Whip-smart, a keen attention to detail, and a passion for craft–that’s the coffee writing of Tien Nguyen. A longtime contributor to the LA Weekly, more recently Nguyen worked with Chef Roy Choi to organize and co-write his memoir, L.A. Son, then headed out on the road for an entertaining and sometimes arduous book tour. Now Nguyen has officially launched a new website, “Where to Coffee in LA”, chronicling the Los Angeles coffee scene for locals and visitors by breaking down options into neighborhoods and pointing readers to the best places to get a good cup.
Ms. Nguyen’s website shares her love for coffee, especially drinking gibraltars and logging hours in cafes writing about coffee and food, rather than toiling away at her previous career in law. I met with her recently at G&B Coffee for an interview (over a loud soundtrack of hip hop and the bustle of Grand Central Market) and learned about her journey from litigation attorney to chronicler of the best cortados in Los Angeles.
What originally got you into coffee? What was the first memorable cup you drank?
I was in Seattle at Espresso Vivace. That was the first cup of coffee where I thought “wow–this tastes like something more than sludge!” At the time I was living in Berkeley and going to college at UC studying Political Science and English.
Which leads to a life of writing articles about food coffee and chef memoirs?
No. Which leads to a career in law. Which leads to a life of misery.
So once you got your degree and then went to law school and became a lawyer, when did all of the food, beverage, and coffee writing happen?
I was working in a law firm full time, and if I wanted to be a lawyer, I think I would have stayed there. It was a really great place to work and the people were really nice, but litigation and law exercise a part of your brain which leaves other parts of your brain not exercised. I felt I needed something a little more creative, a little less grueling. Working for a law firm, you go out to eat with clients. For some reason I just really loved writing and found it easy to write about food. I started a blog that I worked on in the very few hours I had between cases.
How did you transition from law to food writing?
I left my law firm. Then on a whim, I did not have much to lose, I emailed the editor at the LA Weekly and asked if they needed any freelance writers and I pitched a couple stories.
What was your first LA Weekly story?
My first LA Weekly story was about cortados. Yeekai Lim had just started his Cog Cart [a precursor to today’s Cognoscenti Coffee brick & mortar] and he had the cortado on his menu. When I found him we were talking about cortados and gibraltars and I realized there was a lot of history behind the drink. There are about ten or fifteen ways of looking at it and I discovered there are a bunch of words for the same drink.
So your very first published food story was about coffee? Is that what got you interested in writing more?
Yeah. It definitely was a rabbit hole. At the time LA did not have as much coffee as it has now. Ever since that trip to Seattle, I was always looking for really great coffee. There was no one at the Weekly writing about coffee regularly, so I just kept pitching stories about coffee.
What did you learn covering stories for the LA Weekly?
Before that I was always writing briefs and legal papers. I kind of had a vague idea how to write stories based on reading them, but I think writing for the LA Weekly taught me how to write for a publication. My editor, Amy Scattergood, is great. [Scattergood is the editor of Squid Ink, LA Weekly’s food & beverage blog.]
So you came from a cerebral world that pays a lot to a creative endeavor that pays very little. You must have really enjoyed writing about coffee and food if you were willing to trade the security of working in a law firm for that!
The stress of law is enormous. At some point you realize your soul is worth a lot more than a paycheck. For me it was a pretty easy decision. I am not motivated by money. I wrote for the LA Weekly exclusively for a while. It was so easy pitching to Amy. She liked my ideas. It’s a very natural relationship.
When did you meet Roy Choi? How did that connection happen?
I had covered a bunch of his restaurant openings, including Chego. We met at an LA Weekly party where Kogi won a award. We met briefly afterwards, and he’d read a couple things I had written and liked them, which was really nice.
What made you want to take on his book project?
He had a great vision for the book. He has a very interesting life, and an incredibly interesting background that explains why he cooks the way he cooks. For me it was the chance to put Los Angeles on paper and to represent a part of LA that no one really sees: the immigrant part. To have that as something people can reference and read and learn from. That part to me was it.
How long did you work on the book? What was the tour like?
