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Coffee Bak, Vietnam style

Café Bien is straight from the streets of Saigon.

The sign on El Cajon Boulevard
The sign on El Cajon Boulevard

Dang. Down outside Safari Market, the big old barn where East African and sari shops used to fill the space at 54th Street near ECB, College Area. My favorite place to come was African Spice, basically a Somali place with great goat dishes, right next door to where services regularly went on in the mosque hall next door.

But today the doors are not just closed. The windows haven't been cleaned for ages, and looking through a crack, you can see the African Spice counter emptied and abandoned. Maybe because it's a Monday, but the whole place looks like history.

Place

Café Bien

5389 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego

So I wander back up past the social services office to The Boulevard. And, oh yeah. Maybe this will have to do. On the corner, this French-Vietnamese-looking place I've always wondered about as I sat on the Number One bus heading west. Café Bien.

So hey, let's go Vietnamese!

Mostly men

I come in through the chalky glass doors into this space full of spindly wrought iron chairs and tables, lots of Vietnamese men sit at scattered tables with looks like lottery bingo cards in front of them. The booming voice of Wolf Blitzer fills the room with recaps of the missing airliner. And, like, on top of that, the tinkle of giggles from the two baristas chatting away in Vietnamese as they work away at a big coffee machine with one hand and process the lottery cards customers bring up with the other.

"Coffee?" says the girl nearest me.

It turns out your only answer is "Yes." Because that's all they've got.

"Just a regular," I say.

Coffee always comes with tea

"No drip," she says. "Just from the espresso. Vietnamese people like good coffee."

"With sweetened condensed milk?"

She nods. "Iced, or hot?"

I see most men around have iced coffee. I see a lot of men are smoking too.

I go for the hot coffee.

"If you like. Four dollars."

Wow.

But when it comes, with a side of tea, natch, it is a scrumptious rich cup.

Vietnam scenes all around

I sit and watch as all the men watch the big Hot Spot screen. Paintings of Vietnam fill the walls. A sign from the California Lottery promises "fun every 5 minutes." Another says "March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month."

But it has the feel. You could be in Vietnam. The place opens at six in the morning, and that's when this place rocks, from what I hear. Got to come back, start practicing some Vietnamese. I start as I leave, with the one phrase I can remember.

"Come earn," I say. Pretty sure it means "thank you."

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The sign on El Cajon Boulevard
The sign on El Cajon Boulevard

Dang. Down outside Safari Market, the big old barn where East African and sari shops used to fill the space at 54th Street near ECB, College Area. My favorite place to come was African Spice, basically a Somali place with great goat dishes, right next door to where services regularly went on in the mosque hall next door.

But today the doors are not just closed. The windows haven't been cleaned for ages, and looking through a crack, you can see the African Spice counter emptied and abandoned. Maybe because it's a Monday, but the whole place looks like history.

Place

Café Bien

5389 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego

So I wander back up past the social services office to The Boulevard. And, oh yeah. Maybe this will have to do. On the corner, this French-Vietnamese-looking place I've always wondered about as I sat on the Number One bus heading west. Café Bien.

So hey, let's go Vietnamese!

Mostly men

I come in through the chalky glass doors into this space full of spindly wrought iron chairs and tables, lots of Vietnamese men sit at scattered tables with looks like lottery bingo cards in front of them. The booming voice of Wolf Blitzer fills the room with recaps of the missing airliner. And, like, on top of that, the tinkle of giggles from the two baristas chatting away in Vietnamese as they work away at a big coffee machine with one hand and process the lottery cards customers bring up with the other.

"Coffee?" says the girl nearest me.

It turns out your only answer is "Yes." Because that's all they've got.

"Just a regular," I say.

Coffee always comes with tea

"No drip," she says. "Just from the espresso. Vietnamese people like good coffee."

"With sweetened condensed milk?"

She nods. "Iced, or hot?"

I see most men around have iced coffee. I see a lot of men are smoking too.

I go for the hot coffee.

"If you like. Four dollars."

Wow.

But when it comes, with a side of tea, natch, it is a scrumptious rich cup.

Vietnam scenes all around

I sit and watch as all the men watch the big Hot Spot screen. Paintings of Vietnam fill the walls. A sign from the California Lottery promises "fun every 5 minutes." Another says "March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month."

But it has the feel. You could be in Vietnam. The place opens at six in the morning, and that's when this place rocks, from what I hear. Got to come back, start practicing some Vietnamese. I start as I leave, with the one phrase I can remember.

"Come earn," I say. Pretty sure it means "thank you."

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