The order is clear: Obey!
2977 Upas Street, San Diego
Galen’s walking a mile in President Obama’s shoes. “My dad’s Ethiopian, my mom’s American,” she says. “He’s a lawyer. My mom was always baking at home, so when this restaurant came up for lease, he took it. Now all my brothers and sisters and cousins help out. We bake everything here, from ciabatta to croissants to cardamom coffee cake. And we always serve Ethiopian coffee.”
I’m at the last zigzag of 30th Street before it heads up to North Park proper, and how many times have I noticed Cardamom’s orange-and-blue sign and wondered what the deal was? Like, is it vegan? A cakey-bakey place? The kind of joint where people drop into the seats after running six miles around Balboa Park (only a quarter mile up Upas)? The café is in a cluster of eateries and bars, and it has signs saying it’s open at night, too. Times I’d passed it before, it was just breakfast and lunch. Must be doing something right.
But right now, it’s late morning — about the time all my food gremlins start grumbling. So I walk in through the sidewalk seating area. “Hi!” calls a chorus of three gals. They’re sitting at a table near a coffee-bar counter. “Take a seat anywhere,” says one. She gets up and heads for a pile of menus.
Interior art by “Karob” (Katherine and Robert Bender)
This place is bright inside. Walls are purple, light green, and cream. Floor tiles are orange, blue, brown. Tables and chairs are blond wood. One wall has five bright paintings, a continuing story of coffee, fruit, and cake, all by an artist named Karob. “Actually, it’s two artists,” Galen explains when she sees me looking at them. “A husband and wife, Katherine and Robert Bender.” Whatever. You could come in here feeling depressed and be back up and bubbling by the time you sit down. I take a table by the window. Feels like I’m on the patio, only warmer.
Now Galen’s taking a plate of giant sandwiches and a bag of chips outside to a dude on the patio. “Chicken-salad sandwich,” she says when I ask her, “on rosemary semolina. It’s $7.95.”
Semolina? That’s new, for sandwiches, for me. But it’s just a part of wheat, right? Academic question, in any case, ’cause I’ve come in determined to have breakfast. First thing I see on the menu is that they serve it all day. Great! Next thing I see is the North Park Omelet, with grilled onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, any cheese the customer wants, and andouille sausage.
Andouille? Pork sausage with pepper, onions, wine. French, Cajun. It’s $8.50, but comes with roasted potatoes and toast. That’s gotta be it, far as I’m concerned. Although…chorizo omelet’s the same price. And they have a whole bunch of pancakes going for around $8. Plus — and this is interesting — Bliss Cakes, “our crepe-like hotcakes served with honey mascarpone cheese, real maple syrup, and seasonal fresh fruit…$7.50.”
Karly (left), with veggie barley soup and house salad; Haili ordered the Anything Omelet (spinach, scallions, cheese, turkey bacon)
Then I see that the lunch menu has a London broil sandwich ($8.50): “thinly sliced top-round roast beef with caramelized onions, melted cheddar cheese, and horseradish mayonnaise on handmade ciabatta.” How can you beat that?
Playing for time while I make up my mind, I get a coffee ($2) and a hot croissant ($2).
The croissant is one giant piece of pastry. Looks like an elephant seal’s nose. Galen brings some butter and strawberry and apricot jam. Should call it a day with this. It’s plenty. But, sigh, she comes back to see if I want something else. I’m still stuck on the breakfast theme, so I give up on the London broil and order the North Park Omelet.
I could have had blue cheese with it. Instead, I chose the asiago. Kinda like parmesan. Adds a haunting undercurrent to the taste. The roast potatoes give it bulk and saltiness, and an herby taste comes through loud and clear with each mouthful of the rosemary-semolina toast.
Maybe the strangest experience is the coffee. Ethiopian. You’ve gotta respect that, because Ethiopia’s where coffee comes from — it was growing there, waiting, while mankind learned to stand up on two legs. It was the Ethiopians, and then the Arabians, they say, who started roasting those beans on a fire, mashing them, and tossing them into boiling water. To my Hills Bros. tastes, the flavor’s odd. Woody, fruity, rather than that burnt, over-roasted Starbucks thing. But after a couple of slurps out of the green cup, you start to take to it. It’s mainly to send the taters down smoothly, anyway.
“People either love it or hate it,” Galen says.
In the end, I get greedy — mainly because I have to know what cardamom tastes like. So I order a huge, crumbly, cardamom coffee cake ($2.50). Father, I have sinned. But what sin. Only one problem: it’s mixed with cinnamon, so I still can’t isolate the taste, except for a slightly gingery, sweet…something.
Gotta come back, but next time at night. Galen says they’ve added some Ethiopian dishes on the dinner menu, which include their national bread, injera. But I can see the lit-up patio looking like a Van Gogh café painting. This place has the makings of a North Park scene, and who doesn’t like being in the scene? Maybe Karob will paint a picture. ■
Faven, one of Galen’s extended family
The Place: Cardamom Cafe & Bakery, 2977 Upas Street, North Park (at 30th and Dale), 619-546-5609
Type of Food: American
Prices: North Park Omelet (with andouille sausage, roasted potatoes, toast), $8.50; buttermilk pancake, $7.75; Bliss Cakes (with cheese, maple syrup, fruit), $7.50; chicken-salad sandwich, $7.95; London broil sandwich (with roast beef, caramelized onions, melted cheddar cheese, horseradish mayonnaise), $8.50; bulgur wheat platter (with walnuts, cranberries, hummus), $7.95
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. (till 3:00 p.m., Saturday–Sunday), 5:00 p.m.–10.00 p.m., daily
Nearest Bus Stop: Outside café