Forget dapper muleteer Juan Valdez: the new face of cheap coffee is Vietnamese. Vietnam sped past Colombia in 2000 to become the world's second-largest coffee producer. It's a mixed blessing. The emergence of yet one more Third World commodity producer sent coffee prices into a tailspin and threw thousands of coffee-growing families out of work. This phenomenon has had few obvious ramifications at your local coffee bar; someone is making a killing, and it's not the coffeehouses (who typically depend upon middlemen) or coffee pickers worldwide.
In an effort to measure Vietnamese awareness of this sea change in the global production of trimethylxanthine (that's caffeine), we conducted an entirely unscientific survey of Little Saigon coffeehouses, from the swankiest to the dankiest in both offerings and settings.
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We begin our coffee crusade at Coffee Factory, which could easily be mistaken for a Starbucks—if not for the fluent French menu and scenic pictures of Vietnam adorning the walls. After ordering the ca phé sua nong ($2.25), we ask our server if she knows of Vietnam's role in coffee production. "I don't know," she replies. "Ask my sister Anh." Anh Nguyen, it turns out, is the owner, but she's nowhere to be found. After sipping at the rich, warm coffee for a while, we ask another server the same question. She shrugs and suggests we wait around for the same missing Nguyen sister. Although the atmosphere is inviting (smooth jazz piped through invisible speakers) and the pastries enticing, we are on a quest. We move on. 15582 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 418-0757.
Next stop, Saigon Bistro, with an interior seemingly boxed up and mailed from fin-de-siècle Paris. We order a very sweet, creamy cappuccino and ca phé phin (both $2), which slowly drips from a metal filter into a nice iced glass, producing a strong, bitter coffee nicely balanced by condensed milk. The distinctly cosmopolitan appearance of the restaurant carries over into the song selections (we hear English-, Spanish- and Vietnamese-language tunes) and menu (escargot, flan and Vietnamese offerings). The owner is unaware of any connection between Vietnam and coffee. He steadfastly denies that Vietnam grows coffee—and certainly not his coffee: "Mine comes from France," he says with just a hint of indignation. 15470 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 895-2120.
Francophilia continues at Lee's Sandwiches—French flag on the business card, Eiffel Tower image on the wall. Outside, it's America: during every visit, we've noted the presence of security guards. We ordered the ca phé den da ($1.50), complete with those little tapioca pearls that are suddenly the rage in Asian OC's cold drinks. Black coffee has a reputation for harshness, but Lee's is exceptionally soothing and cold. The bustling atmosphere and the workers' generally harried looks preclude us from asking about the international economy. 9261 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 901-5788.
Lee's inexplicable security presence would seem better suited to our final destination, Café Di Vãng. We don't ask about coffee politics or anything remotely coffee at Di Vãng. Maybe it's the big-screen TVs, erotic-themed gambling games or the fact that no one under 18 is admitted (even though alcohol is absent from the premises). Maybe it's the pulsing techno music or the black lighting that is the only source of illumination besides cigarette butts. Questions about economics feel inappropriate here, especially when 25 pairs of male eyes watch your every move. The only women present are waitresses wearing five-inch heels and ass shorts. They give us free tea but no menu; the offerings are limited to fruit shakes ($4.50) or black coffee at a whopping $3.50. Scared out of research mode, we pay the $4 and get the hell out. 14044 Magnolia St., Westminster. Got the hell out before any further information was procured.