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Bittersweet Symphony


After passing it by for years, my boyfriend and I finally decide to stop in at Pho Hoang on Main Street to try the coffee we’ve been hearing so much about. In a city that seems to celebrate its love of caffeine on every street corner, Vietnamese coffee is still relatively underappreciated. I’m curious to taste it, and have been told it’s not only a flavour experience, but a visual one as well. We sit down and notice everyone talking loudly over instrumental saxophone versions of popular 80s songs. The furniture is pastel and looks like it’s seen better days. We’re surrounded by glaring fluorescent lights and floor-to-ceiling mirrors; our sallow, tired reflections only reinforce our need for some strong coffee. Despite the décor and the unforgiving lighting, I like this place—and it seems many others do as well, judging by how busy it is on such a cold, rainy night.

The contraptions resemble miniature spaceships.

I look around and see people drinking from little white mugs, talking faster and louder with each sip. Our server takes our order and we wait. After a few minutes, two empty saucers arrive. Next come the matching coffee cups, topped with contraptions resembling miniature spaceships—a self-brewing cup. I lift off the silver lid and see hot water making its way through a thick sludge of aromatic coffee grounds. Once the grounds are dry, we take our first sips. Uggh! It’s strong! We laugh and feel a little silly when we realize that we’ve forgotten to dilute our drinks with the hot water that’s sitting right in front of us. I fill our cups and stir. Sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the cup makes the coffee whiter with every lap of the spoon. Our second taste is smooth and delicious. Soon we’re talking as fast and loud as everyone else, barely noticing the easy-listening version of “Billie Jean” as we laugh and tell stories. Finishing the last few drops, we head into the cold night with warm bellies and electric mouths, happy to have found one of Vancouver’s hidden gems, and agreeing that saxophone is officially the worst instrument ever.

2011 Cover of Pacific Rim. Image of David Y.H. Lui and three ballerinas.

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Issue 2011

Taking Centre Stage

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