Cactus Vietnamese Tea and Coffee
Cactus Vietnamese Tea and Coffee in Koreatown is a cafe that stays true to its roots by brewing only the finest blends shipped straight from Vietnam — a 16-hour flight away.
As the name suggests, Cactus rose out of the pandemic drought and opened its doors in June 2021, during Toronto lockdowns.
A nail technician at the time, founder Anna Nguyen was finding herself out of work with most stores closing. So, she took a leap of faith and ventured into the only business she thought could survive in the environment: food and beverages.
Nguyen beat other offers to sign the lease for 682 Bloor, taking over Cup O House's former space, while keeping some of the previous business' interiors — namely the board game cabinet. The main difference is that those games are now all free to play.
Cactus' menu stands out among the city's many bubble tea shops that typically use Taiwanese supplies because of something Nguyen calls her “secret, exclusive recipe.”
Instead, Nguyen uses Vietnamese ingredients, sourcing loose tea leaves from the country’s tea cradle, Thai Nguyen, as well as coffee powder sourced from the plantations of her hometown of Lam Dong. All coffee drinks are made the traditional Vietnamese way: using a phin filter, with condensed milk as the main sweetener.
The touches of Vietnam also extend to Cactus' serving style. A takeout drink can be completed with precision in under a minute so guests can quickly get going, which is how it's done in Vietnam, a fast-moving country of almost 100 million.
For those looking to sit back with their drinks, the inviting little shop has no time limit. And the friendly owners are always available to chat, especially if you’re a newcomer to Canada looking for some pointers.
Soft-spoken, Nguyen tells blogTO she finds joy in the fact that many Vietnamese customers consider her like a big sister that they confide in and look forward to visiting every week at Cactus — a home away from home.
“I see how other neighbouring Asian cultures like Filipino or Indian have strong communities established in Canada, and I wanted to foster something similar for Vietnamese to fall back on each other,” Nguyen says. “Like the cactus, we newcomers in Canada are toughened by the harsh weather and homesickness. But once we adapt, we thrive.”
Nguyen credits her success in kick-starting Cactus in dire lockdown times to a hidden consultant figure in her life, who inspires her to extend kindness to the Canadian Vietnamese community.
Now that businesses can operate with relative normalcy, she is focusing on growing and properly marketing Cactus.
This led her to meet Tri Do and Phu Nguyen, two Vietnamese newcomers and young professionals in the advertising industry. The branding efforts from the savvy new co-owners has tripled the foot traffic into the store and bloomed Cactus’ presence on social media channels since late 2022.
Cactus is beloved for its bestselling world-famous traditional Vietnamese coffee ($5) and colourful fragrant milk teas, with generous toppings. You can also find a selection of snacks, from egg tarts and mini hot dogs to Vietnamese rice paper salad and jerkies.
Do believes that food is the quickest way to reach a heart, which is why promoting Vietnamese cuisine could create a positive and lasting impact on the community’s image in multicultural Canada.
“If people know our foods, they can recognize who we are and where we’re from,” Do tells blogTO. “This is a way we can have more conversations with people, more opportunities coming to us as a group.”
The inclusive nature of the space offers a safe environment to those trying Cactus’ fusion menu, and a taste of Vietnam, for the first time. The owners will gladly substitute another drink on the house if you aren’t in love with their initial recommendations.
For instance, a beginner-friendly segue into strong traditional robusta could be bac xiu ($5 white coffee, with heaps of condensed milk). Plus, there are always plenty of more everyday options such as slushies, fruit juices or cheese foam teas — all under $6.
Soon, we’ll be able to see their very own signature cactus-shaped jelly topping in their delicious drinks.
The team behind Cactus is hopeful about opening new locations that will upkeep its essence: a multi-functional space for studying, working and playing, with the possibility of adding live music.