Vinh Le grew up in Vietnam, in a small town called Kinh Bac an hour or so north of Hanoi. Geographically, it is about as far away from Cambridge as you can get. Spiritually, though? “It’s one of the oldest towns in Vietnam. It’s also very funky and weird,” he says.
That kinship is part of what makes Cambridge a natural home for Cicada Coffee Bar, the new restaurant and cafe Le opened with life and business partner Duong Huynh at the end of February. Both are trained as architects: They met when she interned at his firm in Vietnam, and he joined her in the United States in 2013 — cooking at Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon, getting a master’s in architecture and urban design at Columbia University, and working at Watertown firm Sasaki before opening Cicada. Le and Huynh also started Nem Kitchen, a contemporary Vietnamese pop-up restaurant offering cooking classes. “Rebel architect turned indie food designer,” Le’s bio for that project reads.
Cicada Coffee Bar is a restaurant, but it doesn’t exist for the sake of food alone. It spins together thoughtfulness and whimsy, intention and happenstance. So much that happens here is by design, yet it’s also shaped by the contributions of those who wander through: a potter who makes beautiful, high-footed bowls, a talented artist still in high school, random strangers who offer to help build a fence. It has all the atmosphere one wants from a Central Square cafe, with midcentury decor collected piece by piece from all over New England, selected for appearance but also for how, say, a chair functions with the human form; abundant plants and books; and an excellent, eclectic soundtrack (some of it on reel-to-reel tape). A neon sign crafted by Somerville shop Neon Williams reads “an” and “uong” — “eat” and “drink” in Vietnamese.
“We turned the whole landscape vibrant,” Le says. “We transformed the space, we opened the window, we didn’t cover the door. We wanted people to see. It’s transparent because I’m so transparent. I think it’s the best way to be human.”
The restaurant is informed by Le’s training in urban design and his upbringing in Vietnam, where every village has a community center called a dinh. “People gather for celebrations, for learning, to build up the community,” he says. That concept was a model for Cicada. After fixing up the backyard, they turned it into a community garden.
“We wanted to create a community hub through food and drink and music and the garden and the strangers who walk into our lives,” Huynh says. “Here we get to learn the stories of the people who supply the services and goods who make the city happen. … It’s a really humbling experience. Neither of us knew how much we’d get out of opening a food establishment.”
The menu is perfectly small, the food and drinks are very delicious, and quantities each day are limited. There are pho noodle salads, the thick, chewy rice noodles made fresh daily and cut by hand, purchased from a local Chinese market. These are tossed with house-made pickled vegetables, crispy shallots, and a bright pesto that tastes both surprising and familiar, made from cashews and herbs. A vegan version features roasted eggplant and tofu made by longtime Kendall Square company Chang Shing. Another features cured salmon from local, sustainable seafood supplier Red’s Best. And a third includes fish terrine, hand-pounded cold-cut thin by a maker in Lexington, the technique traditionally Vietnamese but the recipe tweaked for Cicada’s taste.
There are also banh mi, on crisp loaves from a local Vietnamese-Chinese bakery, also made with eggplant, salmon, or fish terrine; there are egg versions, too. Vegetables come from Russo’s in Watertown. All of the sandwiches are spread with silky vegan pate, made from avocado: It’s healthier and more sustainable than meat-based pate, but with a similar texture; it also requires less labor, an important consideration for a small business.
Cicada uses coffee beans roasted by companies owned by Vietnamese women, for drinks like the Cicada latte (double espresso with sweetened condensed milk and a sprinkle of Duxbury sea salt) and the honey mousse espresso (in-house only, made with honey from Billerica-based Crystal’s). Lush yogurt gets dolloped in with Vietnamese drip coffee, falling somewhere between beverage and parfait. Le makes the yogurt in the basement at Cicada. How does he get it so gorgeously tangy? He attributes it to such factors as the length of fermentation, the microbial makeup of the subterranean space, the sweetened condensed milk that’s part of the recipe. There’s something ineffable at work, too. “He runs his hands over it like a spell,” Huynh says.
“When I’m making drinks, I just focus on drinks. When I make food, I focus on food,” Le says. “I don’t care how many orders are ahead of me. I do the best, that’s it. Otherwise, I’d look at 40 orders and stress out. Don’t look. Do it well step by step. Making drinks behind the bar, making food behind the bar, it’s meditation. Every day passes so fast but is so meaningful.”
Cicada keeps its environmental footprint small, minimizing waste, recycling and composting everything. Takeout cups and straws that look like plastic are made of corn. “What do we make money to do?,” Huynh asks. “To spend on local vendors we love. If we make slightly less and put less into landfill, there’s such tremendous value in that.”
“We want to keep money in the city,” Le says. “We sell what we have every day.” Regulars know that if they don’t arrive early, their favorite item may be gone. The last pickup order is at 3:15, although later hours will come: They hope to introduce a beer and wine program that re-creates the feeling of a lively pub in Vietnam, the kind of place one goes for a drink and a bite to catch up with friends. “We want to protect our co-workers. We want to protect their life. We go home earlier and enjoy life. I want to enjoy my life too,” Le says.
The cafe’s name speaks to that. It’s called Cicada Coffee Bar because he loves the freedom of summer, when growing up there was no school or structure and he could wander around picking mangoes. When he first traveled to Vermont, he heard cicadas. The sound brought back that feeling of freedom.
“We want to do something fun and bring memories from our lives,” he says. “We want to improve the city, the village, because we live here. I think people should call it a Cambridge coffee shop, not a Vietnamese coffee shop. I designed it for Cambridge. I planned it for Cambridge culture because I am one of them. I am reborn here. I have many good friends here. I appreciate Cambridge a lot. It embraces me and accepts who I am.”
Cicada Coffee Bar, 106 Prospect St., Central Square, Cambridge, www.cicadacoffeebar.co