Unlike Grandma Used to Make
Cheeky Cafe's Improvements on Old-School Favorites
Nobody has ever proclaimed their grandmother to be an awful cook, yet statistics would indicate that more than a few grandmas must have sucked at even simple culinary tasks. A lot of smiling, white-haired, aproned ladies have served a lot of bland meat and potatoes, overcooked vegetables, fishy tuna casseroles, and dry cake in these here United States.
Cheeky Cafe gives grandma's comfort food a multicultural kick in the ass. Nestled at the base of a brand-new condominium—with the generally forgettable but pleasant decor you'd expect, warmly lit by west-facing windows—at the very eastern edge of the International District, the restaurant brings an Asian flavor to the traditional American comfort favorites.
The signature example is the In Young-Spired Spicy Mac—it's named after Cheeky's pastry chef, In Young, who adapted the recipe from a dish that her mother used to make involving kimchi, ramen, and a slice of Kraft cheese. A satisfying, creamy blend of macaroni and cheese and a small amount of kimchi, it costs $6 for a generous "small" plate, $9 for a presumably giant one. It's a familiar dish with a subtle tang, bringing just enough exoticism without being overly cutting-edge. You can find little flourishes on old favorites like this everywhere on the menu. The Cheeky Burger ($9) is "enhanced" with green onions and ginger, and topped with katsu sauce. The menu stretches to countries including Korea, Japan, and Italy, but here it feels less like some annoying fusion or pan-Asian ambition and more like warm, all-inclusive multiculturalism.
It helps, too, that the food is delicious. The Cheeky Chicken Wing Combo ($8) is a huge plate of juicy, crispy chicken wings in a sweet ginger sauce. It comes with an enormous mound of jasmine rice and a side salad. (Go with the creamy house dressing, a ranchlike dressing made with wasabi. Unlike the green paste you get on the side of a sushi dish, the dressing uses a low concentration of the Japanese horseradish, so the dressing has all the flavor but none of the hotness you're used to. If you're not that brave, the raspberry and balsamic vinaigrettes and honey mustard dressings are all made in-house, too.) Tangy and sweet seems to be the order of the day at Cheeky Cafe. Brian's Bacon Meatloaf ($13) is a hunk of ground beef wrapped in smoky bacon, covered in the cafe's own honey-centric barbecue sauce. It's a hearty, if maybe too-sweet, twist on a classic.
May, one of the owners of Cheeky, goes from table to table, talking with customers. She struck up a conversation with my dinner date, saying that if she were willing to share any of her grandmother's recipes, Cheeky Cafe would love to give them a shot. May said that several such family recipes had already been specials, and that one brunch special favorite—the chicken-fried steak—came directly from a customer's grandmother and would probably be making the leap to the regular brunch menu.
Grandma's recipes don't always work, especially given the absence of family traditions as context. Grandma Kam's Dumplings ($5) are billed on the menu as "a recipe handed down through Wendy's family," and it's easy to see why kids would love them: The puffy, golden-fried balls are adorned with large spikes of dough; they look like toy stegosauruses. And while the filling—vegetables, fried shrimp, and Chinese sausage—is fine, they should employ a more descriptive name on the menu, like doughy dumplings. It's exactly the kind of thing you might love if you'd been brought up with it, but unfamiliarity might breed contempt.
Cheeky's doughy dumplings are a rare misstep. For comfort, you can't do much better than the Curry Rice ($9), a hearty, thick serving of beef, potatoes, and other vegetables ladled over some of that delicious jasmine rice. It's not a particularly spicy dish, but it'll warm you up and make you feel good, like the first hot stew of autumn after a hard day of school.
For further nostalgia, the chocolate-chip cookies are gooey and warm, the green-tea cookies are, adorably, hand-cut to look like leaves, and the cream puff is a not-too-sweet mess of a dessert (50 cents to $1). Cheeky even offers an entire basket of cookies, called the Cookie Monster ($6), as a brunch entrée. "Don't forget to order yourself some milk or even a nice cup of coffee," the menu says. Oh, Grandma, you spoil me.
This story has been updated since its original publication.