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Milk bread French toast with berries at Mémoire Cà Phê.
Milk bread French toast at Mémoire Cà Phê.
Christine Dong

This New Vietnamese American Cafe Will Blend McDonald’s Breakfast With Pandan Waffles

A team of Portland culinary superstars are opening Mémoire Cà Phê this spring with black sesame cinnamon rolls and yuzu mimosas

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

For those uninitiated, the McDonald’s Big Breakfast consists of a biscuit, scrambled eggs, a sausage patty, and an order of hash browns — the heartiest, non-sandwich morning meal on the McDonald’s breakfast menu. Chef Richard Le (Matta), coffee roaster Kimberly Dam (Portland Ca Phe), and pastry chef Lisa Nguyen (Heyday) all share childhood memories of McDonald’s Big Breakfasts. Their fathers would buy each of them the plate as a treat, taking them to the chain’s PlayPlace as an inexpensive weekend activity. At their forthcoming Vietnamese American breakfast cafe, Mémoire Cà Phê, the owners will serve their own version of the McDonald’s Big Breakfast, swapping the biscuit for a pandan waffle.

“McDonald’s was a very Vietnamese thing,” Nguyen says. “It was a big deal. I think, for them, that American experience was really special.”

Those familiar with the Le’s now-closed food cart, Matta, will be unsurprised to hear that Mémoire Cà Phê uses the fast food breakfast as a culinary jumping off point. Matta brunch favorites will return remixed; for example, the beloved breakfast sandwich — pairing fried egg with American cheese, smashed pork patties, and nước chấm — will trade in its pandan bun for a slice of Nguyen’s milk bread.

Richard Le of Matta, Kimberly Dam of Portland Ca Phe, and Lisa Nguyen of Heyday.
Richard Le, Kimberly Dam, and Lisa Nguyen.
Christine Dong

But more than a gastronomic mash-up of Vietnamese flavors and McDonalds breakfast classics, Mémoire Cà Phê, opening this spring at a yet-to-be-determined location, is meant to be a personal reflection on the three owners’ experiences growing up as Vietnamese Americans. Le will fill breakfast burritos with fish sauce caramelized pork belly. Nguyen will fill the case with a rotating selection of desserts inspired by childhood favorites, things like black sesame cinnamon rolls. Dam will handle the coffee drinks, leaning heavily on Vietnamese ca phe standards. And the space will be lined with murals honoring the family Nguyen, Dam, and Le have lost.

“It’s kind of like carrying on a legacy,” Dam says. “What we created was because of them, the things that they’ve taught us and the things they instilled in us.”

The seeds of Mémoire Cà Phê sprouted while Le was traveling through Vietnam. The chef would post up at cafes, sharing pictures on Instagram, and Dam and Nguyen started to notice. “Dam dm-ed me saying, ‘Dude, you hang out in so many cafes, why don’t you just open up your own?’” Le says. Dam offered to show him the cafe ropes, helping him with coffee service and building the business; Nguyen suggested she supply the cafe with pastries. “I was like, ‘You know, what? Why don’t we all do this project together?’” he says. “We have three established brands. We’re all good friends; we hang out outside of work. So why not just like, do a fun project with your friends?”

It helped that all three business owners had collaborated in the past. When Dam first started roasting coffee, before she opened the first brick-and-mortar location of Vietnamese American coffee shop Portland Ca Phe, she created a house roast for Matta’s brunch service. Before Nguyen opened her Southeast Portland doughnut shop, she participated in pop-ups with Le; Dam developed a house roast for Heyday’s shop, as well.

At Memoire Ca Phe, the three will continue to collaborate. For the cafe’s chicken and waffles, Nguyen will make the pandan waffles while Le handles the fried chicken; she’ll also bake the milk bread that Le will transform into French toast. Dam will pull shots of espresso to pair with Nguyen’s ice creams for affogatos. But much of the menu is still in development; during their interview with Eater Portland, the three brainstormed mimosa flavors.

The breakfast sandwich at Mémoire Cà Phê, which comes with a pork sausage patty with nuac cham, a fried egg, American cheese, and hash browns.
Mémoire Cà Phê breakfast sandwich.
Christine Dong

“Yuzu, lychee...”

“Passionfruit.”

“Passionfruit!”

“Kumquat?”

“Kumquat! We have to have kumquat.”

Until the team finds a space, they’ll test out their recipes at pop-ups, the first at Magna Kusina on Sunday, February 4. And they’ll continue “gassing each other up,” as they say, brainstorming and supporting each other.

In many ways, Mémoire Cà Phê was born out of that desire for community. When Le first pitched the idea of opening the business together, the three friends went out to dinner — a dinner to specifically honor and grieve their lost parents, who all died in December.

“In all of our journeys, we kind of started out alone,” Dam says. “And then I met Richard and Lisa, and I really found friends in the industry that understood everything I was going through — genuine friends. Now that we have this connection and this friendship, and we’re going in as business partners, it’s like I’m not alone.”

Follow Mémoire Cà Phê on Instagram for more updates.

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