Eric Nguyen and Emily Vu started to develop the idea for Cô Ba, their new drinks and dessert cafe, in 2019.
For inspiration, they traveled to Vietnam, from the south to the north. Nguyen told me they spent two weeks observing a variety of approaches to the way beverages and chè were being made. “We tried to reconnect to the childhood we both had there but we decided to do a modern twist to the product,” he said.
When the pandemic started, Nguyen and Vu took some time to refine the concept before opening Cô Ba at the start of 2024.
“There are so many specialty Vietnamese coffee shops in the Bay Area,” Nguyen said. “In order to set us apart, we wanted to focus on natural ingredients and really push for being more authentic with our process.”
Cô Ba’s signature item is a grass jelly with coconut. “We make that to order and the process takes time, 10 to 15 minutes,” he explained. “We want people to come here for the quality of our products and for Vietnamese customers to taste how close it is to home.”
In Vietnam, street vendors serve chè—a generic term for a dessert soup. “A mother or grandmother would sell a pot of chè strolling around the street. That’s how I experienced it as a kid,” Nguyen said.
Cô Ba’s modern take on the dish—along with milk and fruit teas, iced coffees and smoothies—is to largely avoid using any processed ingredients. To make the pandan jelly, they buy the leaves to make the extract from scratch.
“There are other shops selling pandan jelly and coffee but the difference is when our guests order a pandan coffee they ask why it’s not green,” Nguyen said. They’ve become accustomed to an artificial bright green color. “Naturally, pandan cannot be that green. We explain to customers the way we extract the juice to get the flavor and fragrance that’s incorporated in our product.”
To make the jelly, Cô Ba cooks it on the stove, per order, to ensure that the ingredients are properly combined. If the jelly were made in advance and refrigerated, it wouldn’t have a soft texture.
“You have to respect the natural forming process rather than speeding it up,” Nguyen said. “Obviously, you will lose that silkiness of the grass jelly. As a team, we decided to say, let’s have people wait. Let’s do it the right way and they will appreciate it.”
Several customers have asked Nguyen about the name Cô Ba, which means “auntie number three” as a term of endearment. Nguyen explained that the number indicates the birth order of a relative. When he was growing up, there was a “cô ba” who made desserts around the corner from where he lived. The mural inside the cafe is meant to summon her up but the image itself is modeled after the first Miss Saigon, who was also named Cô Ba.
On a first visit, Nguyen recommends one of Cô Ba’s specialties, the Hoi An Imperial ché (12 oz., served warm, $9). The bowl is filled with grass jelly, which is black. “Then we add white coconut milk and different toppings—purple yam, red pearl, boba—to make it colorful,” he said.
3730 N First St., Ste. 110, San Jose
Wed to Fri 12pm–8pm