Café La Boheme has been around since 1973, and is absolutely a family affair. Owner Awad Faddoul has been here for 23 years, and runs the café with his wife, son and daughter.
I used to come in here semi-regularly in the mid-90s, drawn in by a café that served wine (I’m not a coffee person) and great world music, hanging out with my then-theater director, a Salvadoran ex-pat who frequented La Boheme to hang with the local Latino intelligentsia – a cadre of writers, poets, actors, musicians, artists. Of course it appealed to me, and it mattered not that Awad was a bit brusque, even back then. His daughter has been helping out since she was 12, and now turning 24, she has essentially grown up here. “This is your second home, eh?” I commented. “You have no idea!”
On this, my first visit in at least 18 years, I learned that Glenna Randolph, the long-time, previous-owner and stalwart of the La Boheme kitchen, had passed away suddenly.
Without Glenna, Awad now opens and closes, though he’s also here many other times of the day, always busy sweeping, waiting and bussing tables, taking orders, running the family business. Normally laconic, Awad began talking to me about Glenna; perhaps his guard was down because his emotions were still raw from the death of his beloved co-worker. She’d passed only a month previously, and he was having a hard time hiring anyone to help them out; he and his wife just didn’t have the heart find a replacement for Glenna so soon. “She was here at least 20 years before me. I don’t know what to do without her.”
“But it’s good to mourn good people.” Amen, Awad, amen.
The crowd at Café La Boheme isn’t made up of your typical Mission hipsters. It’s low key, and there’s a good mix of ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. Old men sip at a glass of wine, or soup, 20-somethings play on their gadgets, stray pedestrians stop in for a beer, students form study groups over a bagel and Mexican cocoa. There are 12 beers on tap, wine, sangria, a whole menu of specialty teas, smoothies, and coffee drinks. Please take your cell phone chatting outside. The free wifi (with minimum $5.00 food or beverage purchase), fast internet and late hours (open until 10:00 p.m.) keep this place busy but never over-crowded.
Fan lamps whirl softly from the high ceilings, and most tables are meant to be shared, except for the ones along the wall where you can plug in your laptop or phone charger. It’s homey, with its faux-marble walls, local artist paintings for sale, and Afro-Cuban jazz tinkling quietly in the background; it’s a bit like being in your own living room, but with an ATM machine.
You order at the counter, from the extensive chalkboard menus….
The first thing we had was a Caesar salad, which was nicely crisp, fresh tasting, with a really good, not-overly garlicky dressing, shredded parm, and focaccia croutons – a great start.
I also ordered a bowl of lentil soup because it appealed on a cool, rainy night. It was a tiny bit bland until I stirred it up a little – and then it was earthy, warm, and perfect for the weather. Would have been nicer with maybe a dollop of sour cream, but a splash of hot sauce helped. (The soup was not very photogenic – but what do you expect? It’s lentil!)
The BF ordered lasagna, on my urging, since it’s one of his favorite dishes ever. Unfortunately, it was not good. Seemed like a frozen thing, microwaved, but what did we expect? It’s a café, not a restaurant. A small salad and toasted pita dusted with zatar came alongside.
Sad to say, Stouffers would have been an improvement.
My Jerusalem Falafel sandwich was pretty good – a huge portion, but the falafel were not quite crispy enough, as they were obviously not recently fried –again, this is a café, not a diner. Tahini and hummus were fine, and the whole thing was sprinkled with sumac – a nice touch. The pita was nice and warm, with lots of fresh veg – lettuce, tomato, red onion, cukes. Again, made better with a little hot sauce. And a glass of the house cabernet helped.
As it was a bit slow that night, Awad personally served us himself – another nice touch. Normally, you order at the counter and they call out your food – “Onion bagel!” “Chef salad!” – and you pick it up on the side.
Our next visit was for breakfast on a Saturday morning. Awad had told me that they usually serve breakfast only in the mornings, but if it’s not super busy he’ll make you one. The place was pleasantly full and warm, glowing with the sunlight pouring in through the large windows. I ordered a Greek omelet – olives, spinach, feta, and oregano. It turned out it had onions in it too, not advertised, but it didn’t really matter since the whole thing was, sadly, pretty taste-free. Until you bit into an olive. Even after adding salt and a garlicy Tabasco sauce, I couldn’t eat it all. Too bad, it looked pretty. I didn’t ask, but the toasted whole wheat came without butter.
The BF ordered the breakfast special – eggs and bacon with coffee and English muffin. His bacon was so thin he said they were like those breath mint strips that instantly melt on your tongue. And they only gave him three slices instead of the advertised four. Scrambled or poached are the two ways you can have your eggs, and he went with scrambled – also unburdened by flavor. And his English muffin also came dry.
I had a Turkish coffee (yeah, I don’t drink coffee much, but it’s a café!) that wasn’t too strong, and a surprisingly good mimosa – nice and light, probably because they don’t put very much bubbly in it (I watched him pour it); just enough to give you a little fizz, if not a little buzz.
I kept telling myself – it’s a café! Not a restaurant! Order a smoked salmon & bagel or a goddamned sandwich, and get off their backs! Maybe the late Glenna took her food mojo with her? I was pulling for this place – after all, a café that’s been around for four decades is doing something really, really right, right? Maybe people who frequent coffee houses aren’t as picky about the food served in them? (Truth be told, I did notice that about 70% of the people only ordered beverages on any of our visits.) I’ve never been part of the café culture, so my expectations were maybe just unrealistic.
So, when in Rome… I made a third visit. I came in on a Saturday afternoon, laptop in tow, and settled in for a few hours of blogging.
Again, I’m not a coffee person, but traveling in Europe over the years has given me an appreciation for the rejuvenating powers of a good shot of espresso and hot milk. Noisette, cortado, pingado – in any language, they’re strong enough to sustain me through long days of walking, with plentiful stops for wine, yet small enough to enjoy a couple times a day without sending me into a caffeinated cardiac arrest. I ordered a latte here, which was a bit too much but I planned on staying a while.
You have quite a few choices in the sandwich department. Their offerings include a few Italianate specialties: the Florence – goat cheese, artichoke and pesto; Milano – feta, spinach and veggies; Napoli – mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto. They have baked panini too: chicken & pepper jack, salami & cheddar, turkey and fresh mozz.
I opted for something simple, though: The California – Turkey, avocado, and jack cheese.
Piled quite high with creamy, perfectly ripe avocado slices, non-deli turkey, a slice of jack, with lettuce and mayo, on toasted whole wheat, it was very much as expected – fresh tasting, with simple, clean flavors. A little side salad of lettuce, red onion, tomato and cucumber with a cup of bottled balsamic vinaigrette finished off this $7.99 plate. Tasty sandwich, filling, warm coffee, pleasant atmosphere . . . ok, I get it!
You may be saying to yourself – what? It’s a coffee house, lady. What’s to get? But sitting there all afternoon, grooving to sweetly languorous salsa over a glass of refreshing, cinnamon-y sangria, sunshine casting a gentle light on the buttery walls, surrounded by others similarly engaged in their devices, or grading papers, or in murmuring conversation, I finally understood. A respite, of coffee, music, and peace. And you may love their food, you may not mind underseasoned eggs. To be fair, there are so many items on the menu that we haven’t tried. But everyone knows the Faddoul family is doing their very best, with great love and care, in honor of Glenna, and because it is theirs.
Café la Boheme
3318 24th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110