Owner Phat Nguyen has transformed a dusty old motorcycle repair shop into a calm and inviting space in Ineffable Ca Phe, the newly-opened Vietnamese coffee and sandwich shop in Lawrenceville.
Old garage doors have been replaced with glass to let in the light, and are rolled up on warm afternoons to catch the breeze. Vintage Singer sewing machine tables, cleverly refurbished with the foot pedals still intact, are lined up in rows. A busy barista is the storm in the center of all the calm.
If it feels like you might want to settle in for the afternoon, read or get some work done, that was the intention.
Coffee shops tend to feel small and rushed. Nguyen worked hard to make this different, more typical of places you might find in Vietnam where friends gather and kick back for longer visits.
Nguyen was born in Vietnam and moved here as a young adult. While working in a more corporate job, he purchased the motorcycle shop with plans for opening up his vision of a unique cafe. Frustrated by slow construction delays, he left his job to focus on the project full-time. In a true “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” move — he got his contractor’s license and finished the cafe himself.
Coffee and tea are the main event here with a focus on Vietnamese options. There are also breakfast sandwiches, avocado toast, a few baked goods and a small menu of traditional banh mì.
Coffee was always part of the plan, but Nguyen also wanted banh mì made the way he remembered it as a child.
“Sandwiches remind me of my dad and the way I grew up,” says Nguyen. “Sometimes I would get to go along to work with him and getting a sandwich together was always my treat that we shared.”
Because they didn’t have a lot, sometimes the sandwiches were just made with butter and a little sugar. “Make a sandwich with the things you like and you will always be happy,” his dad would often say. His father, who worked on a cashew farm outside of Saigon, passed away when Nguyen was just 16.
Nguyen wants to keep the banh mì menu short, simple and traditional. “I want people to experience how that sandwich is made in Vietnam, not someone else’s version of it,” he says.
The café has a warm feel with walls lined with recycled wood from old pallets. There’s a demonstration bar in the center and a large chalkboard with detailed instructions about the coffee making process.
Nguyen plans to share special methods for coffee and tea preparation. For example, a layer of sweetened condensed milk is poured into the glass to balance the bitterness of darker coffee roasts. “I want to show people how things are made and that it’s a fun process,” says Nguyen.
His young daughter had some input into the design, requesting a small garden near the entrance where long wooden planters now sit filled with herbs and veggies. The name “ineffable,” which means indescribable beauty, comes from Nguyen’s search for the perfect word to capture his vision.
Ineffable Ca Phe is located at 3920 Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.