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

But the attack on the coffeehouses also sparked an outpouring of support from café owners and their fans. PhoBolsaTV, a popular YouTube channel covering the Vietnamese American community, released several interviews discussing the shops. The most-viewed clip features a man defending them as a mostly innocent place to relax. When questioned about possible gang involvement, he responded by saying, "If a place has a good reputation, everyone will want to go there. Gang member, non-gang member, it doesn't matter. It's like a restaurant. If the food is good, anyone would go."

Nevertheless, new laws were passed in Garden Grove and Westminster that brought heavy regulation to the cafés. No more late hours, no minors during school hours, no more smoking. Shops in Westminster were basically chased out of the city by an ordinance that banned TVs and music in "cafés, coffeehouses and tea houses." Waitresses in both cities were ordered to cover their breasts, pubic areas and the "natal cleft" (the legal term for one's butt crack).

Windows in Garden Grove coffeehouses were ordered to not be tinted to the point at which police officers couldn't see inside. Cafés were to not dim their lighting enough to restrict vision, have any "amusement devices" (video games that could be converted into illegal gambling machines) or karaoke, or allow patrons to—according to Garden Grove municipal code—"indulge in boisterous conduct or use of profanity." While Santa Ana doesn't have these kinds of laws on the books, its shops immediately began to self-regulate in fear of retaliation.

Patrons playing 13
Austen Risolvato
Patrons playing 13

The strategy to legally crack down on the coffeehouses was largely successful. Law enforcement insists that Asian gangsters rarely, if ever, frequent coffee shops anymore; because of the complete ban on amusement devices in Garden Grove, illegal gambling has gone down. Several of the cafés that were raided—including Skyy Cafe, Missi Cafe and Café Passion—have closed. Some reported decreased revenues, and many owners sold their shops, but Café Lu was, according to Nguyen, mostly unaffected because of its diversified clientele.

And that's where she saw an opportunity.

*    *    *

In a far corner of her coffee shop, Nguyen sits with a group of regulars, large square sunglasses covering most of her face despite the dimmed interior. A petite Vietnamese woman nearing 40 but looking no older than 26, she tends to her guests with aplomb, effortlessly greeting VIPs with a smile and a light touch on the arm.

"Back in the day, when I first started working, Café Lu was on Newhope and First [in Santa Ana]. It was very small, a tiny shop," Nguyen says. "The Vietnamese community back then was so small; now, we get a lot of visitors from everywhere.

"The first two weeks in America, I stayed home, and I was so bored," she continues. "I told my brother that I wanted to go to work, so I asked him what easy job I could do with my limited English. My uncle was kidding around and said I could work at a coffee shop."

She ended up working in coffeehouses on and off for 10 years.

But about four years after leaving Café Lu, she got a call from a former co-worker. Their old boss had decided to retire, and she was wondering if Nguyen wanted to help her buy the shop 50-50.

"She told me she thought I could do it," Nguyen says. "So we borrowed some money from family, took out some loans and did it."

Her partner would eventually leave the business for personal reasons. Today, Nguyen has one silent partner, and she's on a mission to do more than just sell coffee to Vietnamese men; she wants to build a brand.

"[Soon], I'm going to sell 49 percent equity," she says. "I want to sell merchandise and open some more cafés in LA and San Diego."

The work is already paying off. Lu used to sell calendars to help promote their girls, but the coming of social media convinced Nguyen to take a different angle. Café Lu has more than 80,000 fans on Facebook, and the coffee shop's Instagram boasts more than 40,000 followers—far more than any of her competitors. It's also one of the few shops with a website, where fans can go to see pictures of the girls and find links to their Instagrams, favorite websites and Facebook fan pages. Photos posted to the Facebook page routinely garner hundreds of likes. Travelers from Australia, the U.K. and glamorous Fresno have stopped by the shop during visits to Orange County. A picture of Nguyen and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson features prominently on the website.

"We get a lot of tourists," Michelle says. "I always ask them the same thing: This place isn't what you were expecting, was it?"

While other coffee shops still cater largely toward Vietnamese immigrant men, Nguyen—who served those traditional patrons for so long—now eschews them. She doesn't let guests smoke indoors, and there's very rarely any hint of Vietnamese music. Only 40 percent of her customers are Vietnamese. Many are white, Middle Eastern or Latino. A plurality of her coffee girls, whom Nguyen picks herself, are Vietnamese, but there are also other Asian girls, white girls, Latinas and hapa girls.

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