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In Denver, the epitome of the American dream might be tucked into the corner of a convenience store a few blocks north of Sloan’s Lake. To find it, look for the bright, unmissable banner announcing “Sandwiches” flapping in the breeze and enter to find a counter selling paper-wrapped bánh mì, steaming bowls of phở, dark Vietnamese coffee, and other specialties. This is CôNu’s Corner Cafe, Thuc-Nhu “Nhu” Hoang’s American dream.
If you ask, Hoang will tell you the bánh mì’s bread is made in-house, as are the sharp, sweet pickled daikon radishes and carrots. The mayonnaise is prepared from scratch, and the meats are marinated and grilled in the kitchen. Take a bite and the bread will shatter between your teeth, softly giving way to the fresh crunch of vegetables and herbs, and deeply flavored proteins. This is not your usual convenience store fare, but this is not your usual convenience store—this place belongs to Hoang.
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About 17 years ago, Hoang moved to Denver from Vietnam with her parents and brought with her a dream of starting her own business. Eventually she settled on the idea of opening a coffee and sandwich shop, and she and her husband, Huy Pham, began searching for a promising location. They found a convenience store with room to add a kitchen, located on 29th Avenue in West Highland, a growing neighborhood with few Vietnamese food options. It seemed perfect, so the pair signed the lease in May 2019 and were told the construction work would take about six months to complete. “What could go wrong?” they thought.
Quite a lot, it turned out.
Kitchen construction was underway when COVID-19 hit, and the contractor the couple hired disappeared, taking their sizable deposit with him. When they finally tracked him down with the help of a lawyer, they ended up taking him to court to recoup their lost deposit. But to their surprise, Hoang and Pham lost the case and had to pay the contractor more money in the process.
“Sometimes I wanted to give up, especially during COVID,” Hoang says. It felt like one moment of bad luck was quickly followed by another. But she pushed on, hiring a new contractor and finally finishing the kitchen. But to open, the coffee and sandwich shop still had to wait for all the necessary permits from the city. Then, the couple got pregnant, had their son, and kept waiting, keeping the convenience store open in the meantime. Instead of six months, it took about four years before they could start selling food.
Hoang’s father, Ngoan, even prepared for the cafe’s opening by traveling back to Vietnam to learn how to make the perfect bánh mì baguette. But upon his return, he realized that the recipe he mastered in humid Vietnam did not work in Denver’s dry climate. So, he and Hoang began experimenting, tweaking the recipe and offering free samples to customers for feedback until she felt it was good enough to serve.
“I’m too picky,” Hoang says. “Customers came in and said, ‘This is perfect. You should start to sell sandwiches.’ But I was like, ‘No, this is not it yet.’” Perfect bánh mì bread, she says, is crunchy on the outside, but still soft on the inside, so it doesn’t hurt your mouth when you bite into it. It’s not too big or too small. The perfect baguette is something she is still chasing but feels like they are improving upon every day.
In May 2023—with the kitchen complete, the permits secured, and bread nearly perfect—Hoang and her family could finally open the sandwich and coffee spot she had been dreaming of. The name CôNu, thought up by Pham, roughly translates to “Ms. Nhu” in Vietnamese, and here it was: Ms. Nhu’s very own corner cafe.
But then there were the parking issues. While the kitchen was under construction and the family waited for permits, Hoang allowed patrons of nearby businesses to park in the lot belonging to CôNu’s Corner while it was operating as a convenience store and customer traffic was light, a welcome bonus in a busy retail stretch with limited street parking.
When CôNu’s Corner was getting ready to serve food, however, Hoang heard some complaints from her customers that there was no parking available, though her shop was nearly empty. As a result, she warned those who parked without entering her store that their vehicles would be towed, but she was often ignored or cursed at. When she had violators’ cars towed, one-star reviews started showing up on the cafe’s Google page, making false accusations about the business or openly stating they had not eaten the food but were mad about the parking situation.
Hoang finds the situation demoralizing. She works six days a week with her parents, who give their time to help make the cafe a reality and support her during the rough times. “Four years ago, five years ago, I had very beautiful dreams, not hard like this,” she says. “They are willing to help me with everything they have right now.”
Hoang was not prepared for the grind and the setbacks along the way, but she’s also been able to find the joy in pursuit of her dream. Most often, she feels it when customers try the food and enjoy it as much as she does. “I love it when [customers] eat here,” she says. “They grab a sandwich and sit here and eat, and they tell me, ‘Oh my god, incredible sandwich.’ That makes me happy, really happy.” Despite the parking drama, Hoang is also grateful for many of the surrounding neighborhood’s residents who stop in for sandwiches and rice plates, and whose word-of-mouth support has helped grow her business over the last several months.
And though Hoang is cautious about making big, definitive plans for the future, she can’t help but daydream about expanding the drink menu, producing desserts to fill the bakery case, and hiring a few employees. Looking beyond limitations, being creative, and never giving up on yourself—what could be more American?
4400 W. 29th Ave.