Practically in the heart of Little Saigon, Cafe Ao Dai looks like your stereotypical Vietnamese cafe. The windows are tinted and the lighting inside is dim, but you can still make out the older Vietnamese male clientele wielding cigarettes and holding court at their usual tables, as well as the throng of bikini-clad waitresses who serve them with smiles and cups of cafe sua da.
As is with the case of many Vietnamese cafes, the coffee is of little importance here. But owner Michael Nguyen is trying to change all of that.
Nguyen took over ownership of the cafe—formerly known as Cafe M Cutie—in July last year, bringing with him an army of glass siphons, paper filters and loads of beans with just two goals in mind: to make really good coffee, and to get others as excited about it as he was.
“In this community, all anyone really knows in terms of coffee is that dark roast, with condensed milk,” says Nguyen. “I want to educate our customers, to show them that they can enjoy coffee in so many different ways.”
The menu is expansive, offering all the items you’d usually see at a specialty coffee shop like pour overs and red eyes, brewed with Intelligentsia beans. But Ao Dai also carries the drinks and snacks typically found at Vietnamese cafes like trai cay tron (fruit cocktail), dau dam (smashed strawberries) and sua da.
Nguyen knew from the beginning that his dream of establishing a higher-end coffee shop in Little Saigon would be a challenge. An Orange County local himself, he was well-aware the cafe’s loyal customers were older in age, mostly men and not at all interested in distinguishing between the tastes of Guatemalan and Ethiopian blends. He’s an innovator in a community that prides itself on keeping its traditions in tact.
“We don’t want to change everything right away, out of respect for the customers,” says Nguyen. “We still serve the drinks they’ve been drinking for years. We still have female waitresses. But little by little, we’re transitioning.”
Already, longtime customers will be able to see visible changes between their familiar Cafe M Cutie and the establishment they’re in today. Thanks to their social media presence, more millennials are visiting. There have also been arrangements to replace the cafe’s tinted windows. And in a move that will shock many observers, Nguyen is working to eventually get all his waitresses to ditch skimpy wear and instead use an ao dai––the Vietnamese national dress––which serves as a symbol of tradition as well as the inspiration behind the cafe’s name.
“There’s so much bad publicity when it comes to Vietnamese cafes, what with the shady environment and lingerie, but we want to get to the essence of what a cafe is: a place where anyone can hang out with friends and enjoy coffee,” says operations manager Alexis Lynn. “Women should feel as welcomed to hang out here as men do. The same goes for non-Vietnamese people. We want everyone here.”
Once the cafe has completely transitioned into what he’s envisioned, Nguyen plans on opening a chain of shops outside Little Saigon to expose other communities to Vietnamese tradition. His dream, though, is to roast his own beans. And while other roasters pride themselves on their relationships with coffee growers on continents like Africa and South America, Nguyen hopes to take his business to Vietnam.
“My parents have told me about the hardships our people have faced in coming over,” says Nguyen, whose family was among the thousands of refugees that escaped Vietnam by boat. “I want to focus on Vietnamese coffee commerce to learn more about where I came from, and to provide jobs for families there.”
Cafe Ao Dai, 14331 Euclid St., Ste. 107, Garden Grove, (714) 884-3683; www.cafeaodai.com