Caphe East is a new Vietnamese eatery that I chanced upon along East Coast Road while heading to Starbucks for my daily fix. I was so intrigued by the fact that Caphe East sells banh cuon (Steamed rice rolls) that I immediately ordered a takeaway (even though I just finished my lunch) – and what really delighted me was that the banh cuon remained fresh and delicious all the way till tea-time.
After my pleasant first experience, I made it a point to return to Caphe East with a few friends to try more of their Vietnamese cuisine.
My dining companions and I ordered a couple of appetisers and mains to share –
CHA GIO (Spring Rolls) - The fried spring rolls arrived piping hot with some very fresh greens. They were fairly tasty but nothing too special. Nevertheless, do not underestimate the effort needed to make them. I tried making them at home and I spent the whole afternoon julienning taro & carrots – preparation time for this dish was such a killer that I have since concluded that paying for my fried spring rolls is the best way to go from now.
BANH XEO (Vietnamese Crepe) – Caphe East’s rendition of banh xeo is EXCELLENT. The thin, crisp skin resembled some of the best banh xeo I ate in Saigon. The fillings included thin slices of pork, prawns, crunchy bean sprouts and spring onions. This is probably a more authentic version of banh xeo as compared to Le Viet’s.
The crepe was served with some herbs and lettuce. Eat it like a Vietnamese - use the lettuce as a base and top it up with your favourite herbs. Next, add a small portion of the crepe and wrap everything up with the lettuce base. Last but not least, dunk it in the fish sauce and eat it with gusto!
My only complaint about this dish is the quantity – the serving size is probably reasonable given the price but this is when I wish there is an ‘upsize’ option available. The Banh xeo is so good it is definitely a MUST-ORDER in Caphe East.
Do note that you can request for specific herbs (See above photo). I find this a generous and environmentally friendly approach. By the way, 333 is the brand of a popular Vietnamese beer – it translates into the pronounciation of “ba ba ba” in Vietnamese, so cute!
BANH CUON (Steamed Rice Rolls) – I finally found this dearly-missed Vietnamese version of ‘Chee Cheong Fun’! Caphe East is the only Vietnamese eatery in Singapore which I found serving this lovely treat so far.
Caphe East’s owner Linda Truong and her mother (Head chef of the eatery) very graciously acceded to my request by demonstrating how this humble Vietnamese snack is made.
[LEFT] The chef ladled a spoonful of the rice flour mixture onto the pot and smoothened it in a quick circular motion. She then closed the lid and let the flour mixture steamed for slightly less than 20 seconds. Note: The pot used to make banh cuon was specially imported from Vietnam.
[RIGHT] The chef scraped the freshly made skin very skilfully with a long knife – this is the most difficult step of making banh cuon as the flour skin is very delicate. The skin cannot be used if it is torn and it will go to waste.
See how much effort and skills is needed to make a rice roll (A small plate contains 6 rice rolls)! Banh cuon is definitely not the most profitable dish to offer in the menu especially during peak meal hours. This probably explains why most of the Vietnamese eateries in Singapore do not carry this in their menu.
The freshly made banh cuon tasted heavenly! The skin was so thin and smooth that it glided down the throat. The accompanying fish sauce was home-brewed by the Head Chef. It is a diluted version as compared to the commercial fish sauce sold in bottles – I actually found myself liking Caphe East’s version and I believe it is more suitable for the local palate.
CHILI LEMONGRASS BEEF NOODLES – This was a weekend special in Caphe East. This dish consists of so many of my favourite ingredients i.e. Lemongrass, chili padi, tender grilled beef slices, fresh greens (no mint), generous sprinkle of crispy fried shallots & springy noodles! The ingredients marry very well into a robust and rather addictive dish. I hope this dish stays permanently on the menu – it was definitely my favourite dish of the day.
PHO TAI (RARE BEEF with flat rice noodles) – The degree of doneness of the beef was very well executed (look at the beautiful hint of pink there). According to my dining companions – the pho tasted light and flavourful. They especially appreciated the bean spouts with “trimmed tails” that was provided to go with the pho.
CHOCOLATE & LYCHEE MARTINI ICE CREAM - We ordered ice cream for desserts (Caphe East uses 7th Heaven as their ice cream vendor). The ice cream was very poorly scooped (it looked like the ice cream was overly-frozened) and the taste was too creamy for my liking. In addition, I could not detect any hint of alcohol in the lychee martini…I guess we may have to walk further down the road to Udders for our desserts next time.
