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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Curly's Coffee Shop

To be in North Beach today means there is no overt anti-Asian sentiment one immediately notices. That's not to say there isn't any, but whatever there is remains covert.

I hear it sometimes in subtle ways, such as the City Lights Bookstore owner fondly reminiscing how "in the old days" the Italian immigrants of North Beach were more receptive to anarchism as opposed to the new immigrants who make up the neighborhood now, meaning Asians. This is likely true, but then what remains of your average Italian in North Beach isn't exactly a fellow traveler of the Left, neither.

Other times, it's more overt and in your face, such as the butcher at Little City Meats telling me that I probably shouldn't bother asking for pork fat scraps from the Chinese butchers because they don't sell to whites.

You know, I don't need to hear that jive. If it's true, then I'll find out on my own, but I don't need you telling me something I know isn't true – because I patronize Chinese butchers. And like Stevie Wonder/Paul McCartney once said, "there is good and bad in everyone".

Overt or subtle, what I see are people who are sore over the enormous Asian expansion into areas abandoned by Italian white flight during the last three decades, and frankly a large part of me wants to just say "fucking deal with it".

In all fairness, I understand and sympathize with what Ferlinghetti and Little City guy are going through. The same pattern of sweeping demographic change has happened in other parts of the city, such as the Irish abandoning the Castro for the suburbs and, to a different extent, the Japanese forcibly evicted and replaced by African-Americans in the Fillmore.

To these old Italian-American guys: this was their neighborhood. They knew everybody, said hello to everyone, spoke the language, and knew who they were by who surrounded them. They remember men gathering on the street in front of the A. Cavalli & Co bookshop in the 1930s, eager to listen to radio broadcasts of Benito Mussolini – a photo of which is still hanging in the shop. They remember the Columbus Day parades, now called the Italian Heritage Day Parade to better suit the politically correct attitude of the times.

The A. Cavalli Museum of Italian-American Fascists

But the harsh reality is that they're the ones who stayed. Like most immigrant communities in America, the old Italian families of North Beach moved on when they could. Their children now live in the suburbs, on the peninsula, or in the East Bay. They've assimilated; most to the extent that they're no more Italian than I am.

So for the old timers who've stayed, they have to ask themselves, "who am I, where do I belong, how do I fit in when everything and everyone around me has changed?" I have to cut these guys some slack though, because when you're one of the few non-Asian owned or supported businesses within two blocks, in what use to be your neighborhood, the task of feeling like you belong must seem rather daunting.

But life is kind of funny like that. You see, while the old days these guys miss are no doubt filled with many happy memories for them, memories for those of Asian descent who happened to have ventured above Broadway in those days, where one would be set upon and beaten by a mob of Italian youths, are certainly less than happy. The Chinese in particular were objects of scorn, official discrimination, and harassment for decades and confined within an area that is much smaller than today's Chinatown.

A view of Broadway and Columbus - once the dividing line between Chinese and Italian neighborhoods

To put it bluntly, Chinatown was a ghetto in the original sense of the word. The Chinese were allowed to go about their business and enforce their owns rules, laws, and customs – so long as they kept it in their neighborhood, stayed in their neighborhood, and kept out of the sight of racist white folks. Indeed, what happened in Chinatown, stayed in Chinatown – which the white majority silently sanctioned so long as they could occasionally slum around the gambling parlors, dive bars, opium dens, and houses of prostitution.

Much of that legacy still holds true today and is evidenced every time some outraged white moralist goes all crazy regarding the sale of live animals in Chinatown. Chinese business owners are fully aware of gweilo prejudice against them, but the fact remains that white city officials are still more apt to look away and let the community of Chinatown police itself according to it's own rules and customs, and damned be any asshole whose cultural imperialism/insensitivity/chauvinism/ignorance, or whatever you want to call it, starts stirring up trouble.

If you are still with me, all that which you've read up to this point is intended to provide you, the casual reader, with some background on the North Beach/Chinatown neighborhood in which Curly's Coffee Shop has operated and thrived for the last 34 years. The year, 1973, in which Yoko and Seikichi Maeda first opened their doors to the public was also the first year any Asian American had been appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In the midst of this ever-changing neighborhood that is North Beach, Curly's is a coffee shop with a twist. Not only is it owned by Asian-Americans, but the Maedas are Japanese; and Curly's, in addition to serving the usual coffee shop fare, also serves Japanese food.

