writing, reporting and photos by H.L. Comeriato
As a kid, Vinh Nguyen grew up eating his mother’s recipes — Vietnamese dishes that inspired him to explore cultures and cuisines all over the world.
“Growing up, whenever my mom cooked, for instance, a Vietnamese noodle dish, the broth would take all night. It’d have to simmer through,” says Nguyen. “I felt like there’s definitely time involved in that. You’re going to have a product that you feel proud of.”
Nguyen says he’s always had an idea for a coffee shop — a place where students and young people could come to connect, share ideas and build meaningful relationships. Evelyn’s Coffee & Banh Mi, which opened at 11 E Exchange St. in July, is the realization of a lifelong vision of community, family and food.
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Named after Nguyen’s 2-year-old daughter, Evelyn’s serves Vietnamese drip coffee and what Nguyen calls “just a very small sampling” of Vietnamese and Korean cuisine.
Evelyn’s serves Vietnamese coffee the traditional way: one cup at a time, brewed through a metal drip filter. Once the drip is finished, the hot coffee is poured over ice — a splash of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom.
For Nguyen and his wife, Francesca, who is Korean, deciding what to serve and how to serve it has been part of a long, adventurous process. The pair have traveled the world together, seeking out dishes that inspire and delight, combining and infusing Vietnmanese and Koren cuisines and cultural traditions.
“We plan our trips around where we’re going to eat,” Nguyen says, laughing. “The location is secondary to the food.”
When the pair honeymooned in Vietnam, Nguyen was surprised by the vast expanse of Vietnamense cuisine: “What strikes me is that I had quite a bit of Vietnamese food growing up, but we went to Vietnam for our honeymoon and I was just blown away by the number of dishes I haven’t had before.”
Vietnam’s culinary traditions vary by region. In southern Vietnam, hot climates let farmers grow vegetables year-round, and dishes tend to be sweeter than in other parts of Vietnam, where the availability of spices and other ingredients produce bold and complex flavor profiles.
From the liver pate traditionally served with banh mi to the coffee introduced by French colonizers in the mid-19th century, Vietnamese cuisine is heavily influenced by the French, Nguyen explains.
The French colonized and occupied Vietnam, along with neighboring Cambodia and Laos, for nearly seven decades. By the time French rule came to an end in 1954, Southeast Asian cuisine was full of ingredients and flavor profiles typically associated with French food.
For example, Vietnamese cooks adapted the baguette, baking them with rice flour instead of the wheat flour commonly used by the French. This rice flour baguette is the base for banh mi, which is perhaps the country’s most popular culinary export.
Banh mi traditionally includes a toasted, rice flour Vietnamese baguette, layered with crisp, pickled carrots and daikon, and a pate made from chicken, pork, or duck liver.
At Evelyn’s, Nguyen serves banh mi with a variety of marinated meats: lemongrass chicken or beef, meatball, dac biet, a combination of chicken and pork, and Korean Beef — a nod to Nguyen’s wife, and the Korean dishes she loved growing up.
The coffee-sandwich combination suits Evelyn’s young customers well, says Nguyen, and it gives them a good idea of the many different incarnations of banh mi.
For Nguyen, serving banh mi at Evelyn’s is, at least in part, an effort to introduce young American students to a slice of Vietnamese cuisine in a space designed to spark conversation and build community. Food — and the time we spend cooking and eating it — should be a shared experience, says Nguyen.
“Especially coming from a culture where [food] is very communal,” Nguyen says. “And I think it’s like that with the majority of places.”
Nguyen says that young people, students in particular, need spaces that encourage conversation and connection over food and drink. Nguyen imagined Evelyn’s with those connections in mind.
“The coffee shop kind of describes how our family is. Like, mixed culture — we really love the coffee, young [people], the community. We’re trying to do the best we can to kind of provide a product that is definitely affordable for students, but also give them something that is made from scratch,” says Nguyen.
“I really hope that the place will… provide an environment where people can come and read and grab a drink, get a sandwich, and they know that there was some work involved in creating that,” says Nguyen. “I take pride in that.”
Visit Evelyn’s Coffee & Banh Mi at 11 E. Exchange St. in Akron.
Monday-Friday 8 am-4 pm
Saturday 9 am-4 pm
H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.