CAFE SUA DA (Coffee with evaporated milk) – The coffee was fragrant but rather weak – probably not suitable for fans of strong coffee. It is probably worth mentioning that Caphe East serves ice water and the waitors refilled our glasses very diligently – thumbs up
I was impressed with what this new Vietnamese eatery has to offer (Especially the fact that they sell my favourite Banh Cuon) so I took the opportunity to do a quick interview with Linda – owner of Caphe East.
K: Could you share more about your personal background – What were you doing before starting up Caphe East? Do you have any prior culinary experience?
L: I was born in Hong Kong to my Vietnamese parents. I lived in the country for 6 years before moving to London where I spent 23 years there. I met my Singaporean husband there and decided to move to Singapore with him 3 years ago.
I was teaching in Montessori before jumping into the culinary scene. I did not have any prior culinary experience but I grew up in a culinary family! My mum worked for a Vietnamese restaurant for many years in London and my Grandma was a food vendor in Hanoi. I am trying to pick up culinary skills from my mom now.
K: What inspired you to start Caphe East?
L: I miss Vietnamese food – it is not as easily available or as good compared to London. I saw an opportunity and started Caphe East.
K: What does Caphe mean and why the choice?
L: Caphe means Coffee in Vietnamese. It also sounds similar to a café I love in London (Cafe East). Last but not least, it is a name which offers flexibility. If I expand into the west, I can name that branch Caphe West.
K: What are some of the challenges starting up Caphe East and how is the business doing thus far? Do you have any expansion plans?
L: Manpower is the biggest challenge. It is difficult to get chefs or service staff in Singapore. We are currently using some part timers to be our servers. People can simply leave for the slightest reason and you have to retrain the next staff again.
One classic example is the dishwasher we hired. He decided not to come to work on a particular day because … it was raining! We decided to replace him with a dishwashing MACHINE which will function even if it snows in Singapore.
The business is decent – quieter on weekdays and busier on the weekends. We have no expansion plans on the table for now until we stabilize the operations.
CAPHE EAST MENU (Image from Caphe East’s website)
K: What inspired the menu and what dishes do you recommend in Caphe East?
L: The menu is largely made up of my childhood favorites like banh cuon & banh xeo. The menu also depends on the Head Chef’s cooking expertise. For recommended dishes in Caphe East – please refer to the menu for dishes with CE logo.
We will revamp the menu after a few months of operations to stay close to customers’ preference. We are running weekend specials now (I.e. Chili lemongrass beef noodles). We might even have wagyu beef pho as a weekend special in the future!
K: The mission of Caphe East is “Serving authentic Vietnamese food the way it should be!”. How do you overcome the challenge of getting authentic Vietnamese ingredients in Singapore?
L: We actually found a very good supplier in Victoria market. There are also vendors importing Vietnamese ingredients in Tekka market and Golden Mile.
K: We have noticed that you formed strategic partnerships with Swiss bakery (For banh mi) and 7th heaven (For desserts) to use/sell their products in Caphe East. What is the rationale behind this and how did you pick your partners?
L: For 7th Heaven - I know someone there through a friend. 7th Heaven is also a start up and thus, they are pretty flexible in the quantity we order from them.
For swiss bakery - I approached the friendly owner who actually agree to customize smaller baguettes for our banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich).
Last but not least, both shops are located very near Caphe East. We can always pop over to get the materials when we need more.
K: How will you describe the Vietnamese food scene in Singapore?
L: The Vietnamese F&B is expanding for sure. When I moved to Singapore 3 years ago, there were only a handful of eateries selling Vietnamese food.
K: What is the 1 word you will use to describe Caphe East?
Overall – Caphe East is a Vietnamese eatery that strikes a good balance between Authenticity AND Ambience (Long Phung is probably the most authentic Vietnamese eatery in Singapore but the setting there is only good for a “touch & go” meal). Caphe East Vietnamese Cusine, on the other hand, is where I can imagine returning more often for a nice Vietnamese meal with a group of friends.
A big thank you to Linda & her family for graciously accepting the interview and demostrating how banh cuon is made.
We admire Linda’s courage to give up her day job and take the leap into the F&B industry to bring us authentic Vietnamese food in Singapore – here’s wishing Caphe East all the best!
Caphe East Vietnamese Cuisine
Opening Hours: Tue- Friday 1130am-230pm & 6pm-10.30pm, Sat-Sun 1130am-1030pm (Close on Mondays and sometimes weekend lunch. Best to call)
Add: 922 East Coast Road, Singapore, Singapore 459114
Spend: $22 per pax
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Note: K & friends paid for their own meal at Caphe East.