In the middle of a Monday brunch-turning-to-lunch rush, a fast-handed cook steps away from his flattop and discreetly pounds a Red Bull in lieu of a break before returning to the pancakes, hash browns, and eggs on his grill. He sprinkles a handful of mixed vegetables onto a rice flour pancake cooking next to a slab of ham, then turns to another task, his motions as fluid as ballet. At Sue Gee Kehn’s Cameo Café, the menu was created by a Korean American, it’s cooked by Latinos, and served by dyed-in-the-wool diner waitresses. This thimble-sized restaurant exemplifies the best of dining in America.
The food at Cameo Cafe is a mishmash of familiar American diner classics and homestyle Korean food; the Korean Breakfast Special of eggs, pork products, rice, and kimchi ($13.50) is listed in the “Traditional Faire” section. Buttermilk pancakes are measured by their acreage ($6.50-12.50) and come with a fistful of butter, an entire jug of maple syrup, and for $4 more, a side of kimchi. There’s Sue Gee’s pindaetteok (a Korean vegetable pancake, $14), which comes with two eggs, bacon or sausage, toast, and a helpful pronunciation guide. And this is just the breakfast menu.
There’s the kimchi omelet, permanently affixed to the specials menu, which comes with cheese-gilded hash browns and toast (the sweet and grainy “strong bread” is the go-to), or you can rearrange these and order the kimchi hash, which pulls the eggs aside (cooked your way) and gives the hash browns a turn at playing kimchi’s supporting role.
The lunch menu is another study in East meets West, but the handful of burgers ($8.50-$11.50), New York strip steak ($17), and gravy-smothered pork chop ($15) easily disappear against a backdrop of bulgogi ($12), bento ($9-13), and “Grilled Awesome Pot Stickers,” which come with fried rice ($12). Bulgogi is also available as a salad ($10).
Tuesdays and Fridays are the only days to have a soup that isn’t Korean (those days offer chili and clam chowder, respectively; $6), but you should stick to the homespun Korean soups anyway. The Soldier Soup ($12) is Cameo’s pared-down version of budae jigae (“army base stew”), subbing rice for the instant ramen noodles, and forgoing the slices of Spam and American cheese found in other versions.
The Cameo Café serves the food your Korean American auntie would make, if you were lucky enough to have one. Come early (before noon) if you want to catch a glimpse of Ms. Sue Gee in her element, greeting her adoring fans, a star of her own making.