We worked on the book for about two years. Then the tour was so exhausting. It was wonderful. It was great. We went to Boston, San Francisco and hit up a lot of places. All of the crowds were really nice and asked really good questions, but it was very exhausting for me.
You started with a blog, then high profile writing for the LA Weekly, then a book with a famous chef, how did that lead back into investing time into your own coffee site?
I have been working on this website for about a year. I have been throwing content on it. Why now? I have a little more time right now that the book and tour is done. I have a bit more mental state to work on it. Beyond that, everyone loves a list. I have written a bunch of lists. I am guilty of that, but I think their usefulness is only to a certain extent.
When you live in a place like LA, any major city really, it is far more useful to have guides that are neighborhood-based for coffee shops. If you are just a person who needs to go to work you probably want to know where you can get the best cup of coffee in your neighborhood, as opposed to the best cup of coffee across town. That was a lot of the questions I would get from people when I wrote lists. I would get emails from people saying this is great but ‘what is the best cup of coffee closest to me?’ That’s fair.
Why a coffee website rather than a food website right now?
That’s more what I know. I have a repository of information about coffee and needed to put it somewhere and present it in a way that is useful.
What are your goals with it?
My over-arching goal is for it to be useful for people. I plan to add content to it as long as it needs to be updated.
What do you like about being around the coffee community in LA?
Obviously I like the coffee. As a writer you like to find a third space, a place you feel comfortable writing and being around people and having drinks and food. People who make coffee are very friendly people.
What are some of your favorite coffee shops outside of LA?
Stumptown at the Ace in NY makes really consistent cups. Third Rail also in NY. San Francisco’s Sightglass is great, and Four Barrel in SF too. The last time I was in SF for the book tour I stopped by Wrecking Ball’s walk up window. It’s really great. I’d like to go back to Seattle … and the Scandinavian countries and Tokyo.
Last, what are your five favorite coffee drinks in Los Angeles right now?
The cortado at Cognoscenti Coffee:
I was introduced to the cortado at Cognoscenti Coffee, and there was something about the balance and the temperature of the drink that really got me. Since then, it’s been my order at most every coffee shop, and certainly at Cog, where, at any one if its incarnations around town, you’ll find consistently great coffee made very well by very friendly folks.
The misugaru latte at caFe by Roy Choi:
Roy Choi’s cafe in the lobby of The Line Hotel is a ton of fun: it’s colorful, the menu looks like it’s been written in puffy paint, the food items have names like Bun B the G (that’s a toasted bun with honey butter), and at night when the lobby is dimmed and the music is especially loud, the cafe beams like a glow stick. And through all that, you have a very good coffee shop. I’ve been ordering the misugaru latte a lot lately–the sweet nuttiness of the misugaru works with the milk, espresso and turbinado sugar.
Vietnamese coffee at Fresh Roast:
Finding Vietnamese iced coffee in the San Gabriel Valley is about as easy as finding a mustache in Silver Lake, but I often go out of my way for the Vietnamese coffee at Fresh Roast, a coffee shop and roaster in San Gabriel. The shop roasts its coffee on the darker side of the scale, meaning you have coffee that stands up to the intense sweetness of the condensed milk. There’s also a food menu here, so you can drink that alongside something like Hong Kong-style waffles. Because why not.
The Espresso Milkshake at G&B Coffee:
An enormous scoop of McConnell’s ice-cream and more shots of espresso than you might otherwise consume in one sitting: that’s G&B’s espresso milkshake, and it is delicious. Pretty much one of the best treats you can give yourself on a hot LA day. Any day, really.
The Horchata latte at Tierra Mia:
I love horchata, and everything about it lends itself to becoming a really fantastic coffee drink. Tierra Mia is usually where I end up when I’m craving one; the coffee is solid, and when it’s combined with ice-cold horchata, it’s terrific. Sometimes, I’m lucky and there’s a taco truck nearby. That’s lunch. A really, really good lunch.
Photos of Tien Nguyen courtesy of Amparo Rios and Bruce Hershey, and used by permission.