3377 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
It's the first thing you notice. How this little lady has to step up onto a foot-high stool, just so she can reach the dishes her cook passes through from the kitchen.
Turns out that Su Cha Yang (or Sheehan, which is her married name) is five foot one and around 60 years old -- but she seems taller and looks way younger.
I'm sitting -- at last! -- up at the red Formica counter. Lord knows I've passed this place a million times, then forgotten where the heck I saw it. Today, I was aboard the 955, heading along 43rd, when I spotted the half-hidden sign, "Elaine's Coffee Shoppe." I pulled the cord and leapt out.
So there I was, wandering around near Bee Out Bail Bonds, the Palavra Tree -- a teen crisis center -- a laundromat...Ah. There. The grilled windows of Elaine's. Gray wood, cream stucco. With all the security, it's hard to tell if the place is open or closed. I pull on the metal-barred glass door. It opens.
Whoa. It's like coming home to a surprise party, tables full and all abuzz. Everybody looks up. There are buttery walls, green carpet, that red Formica counter, hand-painted wooden chairs, ivy in hanging pots, fresh-cut flowers. A lady's straw hat decorated with seashells hangs on the wall, along with signs reading "Cash Only" and "Please! No Profanity." Like a one-man band, this little Korean-American lady in a stylish beret jumps on and off that step stool, reaching for steaming dishes, buzzing about with plates, checks, sauce bottles, order books.
"Good morning," she says from behind the counter. "How are you doing?" She pours a cup of cawfee and hands me a menu.
"Still doing breakfast?" I ask.
"All day," she says.
Great. Now. The delicious moment. Let's start with "Breakfast specials." Two hotcakes or two French toast, with two strips of bacon, or two link sausages, and one egg, $4.25. Good price. Short stack (two pancakes) or two hotcakes, $3.50. Pigs in a Blanket, $5.00. Omelets from $6.00 (cheese), to $10.95 ("the Hunter," with "ham, bacon, mushrooms, onions, and peppers, topped with cheese and Mexican salsa"). The sausage-and-cheese omelet ($8.00) looks interesting, and I wouldn't even mind the liver and onion with eggs ($9.95).
But I'm losing my place. A gal who's just sat down at the table behind me, Bertha, orders the sausage and cheese omelet for her and her little girl Dorothy.
Now a couple comes and sits next to me at the counter. They've already decided. The guy, Tim, orders a country sausage with eggs and grits ($8.00), and Shona, the gal -- hmm. This is interesting. She goes for a special, tacked to the front of the menu. "Salmon croquett," with two eggs, and hash browns, grits, or rice and toast or two hotcakes, for $6.95. Two bucks off the standard menu price.
Salmon for breakfast? A deal's a deal. I go for it, with poached eggs. And grits, just 'cause it's been so long. I ditch toast for hotcakes -- it's the syrup -- and, last minute, ask for a country sausage. 'Course if I'd known it was gonna make it four bucks extra, I would definitely have rethunk that one.
The salmon patty is interesting. The grits have a dab of butter in the middle and create a kind of mush base to the whole meal. I swing between the egg part and the cakes. Drown 'em in syrup, natch. Su says that the good'n spicy sausage I'm eating is pork.
"You should see this place Sunday mornings," says a lady named Andrea. "Madhouse! Everybody comes out of church and heads straight here."
Andrea's a law prof at Cal Western. Teaches business and telecommunications law. She's eating country sausage with eggs and hotcakes ($8.00).
"People have been coming for years, because of Su. Those flowers in the vase are from her garden. She grows the vegetables she uses here! You get judges, ministers, teachers as customers because there're always interesting tastes. She marinates her steaks. She cares. The second time I came here, she knew my name. I guarantee 75 percent of customers here are regulars."
"I call myself the dandelion," says Su. "Because I just keep popping up."
She's had an adventurous life, all right. Like, she started at about age 20, hopping on a plane from Seoul, South Korea, where she'd grown up during the Korean War. She flew off to Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, to sell diamonds to GIs at Tan Son Nhut air base. Then she bought this place with her realtor husband 26 years ago, when South Crest was a pretty rough part of town. 'Course it still ain't La Jolla. "I told him I could handle it," she says. Maybe she'd learned from her brothers back in South Korea. One's a police chief, the other's a chief monk in a Buddhist monastery.
She says she does nonmeat dishes for vegetarian and Muslim customers, plus Korean, if you want it. "I've got plenty of kimchee in the kitchen," she says.
"Well," I say, "might take you up on the bul ko ki next time." That's Korean beef barbecue ($8.95). Easier to handle than kimchee.
One step at a time.