Triumph Coffee House

3808 Spicewood Springs, 343-1875
Mon-Thu, 7am-7pm; Fri, 7am-11pm;
Sat, 8am-11pm

In October of 1980, Nguyen Chinh Truc, proprietor of Triumph Coffee House, left the coast of South Vietnam with 28 of his countrymen in a river boat that had already sunk once, drowning four. Out of its league even in a river, the small wooden boat was now an ocean-going vessel for boat people, so desperate to escape Vietnam's communist regime that they sought the relative freedom of refugee camps in places like Thailand or the Philippines. Floating low enough that Truc could drag his hands in the water, the crippled boat was an easy target for Thai pirates, who ruined the engine, attacked the men and attempted to rape the women.

Rescued by the comparatively enormous Navy ship called the U.S.S. Wichita, 20-year-old Truc was safely delivered to a Thai refugee camp, where he spent a few months before the Lutheran Refugee Service sponsored his move to Wisconsin. In January of 1981, Nguyen Chinh Truc arrived in Green Bay with sandals on his feet, $5 in his pocket, and the ability to wish Americans "good morning."

Triumph is an apt description of Truc's story, but it also describes the life of his business partner, Nancy Bui. Truc and Bui met in Austin while working together to help orphans in Vietnamese refugee camps. She left Vietnam in 1979 and spent 20 days in a similarly ruined river craft with an 18-month-old daughter and a three-year-old son. Her crew drifted for 20 days, five of them without water, before Thai fishermen helped them to Song Khla Beach, Thailand. Eventually, Bui's sister sponsored her move to the United States.

Before South Vietnam's communist takeover, Nancy Bui married into a family that owned a coffee plantation in mountainous, temperate central Vietnam. But in 1975, the state took over everything, including privately held businesses. It wasn't until 1988 that the Bui family began to get back their ruined plantation, little by little -- in truth, they will be "leasing" their own land from the Vietnamese government for the next 99 years. But recently lifted U.S. trade embargoes have allowed the Buis to begin to import their own coffee to the U.S., to be distributed wholesale out of a warehouse on North Lamar and retailed out of Triumph Coffee House.

The character of Vietnamese coffee is frequently compared to Hawaii's fine Kona coffee; both are grown in soil comprised of volcanic ash, which lends them strong, smooth character. However, the Vietnamese variety lacks the bitter aftertaste that coffee often imparts.

At Triumph, the Bui family coffee is served alongside French pastries baked by Truc's cousin Minh Ly, a French-trained chef who moved from Paris two months ago to take over the kitchen at Triumph. Ly has taken over the production of Triumph's fabulously moist and eggy Pain au Raisin ($1.50), round, buttery Galettes aux Amandine ($2.95), and rich and juicy Baba au Rum with custard cream. Since his arrival, he's added Gratin Dauphinois ($6.95, a potato gratinée with chicken breast) and Pasta Polonais ($6.95, pasta in a creamy, chicken-based sauce with thin slivers of mushrooms), and an omelet bechamel.

Soon, Truc and Minh Ly hope to expand the menu further into French/Vietnamese cuisine, which relies on fresh herbs to heighten flavor rather than the butter and cream typical of traditional French fare. As it stands, the cafe does a healthy trade in pastry, bagel, and even breakfast tacos each morning at breakfast, and they cater to a lunch crowd with spring rolls ($1.50 apiece, with shrimp or delicious crumbles of beef) and a variety of homemade soups, pizzas, and hot and cold sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, including a hot roast beef sandwich with yellow cheddar, mayonaisse, lettuce, and tomato ($5.19). The cafe also sells specialty coffee drinks and accessories, bulk coffee of many varieties, and imported teas.

To make it worthwhile to prepare such a large line of savory food and homemade muffins, cakes, pastries, mousses, and mini-tarts daily, the Triumph will require increased patronage. But that doesn't worry Truc. Eighteen years after his immigration to the U.S., the immigrant has a degree in chemical engineering, he's his own boss, and he can say anything he wants in English. Both his business and the optimism with which he approaches his customers and his world may still be summed up best in the first English phrase he learned: At Truc's Triumph Coffee House, it is a good morning indeed. -- Meredith Phillips

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