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Orange County authorities cracking down on Vietnamese cafes

The tinted windows at Cafe Miss Cutie in Garden Grove are a giveaway that this isn’t your ordinary coffeehouse.

At about 20 tables, men play cards and smoke, tossing cigarette butts onto the wood floor seconds before lighting up again. High-pitched pop music pulsates as waitresses dressed in sexy lingerie — and sometimes less — deliver the brew the customers crave: Vietnamese coffee, strong and sweet, in a small glass topped with whipped cream.

The cafe is one of about 20 in this Orange County city, which includes part of Little Saigon, one of the largest Vietnamese American enclaves in the U.S. It also is among those raided in March by more than 150 federal and local law enforcement officials, exposing an underbelly of what police say includes nudity, gambling and prostitution.

Even the Garden Grove police weren’t prepared for what they found.

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“We were shocked,” Sgt. Tom Dare, with the department’s special investigations unit, said of the proliferation of arcade-like gambling machines. “A lot of these places want to be legit, but how do they compete with these other businesses? It’s almost a chain reaction, where one business tries to one-up another.”

In the raid, police seized 186 arcade machines that they say can be turned into a keno or blackjack machine with the push of a button. Also confiscated was more than $145,000 in suspected gambling profits, including $35,000 from one cafe alone. The investigation is ongoing.

“These guys are very organized, they are very intelligent,” Dare said, pointing out that profits from a single machine can exceed $3,000 per day. “The reward outweighs the risk.”

In response, the Garden Grove City Council recently approved new restrictions, targeting even the tinted windows, that go into effect next month.

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Nhut Luong, who coordinates immigration services next door to Cafe Di Vang, one of the older businesses in the area, said he’s gotten used to the loud music and is otherwise unbothered.

“We don’t care,” he said, stressing that local businesses need to support one another.

Nguyen Uong, who lives in Fountain Valley not far from several of the coffeehouses, said the problem isn’t the loud music but the nudity and gambling.

“Things like that have been going on for a long time and nobody has spoken up,” he said. “It makes me feel like we live in a Third World country”

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Many in Little Saigon, which includes neighboring Westminster, are hesitant to speak out against the cafes. None of the waitresses would agree to be interviewed.

There are signatures that many of the cafes share: No alcohol is served, big-screen televisions line the walls, California lottery tickets are for sale, and the coffee is served by Asian women often wearing high heels and nothing more than string bikinis or see-through lingerie. In some cafes, that uniform has dwindled to pasties and a thong.

Lan Duong, an assistant professor of culture and media studies at UC Riverside, has studied the tradition behind the cafes.

“It’s not about ogling women per se,” she said. “It’s about the camaraderie.”

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Chanh Do, a 57-year-old engineer from Orange, agrees. The subdued Mai Tay Hien off Bolsa Avenue is where he spends his happy hour. Almost each day for more than two decades, he has taken a seat at the far end of the counter to read the newspaper, drink coffee (black, with sugar) and smoke Marlboro Lights.

“Here, it’s time to relax,” Do said. Everyone there knows his name and knows not to sit in his seat. Waitresses — in sweaters and jeans — know his order.

Phu Vu owns Mai Tay Hien — Vietnamese for “Westside Terrace” — and remembers watching his father build another cafe from studs and nails to its opening in 1986.

“Everybody you see here, it’s like a religion to them,” he said. “You take away one of those things and they can’t live.”

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But this contrasts sharply with some of the other cafes. On a recent evening, two Garden Grove police officers parked behind a strip mall and walked behind a restaurant and a karate school, hoping to enter California Cafe through the back door. It was locked, forcing them to go in through the front — where tinted windows allow patrons and managers to see them coming.

The officers say they are used to hearing someone shout “canh sat!” — “police” in Vietnamese. In some cafes, police said, women rush to the front desk to tie bikini tops around exposed breasts.

On this night, fresh smoke lingers above stubbed-out cigarettes as the waitresses stare at the officers. Several female employees are wearing thongs, and one is clad in a transparent lacy green bra.

The manager signals that she does not understand English.

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“Tell her it’s her job to make sure the girls cover up,” Officer Jeff Brown tells a third party, a man who claims to be a friend of the owner.

It is not the first brush with the law for Vietnamese coffeehouses. In the 1990s, they became a home base for gangs. Shootings, homicides and fights were common. Extortion was prevalent, leading to ordinances in both Garden Grove and Westminster to restrict cafe hours. Westminster enacted an ordinance requiring a conditional-use permit for the cafes. In order to be approved, the permits require a public hearing.

But with the decrease in violence came an increase in illegal gambling and prostitution as gang members aged and became more sophisticated, according to Dare.

“It’s all about money now,” he said.

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The majority of cafe owners and managers declined to be interviewed.

“We love sexy but not nasty,” said one manager, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation within the Vietnamese community. “I love green, but I don’t want to do it the dirty way.”

Vu, the owner of Mai Tay Hien, said his cafe survives because of California lottery sales and, of course, the quality of the coffee, which he says is a blend passed down by his father.

The new restrictions are long overdue, he said. “We don’t need those other coffee shops to stereotype us.

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“Not everybody wants to buy coffee from a naked girl.”

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com


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