were — and before Phin became a brick-and-mortar business, they cut their teeth on waffle making in 2019 at the Chinatown International District Night Market. The couple had been talking about opening a coffee shop for several years, and, just a few months before, happened to see a space that felt like the right fit. They decided to use the market as a testing ground for creating and selling a product. Since they didn’t have a coffee program yet, the waffle was the easiest starting point.
“We made enough batter for 100 waffles, but sold out in two hours,” Hoang recalls. “We started scrambling to go and grab more ingredients, mixing it all by hand in a big tub.”
Once they saw the demand, the decision to move forward with Phin was simple.
“There are days when we sell more waffles than coffee,” Nguyen says with a laugh. “We’ve had people from far away tell us that every time they come to Seattle, they have to stop by and get these waffles. One customer from Bremerton ordered 10 waffles and freezes them and toasts them up at home.”
And while testimonials like this fuel the couple in their purpose, for them, it’s about more than just selling products. It’s about creating a space that invites participation and fellowship, and just happens to have great coffee and waffles.
Before opening Phin, Nguyen spent years in the International District working in the nonprofit sector, and Hoang still serves as a family physician to the Vietnamese community. She runs her own clinic a few blocks from the shop.
“Both of us have very strong connections to this neighborhood,” Nguyen says. “It really helped us when we first came here as immigrants to feel a piece of home. It’s changing a lot, and there is displacement of a lot of the old businesses we went to, so we knew that creating a place for Vietnamese coffee was really about creating a space for the people here.”
At the end of the day, neither he nor Hoang take credit for the waffle’s success. They figure they’re just the lucky ones chosen to carry on a tradition that has meaning to them, and they hope affords others the same joy. This year, they had their own steaming tent at their temple, Co Lam Pagoda, coming full circle to where the seed was first planted. After beta testing a limited run of waffle mixes last year, they decided to launch an e-commerce store. They named the brand “Dragonfly,” which happens to be Washington state’s insect. Nguyen says the evolution of a dragonfly, from egg to larvae to its full-fledged form, is the perfect representation of his journey as an entrepreneur.
“Fundamentally, we’re making the same product we grew up with,” Nguyen says. “It’s a timeless recipe that pays homage to The Waffle Lady, the waffle grandmas, and the Vietnamese community. You don’t mess around with Vietnamese coffee — which is just coffee and condensed milk —or a spaghetti sauce. If it’s good, it’s going to pass the test of time. I think the pandan waffle is one of those things. For me, it feels really nice that a food that comes from our homeland is now popular to a wider audience.”