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New rules target racy Vietnamese cafes in Calif

At Café Miss Cutie, the windows are tinted but not pitch black. The waitresses are wearing negligees but not naked. And patrons are being urged to smoke outside.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At Café Miss Cutie, the windows are tinted but not pitch black. The waitresses are wearing negligees but not naked. And patrons are being urged to smoke outside.

The dimly lit coffeehouse in the heart of Orange County's Little Saigon hopes to get a passing grade when police start enforcing a host of new rules to crack down on illegal gambling and nudity at some cafes starting as soon as this weekend.

Officers plan to make rounds of the 37 Vietnamese cafes in the suburban city of Garden Grove to ensure they don't have arcade games that have been rigged to let patrons bet on blackjack and roulette, and that scantily clad waitresses leave something to the imagination.

The crackdown comes after authorities reported crime was on the rise outside coffeehouses.

"When you're running illegal gaming and further complicating the issue by having a quasi-strip bar ... you're attracting a different crowd than guys just going in there to have a cup of coffee," Garden Grove police spokesman Lt. Jeff Nightengale said.

Orange County is home to the biggest Vietnamese immigrant community in the country, with sizable enclaves in Garden Grove and surrounding cities.

Tucked into strip malls featuring McDonald's and Subway restaurants, the coffeehouses cater to men toting laptops to take advantage of free wireless access, who are meeting business partners or who are getting together with friends to play cards, watch sports and flirt with waitresses who pour iced drinks.

Business has fallen at many of the cafes since police started the crackdown — above all on the arcade games that lured customers off their couches and got them to linger longer at the coffeehouses.

"They say if it's just to drink coffee, then I'll stay home and drink coffee," said Thuy Do, owner of Café Chichi in Garden Grove.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a dozen loyal patrons converged at Café Miss Cutie to play Chinese chess, watch European soccer on flat screen TVs and sip iced coffee served by a waitress in a see-through lavender negligee.

One of them was Mike Nguyen, a 53-year-old day trader who said he doesn't mind the thick stench of cigarette smoke and wishes authorities would ease up on the coffeehouse that has become his virtual office and escape from the cookie-cutter Southern California suburb where he lives.

"It's a stimulating environment," said Nguyen, of nearby Irvine. "Starbucks is boring."

But authorities in Garden Grove — a city of 170,000 people about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles — said cafes have gotten out of control. What began more than a decade ago with waitresses in skimpy outfits morphed into nudity. Some coffeehouses had six or eight arcade games running, and crime was on the rise, Nightengale said.

Between January 2010 and May 2011, police received reports of three robberies, four assaults with a deadly weapon, and seven drug-related incidents at coffeehouses — a far cry from the tranquility at the city's more traditional cafes, Nightengale said.

In March, authorities arrested 23 people at coffeehouses in Garden Grove and Westminster for investigation of illegal gaming and seized more than 180 machines and more than $145,000 in cash, Garden Grove police said.

The Garden Grove City Council recently passed new rules to ban arcade games, darkly tinted windows and nudity at cafes. Coffeehouses will be fined $1,000 for each violation.

At Café Miss Cutie, sales have been halved since police began making rounds several months ago, manager Tuyen Tran said.

"We just serve coffee, wear bikinis, like Hooters," Tran said. "I don't know how long we can survive like this — with no money and losing customers."

Do, whose small café is brightly lit, said she relies on loyal, older patrons to stay afloat. But with the new restrictions, she fears her customers may venture over to coffeehouses in nearby cities where there are fewer limits.

"Now it is a little boring to just come and drink coffee and read the paper," she said.