One of the fun things about exploring any city really is that you will always find something you didn't know existed. A little place that you've probably passed a hundred times and not even known was there.
I find myself doing this all the time in Vientiane, and this week I found a real treasure: one of the best coffee shops in town.
This Cubic Gallery along Rue Setthathilath in downtown Vientiane. Its name is actually obscured by the white awning so you have to be practically standing in front of the shop to see what it's called.
So, you're more likely to be attracted by the coffee cart outside with its blackboards, wooden bar stools and glass jars of coffee beans, fresh from the fridge.
It would be well worth your time if you did.
My friend Nicky, who I would call a coffee expert (though she may disagree with this title), introduced me to Cubic Gallery. Nicky's parents were coffee growers and she grew up on a coffee farm in Zimbabwe, and has since worked with coffee producers and researchers in Laos. Her friend, Dr Thatheva, in turn introduced her.
Nicky describes Cubic gallery as a place where you can really explore Lao coffee, its different varieties and blends. And meet a random assortment of people; its customers are mostly Lao locals, travellers, and business people.
Cubic Gallery was opened five years ago by Mr Lat, a local entrepreneur and artist, as a gallery. He only got into selling coffee here about a year ago. His philosophy is simple - sit and enjoy a freshly roasted cup of drip coffee, or three. He's happy to keep making you cups until you find the variety you like.
I rarely drink coffee myself but I did have a few sips of my freshly poured cup of Typica-Catimor blend (I had asked for black tea; I was served both). The taste was smooth, without the bitterness that some of my friends say accompanies a Lao coffee.
Lat also does design and illustrations for local NGOs on coffee research, among other things.
Inside Cubic Gallery the walls are, unsurprisingly, laden with paintings from local artists. Lat used to hold evening art workshops for artists and customers alike but with the arrival of his young daughter, he's pushed it back to weekends. All of the artwork is for sale.
Lat buys most of his coffee from the Coffee research Centre in the south between Pakse and Paksong. He buys other beans from Dr Thatheva, who owns a farm in the Bolaven Plateau, and grows unusual varieties such as Caturra. On the bush, these beans are yellow not red and quite small. They were only introduced to Laos a few years ago and Cubic Gallery is the only place where you can buy a cup of Caturra coffee.
While we were there, Lat roasted some Caturra beans. He has a small storeroom upstairs and roasts a small amount every day. The old metal coffee roaster takes a while to warm up and only does 200g at a time; the beans carefully spooned in. A few minutes later it starts to smoke and spit and we can smell the dry roasting. The beans are taken out and cooled with a fan. The whole process takes about 20 minutes.
So, the coffee roasting isn't exactly the quickest or most efficient process but it fits perfectly with the laid back atmosphere. Cubic Gallery is kind of place you can visit with friends and sit for hours enjoying multiple cups of different Lao coffees. It doesn't, however, serve food, and after a couple of hours, my stomach was growling.
The need for food may also have been helped along by the tipple of Lao rum we were served. Another of Lat's exclusive offerings is Laodi sugar cane rum, made at a distillery just outside of Vientiane. The factory buys in local sugar cane and makes seven flavours of rum. They are available to taste and buy after 5pm, and be warned; the premium variety, at 42%, is pretty strong. Or at least it is at 10.30am.
Lat is planning to move Cubic Gallery to a bigger premise where he can serve food, play music, and build a community of coffee lovers who want to learn about Lao coffee. Until then, you'll have to drop in downtown and taste some for yourself.
Cubic Art Gallery is on Rue Setthathilath, opposite Wat Ong Teu, and between Comma Cafe and I-Beam. It is open from 9am every day. The rum appears after 5pm.