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Monday, January 29, 2007

Koffee Pot

On any given cool and overcast Saturday morning in downtown Oakland, there's no line of people waiting in front of the Koffee Pot on Telegraph Avenue to get in. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any people on the street at all.

But inside of the Koffee Pot, it's a different story. While the place sits at tops 10 people, those few seats rarely get cold. Part of the reason this may be is due to the super-friendly service and solid, rib-stickin' breakfast plates served up to loyal customers of all ages and stripes.

The Koffee Pot, established back in 1928, must be charmed since what other business could be so small in size and stature, in a somewhat lonely part of town, surviving multiple changes in ownership and clientele, urban decline and gentrification, and still pack them in for the last 79 years without missing a beat?

If the Koffee Pot is sitting on top of the fountain of youth, then a spoonful of their grits with butter just took 30 minutes off of my age. And isn't it great that they serve grits? How many places that serve breakfast in the bay area – that you know of – serve grits?

Frankly, I "blame" black people. Wonderful, precious, black African-Americans who've held on to their Southern roots and cuisine with such zeal that if any displaced person or refugee from the South is looking for a taste of home, all one has to do is step into any predominantly black neighborhood, anywhere in America, and find what you're looking for: fried chicken, barbecue, fried fish, sweet potato pie, and of course, grits.

Lucky then that the Koffee Pot is situated in such a neighborhood. However, change is afoot and has been for sometime. This neighborhood and its businesses have, in the matter of little more than a decade, become increasingly Korean.

When I first moved to California in 1993, I lived right up the street from the Koffee Pot, in a neighborhood called Pill Hill – home to many hospitals and medical clinics. Telegraph Avenue back then had some Korean-owned businesses, but nothing like it does now. As of 2007, Oakland has a real and thriving "Koreatown" and I'd like to think that we are all better off for it. Case in point: the Koffee Pot, that venerable neighborhood institution, is now owned and operated by immigrants from Korea.

Seung Soo Chung, to be precise – or, known to regulars simply as "Sue". On my visit to the Koffee Pot last Saturday, Sue was busy in the kitchen cranking out the breakfasts while a friendly gentleman took our order and waited on us. Bruce and I sat at the counter since all three "tables" were occupied.

One thing about the Koffee Pot – it's snug. In fact, most real coffee pots aren't too much smaller. But if you think of it more as "getting to know the locals", then you're bound to be content with having that invisible little personal space that surrounds you shared with someone who is, well, not you.

But while the Koffee Pot's restaurant space defies the Bigger-Is-Better American business model of success, it's breakfast portions more than make up for it. I wouldn't say the portions are too big, but they are big enough, and cheap enough, to satisfy any hungry, burly guy – or, basically, the Koffee Pot's main demographic seated that day.

When I moved to "the West Bay" 10 years ago, I thought I had said goodbye forever to the East Bay, and in a way, scorning it as I left. But something magical is happening on Telegraph Avenue, something that makes me look at it through a new pair of eyes and with a feeling of happiness that I never imagined I would feel for the place. I can't put my finger on it, but it's the feel, the smell, the sights of a place I thought I knew but 10 years later realized that either it changed, I changed, or perhaps I never knew it as much as I thought I did.

And at the center of it is a small, unassuming restaurant with a funny-looking name run by the unlikeliest of people.

And I like it.



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