Great Food For A Good Cause

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 05, 2009
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Lemon Grass Cafe’s Dr. Tin Myaing Thein

I’m grateful to Carol Costa, who e-mailed me about Lemon Grass Café. “I thought this exotic little café might interest you,” she wrote.

She was so right.

Lemon Grass Café opened earlier this year on North King Street between Maunakea and Smith streets. Previously a grocery store, the inside is unrecognizable since the walls have been restored to their original late-19th century brick-and-plaster state.

I was immediately captivated by the space, a combination of muted earth tones and the rich fabrics and colors favored by Indonesian décor - kind of a minimal-ist’s E&O Trading Company, if you like.

As you enter, there’s a small retail space that showcases handmade crafts and foods, jars of jams and jellies, condiments and such, and toward the back of the large room there are a dozen tables and chairs, and a counter with chaffing dishes from which the daily lunch buffet is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.


Lemon Grass Café is still a well-kept secret, but there’s already a steady lunchtime buzz from small groups of people who sensibly make reservations. I bumped into President Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who’d come for lunch with her daughters, and as we chatted it struck me that Lemon Grass Café is precisely the kind of respite restaurant most of us need to escape to once in a while.

It’s beautifully unhurried, entirely unpretentious, serves homemade versions of little-known cuisines, and proceeds from lunch go toward community development.

The café is the brainchild of the Pacific Gateway Center and offers a stepping stone for clients who are largely low-income refugees or immigrants in need of help in becoming self-sufficient.

Dr. Tin Myaing Thein is the executive director. She’s originally from Burma and exudes a kind of radiant joy as she speaks about Lemon Grass Café and its goals.

“It’s a social enterprise café,” she explains. “Our clients are being trained to work in the food-service industry, and the idea here is to also feature food that has no restaurant or representation in our community.”

Each weekday a different culinary culture is featured. Monday is Burmese, Wednesday is Laotian, Thursday is Indonesian and Friday is a kind of potluck: “Usually lots of shrimp,” says Myaing.

I stopped by on Tuesday when Sweet Soy Pork, Hainam Chicken and Rice, and Chinese Pea and Bean Sprout Salad were on the Singapore cuisine menu. I had some deliciously fat, greasy spring rolls. There are always two vegetarian dishes along with the meat entrees.

The idea is that for $6 you get four entrees and rice.

Drinks cost extra, and there’s a shiitake mushroom tea that sells out really quickly, and a lemon grass tea that’s popular, too.

Dessert comes courtesy of one of my favorite Italian ice cream makers - Maurice Grasso at La Gelateria. Technically, Maurice sold his business last year, but the flavors of dragonfruit, lemon grass, kalamansi and sour sap lead me to believe that he’s still the brains behind the gorgeous Italian ices.

Don’t go expecting haute cuisine and first-class service. Just grab a table, serve yourself and relax into the Chinatown-chic multicultural environment.

Myaing’s hope is that the café will eventually make a profit to support more of the PGC’s programs.

“Nonprofits are taking a hit right now,” she says, “so this is a way we can help ourselves and provide more programs for our clients.”

Once you’ve found parking, the hustle and bustle of Chinatown and the energy inside Lemon Grass Café is a delightful lunchtime detour.

And it’s always nice to know you’re eating to help someone else.

“When you come to enjoy the food,” says Myaing, “you also are supporting the community.”

Lemon Grass Cafe 83 N. King St. 851-7010

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