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Vietnamese restaurant opens on busy corner

by Bret Anne Serbin Daily Inter Lake
| August 4, 2019 2:00 AM

“It takes a long time, but it’s worth it,” Chi Tran said to describe the mentality of her new Vietnamese restaurant, Chi Café. This mindset not only refers to the restaurant’s months-long opening process, but also to the products she serves and her approach to the business.

Chi — which rhymes with tree — Café opened at 264 North Main Street at the high-profile intersection of U.S. 93 and U.S. 2 on July 25 after eight months of preparation. In the same way, the traditional Vietnamese coffee served there takes about eight minutes to filter as customers sit and wait for their special drinks. While the coffee steeps in the serving cup, Chi Café patrons “have to take a few minutes to relax,” said staff member Daisy Johnson.

Chi Café is a unique addition to the Flathead Valley and its multitude of espresso drive-thrus. The slow-steeping coffee is not available in a to-go option, and part of the experience includes observing the coffee’s traditional preparation with condensed milk and, in some cases, a raw egg.

“You can’t find egg coffee anywhere else around here,” Johnson said. The concoction, which is only one of the café’s various traditional coffees and teas, creates a rich triple-layered drink that is best consumed with a spoon. Tran believes Chi Café is one of only three coffee shops in the United States that offer these traditional Vietnamese specials.

Authenticity, tradition and patience are the tenets of the new Kalispell restaurant. Tran said the opening took such a long time because she insisted on importing the coffee from Vietnam, despite the difficulties in transporting the product to the Flathead Valley.

In addition to the coffee, which Chi Café staff describes as bitter, strong and with notes of chocolate, Chi Café also specializes in Banh Mi sandwiches. Tran traveled to her familial home of Hanoi, Vietnam, to learn the traditional way of making the bread for the sandwich buns.

“We want to create a name for Banh Mi here,” Tran explained. For those who have yet to hear the name, the menu describes the sandwich as a mix of “flaky baguette, pickled vegetables, spices, herbs and grilled meats or a spread of pâté.”

By introducing Banh Mi, she said she also hopes to “educate people about the culture” and support similar restaurants throughout the Flathead Valley.

One such restaurant is Blue Samurai, the downtown Kalispell sushi spot owned by Tran’s husband Tony. In the coming weeks, Tran plans on amplifying Chi Café’s offerings with Blue Samurai sushi, ready-to-cook seafood and meat, and ready-to-eat meals such as curry, pho and spring rolls. Tran hopes there will eventually be something “everyone can be able to enjoy” on Chi Café’s menu, which currently includes a few gluten-free and vegan items.

The Trans have spent four years in the Flathead Valley, and she added, “We are fortunate to find this place. I don’t want to move anywhere.”

Tran has a master’s degree in business and accounting, and she originally came to the Kalispell area to work for JCCS. As she was studying to become a Certified Public Accountant, her husband opened his thriving sushi restaurant and Tran decided to channel her business acumen into creating “something new for the town and show appreciation for the community.”

“We have to challenge ourselves a lot,” she said, to integrate local inspirations into their traditional Vietnamese fare. The results are specialties such as the Heavenly Iced Huckleberry Milk Tea and the Flathead Huckleberry Iced Tea.

Tran’s goal in opening a traditional Vietnamese restaurant in Kalispell is to add to the culinary and cultural offerings of the Flathead Valley. She expressed hope that Chi Café will help people realize, “there are lots of mountains, but there’s more than that.”

The grand opening celebration is in the works, and Tran expects the event to take place in the next week or two. She made it clear: “We like to take things slow.”

Chi Cafe is located at 264 North Main St., Suite 100. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. They are closed Sunday.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at or 758-4459.