Two blocks from the Central Square MBTA station, across the street from the Prospect Street Whole Foods, there’s a tiny, ivy-covered building. It’s been everything from an art gallery to a church office, but soon it will become a Vietnamese coffee shop — complete with a zen garden out back — from the team behind Vietnamese pop-up Nem Kitchen. Chef and co-owner Vinh Le and co-owner Duong Huynh hope to open Cicada Coffee Bar at 106 Prospect St., Cambridge, before Christmas.
Cicada’s motto is “live slowly to understand deeply,” inspired by the teachings of Vietnamese monk and spiritual leader Thích Nhất Hạnh. Le and Huynh are hoping to embody that philosophy by providing a place for people to live in the moment. To that end, Cicada Coffee Bar will not provide Wi-Fi; while customers are welcome to work, it’s meant to be more of a place to unplug, relax, and connect with others, a reflection of Vietnamese coffee culture where “people like to start the day together,” says Le.
Le and Huynh are passionate about Vietnam’s coffee culture, which dates back over a century, especially taking off after French colonists began to import coffee beans in the early 20th century. Fresh milk was scarce, leading to the use of condensed milk with coffee. A lack of resources led to a need to be creative, Le says.
At Cicada, the team plans to make and serve coffee “like how it’s been done in Vietnam for over a century.” There are regional differences in Vietnamese coffee, says Le, with the northern part of the country emphasizing both taste and process; northern drinks tend to be heavy, strong, and served hot. In the south, there’s less emphasis on process; southerners want to drink cold, sweet drinks, often made with condensed milk. The coffee in the country’s narrow central region (which features a lot of coastline) has salty notes. Cicada Coffee Bar’s menu will have a broad selection of drinks, and they’ll represent all the regions.
Saigon street coffee (ca phe bac xiu), for example, will be on the menu; the team describes it as “perhaps the most ubiquitous coffee drink in southern Vietnam and what’s simply known in the United States as ‘Vietnamese coffee.’” It is made with sweetened condensed milk. There will also be a coconut affogato, a coconut milk slushy topped with coffee and coconut flakes, and Hanoi egg yolk cream coffee (ca phe trung), in which a “decadent and fragrant cream sits atop a nutty chocolatey coffee base.” Le and Huynh add that this one is “just a tad sweet thanks to local honey.”
As for the food, it will be a simple, light menu that mostly focuses on pescatarian and vegetarian options. Diners will find dishes such as banh mi, spring rolls, and vermicelli bowls.
For Le, Cicada is as much a love letter to his hometown as it is a gift to Cambridge.
Le hails from the northern Vietnamese province of Bắc Ninh, about 25 miles northeast of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. It’s one of the oldest towns in Vietnam, founded over 2,000 years ago, says Le, and home to a unique style of Vietnamese folk singing. “Festivals abound in the spring,” he says; “Bắc Ninh people love to party.” It’s also home to traditional crafts such as carpentry, painting, pottery, and fireworks.
“All of this makes up Vinh’s DNA,” says Huynh.
Le draws a parallel between the artistic vibes of his hometown and Cambridge, where he first moved in 2013. Cambridge is “my soul,” says Le. “Something a little funky, something a little weird, but that’s how I am.”
Le’s path to the food and beverage industry was not quite a traditional one. He has a master’s degree in urban design from Columbia and work experience at Watertown-based Sasaki, a decades-old architectural firm that is known worldwide, but a stint at Ming Tsai’s Boston restaurant Blue Dragon around 2013 helped him fall in love with cooking. While continuing his work in urban design and architecture, Le began offering cooking classes and running Nem pop-ups, eventually returning briefly to Vietnam in 2018 to open a wine bar. Back in Boston, a short return to Sasaki followed before Le decided to devote himself full-time to food.
He lost his identity during his corporate years, Le says, and his return to Vietnam helped him find it again. With Cicada, “I want to tell [Cambridge] this is who I am: I’m Vinh, I’m from Vietnam,” he says.
Le is putting his design and architecture background to use at Cicada, which will feature a backyard zen garden he is designing and landscaping himself. Le and Huynh “hope the garden will give guests a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.”
Le also threw himself into learning about furniture restoration during the pandemic, and pieces he and his team have restored will fill Cicada. “Vinh loves midcentury modern furniture for its emphasis on form following function,” says Huynh. “The lines are elegant and minimal, while the pieces are built to last. Additionally, restoring furniture from scratch is a humbling lesson in the hard work and sophistication of craftsmanship.”
The use of restored furniture is one of several ways Le and Huynh hope to emphasize a commitment to reducing Cicada’s environmental footprint; they also plan to compost and to make use of biodegradable materials when possible.
Cicada is on track to open before the end of the year and will hopefully “set the stage for future creative projects,” says Huynh. “If Cicada is blessed with stability, next will come finding a home for Nem, Cicada’s boutique restaurant sister concept.” Follow along with Cicada’s progress on Instagram.