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Little Saigon's Café Queen

With hot drinks and even hotter girls, Natalie Nguyen is trying to uncloak the area's most enduring mystery: Vietnamese coffee shops

Little Saigon's Café Queen
Photo: Riley Kern | Model: Charlene Barnum | Photo Assistant: Genevieve Davis | H/MUA: Christine Barnum | Design: Dustin Ames

Michelle and her girls should be shivering. It just rained, and the temperature is still snugly below 60 degrees even though it's 3 in the afternoon. She, Yari, Diamy and their half-dozen or so co-workers are half-naked, wearing dark lace teddies, brightly colored lingerie with bottoms two sizes too small or flesh-colored swimsuits as they wait on customers at Café Lu in Santa Ana. Even the heater can't keep out blasts of cold every time someone enters. But there's no time to be freezing—the Vietnamese coffeehouse is buzzing.

The Café Lu girls seem to be doing what you'd expect half-naked, beautiful women to be doing on the clock: little to nothing. They play cards with customers, gossip about fashion (as well as themselves and their patrons) and check their phones, all while occasionally taking drags off e-cigarettes. But these ladies are also working their asses off, stirring cups of cà phê sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and topping off tall glasses of frosty jasmine tea in between hands of 13, a popular Vietnamese card game in which four players take turns trying to get rid of their cards as fast as they can.

"It can be a little cold sometimes," Diamy says, sitting down momentarily to banter and top off a glass of tea. "But it's good work. I get paid twice what I normally would, and to do what? Make coffee? Pour tea?"

Model: Charlene Barnum. H/MUA: Christine Barnum
Riley Kern/Photo Assistant: Genevieve Davis
Model: Charlene Barnum. H/MUA: Christine Barnum
Natalie Nguyen: The madame of Café Lu
Austen Risolvato
Natalie Nguyen: The madame of Café Lu

And with that, she's up again, checking on the other tables.

Cà phê mát me, lingerie cafés, Vietnamese coffee shops, cà phê bikini—whatever you call them, they remain the most mysterious, misunderstood feature of Little Saigon, subject of urban legends, constant police surveillance and embarrassment for assimilated Vietnamese Americans. Until recently the storefronts catered almost exclusively to older, male, mostly Vietnamese clientele. Drive down Euclid Street, the Champs-Élysées of this scene, and commuters can see at least half a dozen nestled in plazas and strip malls, bordering bakeries, Catholic churches and Buddhist temples in Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

It's a phenomenon almost exclusive to Orange County in the Vietnamese diaspora. Other major enclaves in the United States—San Jose, Seattle, Houston, San Diego, New Orleans—have only a couple, nowhere near the offerings of Little Saigon's arsenal: open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. (officially), with an army of girls fresh from high school and local colleges offering perky service and strong drinks while wearing a thong, bra and 7-inch stilettos.

Due to the nature of the uniforms and patrons, the coffee shops have been an easy target for controversy, both in the United States and abroad. But they continue to persist. In the past decade, the uniforms have gone skimpier, the waitresses have diversified, and the entrepreneurs have used the powers of social media to showcase their girls and draw in new crowds, just as traditional American bars have long done with their bartenders.

And if Café Lu owner Natalie Nguyen has it her way, the Vietnamese coffee shop is about to go national.

*    *    *

From the outside, Vietnamese coffee shops look as universally rote as Starbucks. Nearly every one features similarly large, sort-of-but-not-really tinted windows that take up the width of the property. The tint is not completely opaque, revealing a small hint of the staff inside to comply with new laws. Large, backlit marquees (usually in red, lucky and better to pierce through the night) hang over doorways. "No loitering" signs guard both the front and back of the stores, as required by law. Inside, most shops are wallpapered in flat-screen TVs showing sports and lottery numbers.

From there, though, Little Saigon offers a strata of experiences, all reflecting aspects of the Vietnamese community based on how fresh off the boat its patrons are.

On one level are places such as Café Di Vang 2 in Garden Grove, which cater to a mostly middle-aged clientele. During the early evening, customers smoke indoors, ashing their cigarettes on the ground and discarding the butts on the floor. The ceiling-mounted speakers playing tinny, underproduced Vietnamese pop music, punctuated by the occasional cover of an American classic-rock or '70s-pop song, pierce the smoke screen. As the night passes, the crowds get slightly younger, but no more American. Thumpy EDM replaces the outdated pop music. The clientele keep mainly to themselves, for the most part only interacting with waitresses when ordering. Running contrary to stereotype, the regulars here often seem more interested in homework, business deals, sports and newspapers than the girls.

During a recent night at Café Di Vang 2, patrons consoled one another over not winning the lottery. "I'm so poor right now," one man in his mid-40s said. "What I would do if I won the lottery. I'd never have to worry about anything again. I'd be set for life."

"Someone has to win," an older man replied.

Across the room, a guy in his early 30s speaks loudly into his phone: "My girlfriend hasn't gotten back to me all day."

A block down Euclid is Café M. Cutie, which caters to a slightly more American crowd. The people who go there are much younger, barely breaking their 30s, and non-Vietnamese patrons are a more common site. The place is less smoky, thanks in part to the doors that open to an outside patio and partly thanks to the fact that many patrons are using e-cigarettes. Vietnamese pop music is nearly nonexistent, replaced by R&B, EDM, and Top 40.

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