Monica Wong and Quynh Nguyen have been purveyors of carefully sourced casual Vietnamese food since 2010.
Visit Little Green Cyclo CEO Monica Wong and her life and business partner, executive chef Quynh Nguyen, at a trade show and you’ll come face to face with a shiny metallic trophy, a New Product Award from the Specialty Food Association. However, this honor marks only the beginning of the team’s latest journey, a quest to answer a question they constantly face: “What makes your coffee Vietnamese?”
Little Green Cyclo was part of the Bay Area’s first wave of social media-fueled food trucks, dishing out Vietnamese food starting in 2010. A decade later, Wong and Nguyen had just opened their brand new brick-and-mortar bistro in Brisbane when restaurants were shut down due to the pandemic. Constantly inventing new ways to reach their customers, Wong and Nguyen turned their attention to developing their now award-winning canned Vietnamese coffee.
Wong, whose parents operated one of Boston’s first Chinese restaurants, always wanted to distance herself from the industry that dominated her parents’ lives. Instead, she built a career in finance and managed billion-dollar portfolios while living in New York City. However, she became concerned about her career progression as she climbed her way up the ladder but mainly saw white men control executive positions.
Having developed an interest in entrepreneurship, Wong decided to start her own business, knowing she could always return to finance. Finally open to entering the restaurant space, Wong remembered a lesson from observing her family’s eatery. “You really shouldn’t be in the restaurant business unless you have a chef,” she says.
A friend who was serving as Nguyen’s business partner proposed a meeting between the eventual partners, and Wong went to dine at Nguyen’s San Jose Cajun fusion restaurant Gumbo Jumbo, which prepared sticky, spicy Viet-Cajun seafood boils alongside jambalaya and beignets.
Nguyen and Wong quickly bonded over a similar approach to food. “We wanted to serve food to people that we would be proud to serve to our own friends and family … both of us shared the same goals of wanting to be very transparent about sourcing,” Wong says. To this day, Little Green Cyclo lists the names of its “local, sustainable and organic” sourcing partners on its website, including Snake River Farms, known for American wagyu, and Jidori, which raises free-range chicken here in California.
Over the years, Little Green Cyclo grew into a business with a commercial kitchen, three food trucks, smart vending machines stocked with grab-and-go salads, and lines of packaged products. Customers look forward to staples like banh mi, the baguettes filled here with options like lemongrass roasted pork, the Bay Area favorite, garlic noodles, and Vietnamese iced coffee, cà phê sữa đá. Nguyen has also developed hundreds of rotating specials over the last decade, including sweet potato tater tots served with tamarind plum sauce and Thai tea cheesecake.
“It was really a natural progression. If you think about it, what does the food truck do? It brings food to the customers. So when we do a pop-up, when we do catering, you’re really not coming to us, we’re going to you,” Wong says about the company’s diverse business ventures.
This focus on making their products constantly available to customers led Wong and Nguyen to turn their attention to a canned Vietnamese coffee product. In 2019, Nguyen started having discussions with farms in Vietnam about sourcing coffee beans directly from them. The duo was inspired by a movement of family farms that are shying away from industrial techniques focused solely on yield and profitability.
Vietnamese coffee can be loosely defined as coffee brewed slowly with a metal drip filter known as a phin, and is commonly served over ice with sweetened condensed milk. Some Vietnamese American families might turn to the chicory-flavored coffee of New Orleans institution Café Du Monde and its bright yellow tins when brewing a cup. However, according to Wong and Nguyen, brewing real Vietnamese coffee means using robusta beans grown in Vietnam. The country is the world’s second-largest coffee producer and the largest producer of robusta beans, which are known for their often bold, bitter flavor profiles. Nguyen says that Vietnamese coffee truly shines when the intense sweetness of condensed milk balances out the potentially overwhelming flavor of these beans.
Little Green Cyclo now offers four different flavors of canned Vietnamese coffee made with beans harvested in Vietnam’s Central Highlands: classic, matcha, plant-based coconut, and plant-based mocha. Organic condensed milk from California provides the drink’s trademark sweetness and richness. However, many of Nguyen’s relatives still mix whatever coffee they can find with sweetened condensed milk and call it cà phê sữa đá.
“It’s about educating the public, right? What is it that makes Vietnamese coffee, Vietnamese coffee? So we would love to continue to spread that message. And also, we want to showcase the versatility of these coffee beans, not just in coffee,” Wong says. In addition to canned coffee, Little Green Cyclo offers coffee-infused hot sauce, chili oil and spice rubs.
While thrilled at the success of their canned beverage, Wong and Nguyen look forward to reopening their Brisbane restaurant in June and holding an event there to highlight the rising crowd of Asian women-led specialty food businesses they have encountered while promoting their coffee. “There’s a movement obviously (around) Vietnamese coffee right now. So you have Sahra from Nguyen Coffee Supply. You have Copper Cow and then you have Omni Bev, you have us. The great thing is we should all be moving together to introduce Vietnamese coffee, really to the world,” says Wong.
Little Green Cyclo’s canned coffee can be purchased online or at local retailers including Piazza’s, Sigona’s and Draeger’s. Due to inventory issues, Little Green Cyclo is currently out of canned coffee flavors other than classic, as well as its chili oil and hot sauce. Check social media for updates.
Little Green Cyclo Bistro, 2000 Sierra Point Parkway, Brisbane; 415-375-1657. Instagram: @lilgreencyclo. The restaurant will reopen in June.