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“I came before crack hit the streets,” says the Mother of East Village. “That’s how long I’ve been here.”
Which means that Gloria Poore arrived in the 1960s, when this part of town was Centre City East and nothing but scrubby factories and houses with peeling paint. But she had this idea: she wanted to make lofts out of the unused warehouses. She lobbied City Hall. She ended up writing the ordinance that finally — in 1985 — made lofts legal. That’s why they call her the Mother of East Village.
So I’m yakking away with her — and eating her panini, the best I’ve had for the longest time — inside her modest two-story wooden Victorian house. It’s painted matte-black outside, with a wicked little red neon sign that says “Café Noir.” It has a deck with tables under black umbrellas in front and a plaque on the wall naming this a historic monument: “Hiatt House, 1886.” Above that, a sign in the front window says “2-Buck Beer.”
Man. What miracle saved this from the developer’s ax, so close to the ballpark? Inside’s pretty tight, but with all-red walls and tabletops and black floors and white walls, it’s, like, New Yawk coffee-cool. Plus, on the blackboard behind the counter, what I really want to see is there: a little list of food. “Hot panini, $6.50; grilled quesadilla, $6.50; gourmet mac ’n’ cheese, $5”; and “soup du jour, $5.”
A guy sits with a can of that Belgian beer, Bud — heh-heh — playing chess against himself. Wayne. Turns out he’s homeless. Next to him, a smartly business-dressed gal waits for a takeout panini. I order a large coffee ($2) while I work things out here.
“The panini has grilled chicken with artichoke and cranberries and Parmesan and cream cheese inside,” says Sam, the barista. Mmm. Sounds pretty delicious. They have a “mac ’n’ cheese” too, which has sherry and spinach or pesto. “Or sometimes caramelized onions,” Sam says. “And we have fabulous soups. The other day we had an African sesame peanut soup. Today it’s coconut Thai.”
It’s five bucks too.
That’s when this guy Matthew comes in. He orders the chicken panini to go. Turns out he used to work for United Airlines. Flew everywhere, man. Knows food. “I tell you. I keep coming back for this panini,” he says. “It’s superb.”
So heck, I order one. Sam takes it from the fridge, nukes it in the microwave, then squeezes it into a lidded grill machine. And what a taste. Really. The roasted artichoke, chicken, cheese, and cranberries make one heckuva combo. Who knew artichoke could taste so good? The beautiful big square bun with the crispy outside comes from Bread on Market. Plus two quarters of orange add a tart tang to it all. The coffee’s a great slurp alongside.
While I’m eating, this lady comes in. Big-eyed, generous face. Gloria. The owner. “This place is packed with history,” she says. She tells me that from 1907 this house belonged to a Japanese-American family. Four to five generations lived here, until they got sent off to an internment camp during World War II. They never did come back. She leads me out back to — wow — a Japanese Zen-looking courtyard with an odd-angled gazebo tree house and an entertainment area with open kitchen and hanging chairs. “This used to be horse stables and a blacksmith’s shop,” she says. “And this” — she points to a concrete building guarded by two giant stone frogs — “used to be the Latonia Hotel. It was a room-and-board for colored people only, one of the few places they could stay downtown. That’s how it was. Now my husband and I live in a part of it.”
She picked up the whole compound for $175K about 25 years ago; now it’s worth $4–$5 million.
Her husband Ben’s memorabilia occupies another big chunk of the back building. Turns out he’s been a private investigator all his life, and the guy has created what is maybe the world’s only PI museum. Gloria shows me attaché cases loaded with electronics, Watergate-era relics, spy cameras from around 1900…it’s incredible.
“If people want to see it,” Gloria says, “just have Sam or Keanu ask me.”
By the time I get back to the house I just have to have some of that red Thai coconut soup. Dee-lish. Coconutty, spicy, bumping with baby corncobs, tomatoes, and onions. Each slurp ends with a sharp but sweet taste. Sam tells about how Gloria makes all her baristas go for a three-day coffee course at Caffé Calabria (the coffee roasters), where they learn how to pull the perfect espresso. Reckon I’ll try one ($1.75). Vanessa, the other barista, pulls it for me.
“You ought to come on game days,” says Gloria. “For them we make pulled-pork sandwiches on a Hawaiian sweet roll [$8] with our own Carolina-style barbecue sauce. It’s vinegar-based, plus we add a secret ingredient: espresso coffee. It gives the sauce a smoky close. We don’t serve much food here, but I want what we do serve to be memorable.”
So far she’s scoring ten for ten, in my book.
Man. ’Course I have to go spend five minutes up in the tree house. It’s so Peter Pan. I come back down and into the main house again. Wayne’s still there. He invites me to play a game of chess with him. I bring my espresso over. Half an hour later his two rooks have my king cornered. But I’m enjoying this. I look out through the door and up the stairs. Was that Japanese kids’ voices I heard laughing? And horses’ hooves clattering in the courtyard?
- The Place: Café Noir, 447 Ninth Avenue (between Island and J), East Village, near ballpark, 619-235-0075
- Type of Food: American
- Prices: Hot panini, $6.50; grilled quesadilla, $6.50; gourmet macaroni, cheese, $5; soup of the day, e.g. coconut Thai, $5; pulled-pork sandwiches, $8 (available Padre home-game days only)
- Hours: 6:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. daily
- Buses: 3, 11, 901, 929
- Nearest Bus Stops: Market at 8th (3); 10th and Park (southbound), 11th and J (northbound) (11, 901, 929)