I won't go into length on the history of Japanese-Americans in San Francisco (that is far more complicated), but I will say that after the forced relocation and internment of San Francisco's other "Greatest Generation", it's a wonder there are any Japanese left in San Francisco at all.

And maybe I'm just projecting, but I find it inspiring that Curly's, being Curly's, has held it's own for the last 3 decades and is still "dishing it out" as it were.

But you probably want to know more specifics, right?

Well, Curly's has been in its current location at 1624 Powell Street for a few years. Before it was located at 500 Columbus in the space currently occupied by Café Dulucchi. From what I've read, it seems as though the old Curly's had more character (read: dive) to it, although it's new digs still feel very homey (read: not "homely").

There are nice, bright windows near the front to sit beside, though I noticed some folks prefer the darker back. Judging from the number of people who say this is where they go to cure a hangover, I can see why.

Judging from what the customer seated across from me ordered, the breakfasts here look hearty and delicious. Although breakfasts (as well as typical American sandwiches) at Curly's are served all day, I decided to try the Japanese lunch, which comes with a side of miso soup.

Although my friend Bill once jokingly referred to me as an Orientalist, the truth is – as far as food goes - I'm more of a Chinophile. However, I can mack on some sushi, some tempura, and in the case of Curly's, some donburi.

Donburi describes any bowl of rice that has a combination meat and vegetables, which are usually stewed or sautéed together, served on top. At Curly's, I had a very typical donburi dish called Oyako-don, which is a bowl of white rice served with chunks of boneless chicken pieces, onions, and a fried egg. There's a sweet and light soy sauce (teriyaki I believe) that's also in the dish. All in all, a perfect lunch for a cool day in the city.

If you think about it: chicken, eggs, carbs – doesn’t that describe coffee shop/diner food anywhere? And let me tell you, I have been carbo-loading during this series on coffee shops – you guys should be grateful!

Almost as grateful as I am that Curly's is in business.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sam's Coffee Shop

Bruce and I stumbled onto Sam's Coffee Shop while in Half Moon Bay. We go to Half Moon Bay occasionally to thrift shop, visit the library, and be at one with the salty sea air, the coastal agricultural/fishing culture, the smell of freshly smoked salmon, and the quirky little places we always seem to find.

We actually had stopped first at the Flying Fish Grill (awesome fish tacos) but, as usual, it was packed. Instead, we decided to forego Flying Fish for something different since it's not every day we're in Half Moon Bay – roughly a 30-minute drive south from San Francisco.

That's when we saw what we thought were thrift stores across the street, anchored to both sides of a mini-shopping center. Upon closer inspection, they were actually cheaply-made goods at not-so-cheap prices stores that had a cantankerous off-gassing odor that could drop a chemically-sensitive person dead in their tracks.

In between lies Sam's.

Such is where, I guess, one would find a place like Sam's. Unlike the rest of Half Moon Bay's commercial district, Sam's is located in an area where people don't dress up in their finest blazers/blue jeans – H&M slacks with matching top, pumps and clutch – and drive around in their luxury/sports cars for everyone else to see while they patronize shitty New Age art galleries, wine shops, pretentious Cal-Med cuisine, and other trappings of bourgie-tourism ala Los Olivos or Point Reyes or Murphys or practically any other of the multitudes of California "cutesy" towns that thrive on such.

No, Sam's clientele are more of the kind that dress in their finest Tar-zhay, drive beat-up trucks, patronize the Thomas Kincaid gallery of jig-saw puzzles in Wal-Mart, BevMo, and hope to God no one, especially their husbands, wives or bosses, sees them driving around when they're suppose to be somewhere they're not.

In other words, my peoples.

I knew Sam's would satisfy my hunger as soon as I walked in and saw what looked like a restaurant full of locals and regulars busy chowing down. Say what you will about diner food, but generally there aren't too many surprises when it comes to the cuisine. If people look happy, the place smells/looks clean, and if the prices are right, then you've got nothing to lose – well, you know, there are exceptions.

