A 1953 advertisement for CDM Coffee

To explain the prominence of sweet, rich Vietnamese coffee in New Orleans cafe culture we must first visit Vienna, Austria in the 17th century.

Preceding the famous Battle of Vienna in September of 1683, Franciszek Kulczycki, a Polish nobleman, soldier and future coffee merchant, traveled from Turkey where he was under the employ of the Austrian government as a diplomat and courier who aided communications between the two countries.

Kulczycki had pressing news: the Ottoman forces were in a mood for war and had drawn a bead on Austria as a soft target where they could expand their empire.

Roots from the Chicory plant are a key ingredient in New Orleans Vietnamese-style coffee

Little did the Turks know but the friendly diplomat that carried himself with ease in Istanbul coffee shops and was even fluent in their language, was also a spy.

The siege of Vienna was about to begin but not without a warning..

After a month of pitched battles it became clear to the Viennese that they were no match for the Turks and would need aid from other forces if they were to maintain sovereignity.

It was Franciszek Kulczycki who saved the day.

A CDM Coffee and Chicory advertisement from 1984

The Polish-born spy carefully made his way through the sea of Turkish encampments surrounding Vienna before finally reaching the chief commander of the Austrian forces. Following an empassioned detailing of Vienna’s impending fall a coalition of armies was mustered and the Turks were soon routed.

It had long been Franciszek’s dream to own a coffee house and that soon became a reality when his Austrian employers recognized his service to their country by licensing him to do just that.

By most accounts this would be the first coffee shop in the city of Vienna and one of the first in this section of Europe.

But Austrians, wholly unfamiliar with the drink, complained mightily of the bitterness. The adaptive merchant quickly began tinkering with his straight black beverages by adding milk and sweetener to them til they became popular and widely accepted amongst the local imbibers.

Franciszek Kulczycki is considered by the coffee cognoscenti to be the first person to ever do this.

Historical Coffee and Chicory brand CDM is still a major player in the industry

By the mid-1800s, the European cafe culture had completely taken root in New Orleans where hundreds of coffee shops had opened across the city. And Franciszek Kulczycki’s style of coffee – where stout cafe noir was leavened with plenty milk and sugar to become café au lait, was soon the lingua franca of the drinkers of the day.

In particular, the air of the French Market where the famous Cafe du Monde (CDM) opened its doors, was perfumed with the rich, roasted aromas of fresh coffee beans and ground chicory root. Oh, and the coffee served was inevitably shot through with plenty milk or cream and sugar if the patron was of a mind. This is how café au lait became one of the defining beverages of New Orleans.

An early and major player in the coffee and chicory industry of New Orleans was William B. Reily, an entrepreneur who had moved from Monroe, Louisiana at the dawn of the 20th century. Reily was a careful and meticulous roaster of coffee beans and New Orleans provided a voracious market for his young business. He quickly set about roasting, grinding, package and distributing fresh coffee beans across the region.

The Versailles neighborhood of New Orleans East

This snapshot of coffee culture, industry, and life provides an important harbinger of things to come some 75 years later when the first wave of Vietnamese began settling down in greater New Orleans.

These émigrés brought a deep love of coffee with them to their new home and they also brought an adjunct ingredient that baffled, surprised and ultimately won over the native New Orleanians: sweetened condensed milk.

Of course the stuff had been on grocery store shelves for decades before the Vietnamese landed but it was the new arrivals who routinely put it in their coffee drinks. Their love of sweetened condensed milk was brought on by necessity. Refrigeration in their home country was slow to take hold and that posed a real problem for a burgeoning coffee industry that used dairy on a daily basis; a problem solved by introducing the shelf-stable condensed milk into households across the whole of the nation.

A 1922 advertisement for CDM Coffee

In the hot flat land of the Versailles neighborhood in New Orleans East, a cold glass choked with icy, ripping-strength CDM dark-roasted coffee with chicory, and plenty condensed milk took the edge off the long days spent on fishing boats or tending big gardens in their tract-home back yards.

Today there are dozens of first, second and third generation Vietnamese businesspeople manning cafes and restaurants across greater New Orleans. And Vietnamese iced coffee with chicory is an essential part of their menus.

Here are three of the finest:

Dong Phuong Oriental Restaurant

De and Huong Tran, first opened Dong Phuong Oriental Restaurant in 1981; the New Orleans region’s first Vietnamese bakery has built a slavish following over the ensuing four decades. Their concern is just down the road from the 22,000 acres of marshland and swamps that make up the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. During Carnival season there is no better repast in the city than a hunk of fresh king cake and a jetfuel glass of iced New Orleans coffee with chicory. It’s best taken on a picnic table in the refuge just a half hour from the tumult of downtown.

Phở Tầu Bay Restaurant in New Orleans

Karl and Tuyet Takacs opened Pho Tau Bay restaurant in 1982 after a stint vending pho from a booth in the Algiers Flea Market just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. The beating heart of this restaurant remains pho but you would be remiss if you did not finish your meal with an inky black Vietnamese chicory coffee swirled through with cold condensed milk.

Banh Mi Boys in Metairie, Louisiana

Bahn Mi Boys in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie is the toddler of the group having only opened five years ago. Chef Peter Ngueyen is staying up late at night having fever dreams of hot sausage sandwiches tricked out with banh mi fixings or classic French pâté banh mi decked with crispy Louisiana shrimp. A Vietnamese iced chicory coffee is a mandatory accompaniment for the feasts served here.

The basic grammar of Vietnamese coffee is this: CDM Coffee and Chicory, combined with cold sweetened condensed milk and blended with plenty ice. Tens of thousands of southeast Asians who landed in New Orleans decades ago have spread out across the US and taken this southeast Louisiana tradition with them to their new homes.

And to think, this entire beautiful scenario of immigrant commerce and culture began 300 years ago, five thousand miles from New Orleans with the labor of a Polish merchant simply trying to earn a living in a strange new land.

The Versailles neighborhood in New Orleans

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