Phin Caphe Has Injected New Life Into a Former Strip-Mall Starbucks

Its bold and beautifully crafted coffee drinks are Instagrammable and delicious.

Something magical is happening in a strip mall at Southeast 119th Avenue and Division Street: In a corner space previously occupied by a Starbucks, some of the most boldly flavored coffee and tea drinks in Portland are being crafted with patience and love.

Phin Caphe gets its name from the Vietnamese phin, a traditional filter used to make cà phê sua dá—extremely strong and smooth dark roast drip coffee, which serves as the base for many of the shop’s drinks. The space is a bit bare bones, with scattered seating in shades of gray and white, yet it still feels family friendly and welcoming. Couples with kids, solo parties seeking respite, and groups of friends were chatting and chilling around me as I sampled my way through the menu on a recent Thursday afternoon. A shelf by one wall is stacked with prepacked Vietnamese snacks, and a case on the counter offers a selection of glossy pastries, including custard buns ($4.50)—spongy rolls with a sweet yellow filling reminiscent of dim sum egg tarts.

Most of the coffee drinks come layered, with that fabulous cà phê on the bottom and a thick, often colorful, and very flavorful foam on top. The ube coffee ($6.50), with its signature purple color, is already the most popular item, eliciting huge smiles from me and surrounding customers, its sweet yam taste complementing the dark roast. The pistachio coffee ($6.50), a seasonal item, was my personal favorite—clearly inspired by ice cream, it made me dream of a spumoni affogato. The pandan coffee ($6.50) is pastel green, with a tropical floral flavor that feels both playful and mature.

The standout fruit tea drink was the lemongrass peach ($6.25), which comes garnished with slices of the eponymous stone fruit. The initial expected punch of super-sweet peach tea is balanced by the slow-build herbal lemongrass flavor—again, a mix of fun and unexpected depth. The Milo cacao milk tea ($7) and taro coconut smoothie ($6.50), however, are pure whimsy—the former tastes like milk left over from a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and comes adorned with the cereal, boba and a hunk of flan; the latter has a softly sweet coconut flavor, but lacks the vivid intensity of some of its menu neighbors. I suppose it should be noted that while the prices on these beverages may seem high, they are all enormous and incorporate so many unique elements the costs feel justifiable. With their elegant presentation and vibrant colors, they’re also all very Instagrammable.

The small kitchen at Phin Caphe is also pumping out a couple of excellent Vietnamese street food options, with bánh tráng trộn ($11, $17), a rice paper salad, being the specialty of the house. The dizzyingly complex and flavorful dish includes threads of dry rice paper, peanuts, hard-boiled egg, crispy shrimp, fried red onion, mango, beef jerky, sa te (lemongrass chile sauce) and your choice of beef jerk or pork belly (opt for the gems of crispy pork). The minty flavor of Vietnamese coriander cuts through the noise and makes the whole dish coalesce, like the vocalist of a great band. The dry, crisp rice paper softens while chewing, a textural experience that started out a bit unusual for this newcomer, then quickly became compelling. The pork belly created a bacon-and-eggs situation that worked so well with the coffee, I suddenly realized that I was eating one of the best Portland brunch combos I’ve had in ages. Cuon ($11, $17), a different take on the same ingredients and flavors, are also available: soft and chewy cut rice rolls stuffed with all those aforementioned goodies and dressed with kewpie mayo.

Cold desserts offer a subtle end to the wild ride of flavor you’ve been on. A syrupy but not too sweet caramel flan ($6) served with coffee jelly has a silky texture and is crucially not eggy. And the che khoai deo ($7), purple-and-orange sticky rice and taro balls served with boba and caramel jelly, are nicely chewy, with a fun flavor contrast offered by salted coconut cream.

Phin Caphe will be destination dining and drinking for me and many Portlanders, but the journey to outer Southeast is worth it. For those that happen to live close, take advantage—how lucky you are.

DRINK: Phin Caphe & Boba, 11906 SE Division St., 503-954-3287. 9 am-8 pm Monday-Thursday, 10 am-9 pm Friday-Saturday, 10 am-8 pm Sunday.