And although there's a certain amount of predictability when it comes to diner/coffee shop food, there are quirks. Such as, no one told me Sam's was the place to come for a double decker ham and cheese club...fried. Oh, it's just so good it hurts! I'm coming Elizabeth, here I come!

The prices are reasonable and the service is friendly at Sam's. Unlike many Asian-owned/operated coffee shops, Sam's also employs non-family members (note: that's suppose to be funny...but true) as waitresses and cooks. While we were there, I noticed that the "Mom" managed the restaurant and ran the cash register while the rest of family sat at a large table in the corner next to us. Dad was busy reading a Chinese-language newspaper, while sister read an English one, and brother was consumed playing games on his cell phone. All of them looked rather bored and isolated, and yet resigned to being part of the 3 percent of Asian-Americans that comprise the 12,000 total population of Half Moon Bay.

Something tells me that neither brother nor sis will stick around long enough to run the shop after Mom retires. They likely have higher goals than running some greasy spoon in a windswept coastal town; goals that will put them closer to the city. And besides, this is the job Mom worked so they wouldn't have to.

Perhaps this was also the fate of the last owner's family and the fate of coffee shops everywhere, passed down from newcomer to newcomer. For all appearances, the Mom & Pop coffee shop is the quintessential cookie cutter, instant American business, serving American food to Americans, run by a struggling, newly American family. A safe harbor to land for the entrepreneurial newcomer.

Beyond that, it represents what has been played out on these new shores time and time again – hope in a better future.

A better future that, for now, comes with a cup of coffee and a side order.


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.


Friday, January 26, 2007

COFFEE SHOP: American Legacy - Asian Immigrant Experience

For the last few months, I've been looking for a unique angle to highlight and celebrate the peculiar and interesting phenomenon of Asian-owned and operated coffee shops in the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm still not sure I've found it, but I feel it's there – perhaps lurking around and visible only to the sharpest and most sensitive eye.

Although the phenomenon of newly arrived immigrants taking up the reigns of an existing business is nothing new or special, what is noteworthy is the seemingly common way in which traditional American coffee shops and diners have been preserved by newcomers from Asia, rather than native-born Americans. In the South, where I'm originally from, it's the Greeks who've traditionally owned and operated the American-style diners and lunch counters, as explored in depth on the Southern Foodways Alliance website.

Personally speaking, I vividly remember that as a child, Mom and I would sometimes drive downtown to visit Dad on his lunch break. Dad worked in downtown Asheville, a block away from a Greek-owned lunch counter called Johnny-O's. It was here that I first fell in love with the smells, the sights, and the atmosphere of an old school American dive. Unfortunately Johnny O's closed many years ago, long before I left home, and since then downtown Asheville has lost much of it's old working class eating joints – the last one I remember being left was the lunch counter at Woolworths.

No serious "diver" can explore and appreciate the many coffee shops (note: not coffee houses or corporate coffee retailers), lunch counters, breakfast joints, and diners in the bay area and not notice that almost all of them are owned by a single family, often Asian, often raising kids, and often all running and working in the restaurant together. What's most interesting is that, with few exceptions, nothing else about these old throw-backs to an earlier age have been changed by their new owners. If nothing else these new owners, fresh from distant lands, have preserved the character, the spirit, and most of all, the cuisine that has flourished in these most American of restaurants for decades.

I have already explored some of these places with you, which I will link to at the bottom of this post. In the next few weeks I will explore even more and share with you my likes, dislikes (if any), some quick glimpses, and hopefully something a little more in depth and personal than what I usually write about – all while focusing on these wonderful, quirky, and unique establishments.

Stay tuned by checking back here as I add more restaurants to the list below.

COFFEE SHOP: American Legacy - Asian Immigrant Experience


What's in a Name?: Anatomy of a Coffee Shop
Irving Street Cafe
Manor Coffee Shop
Westlake Coffee Shop
Golden Coffee Shop
Curly's Coffee Shop
Sam's Coffee Shop
Koffee Pot
HRD Coffee Shop
Lafayette Coffee Shop
Mimi's Manor House Restaurant