Long before Korean food became mainstream-hip at Han Oak and Kim Jong Grillin, decades before white chefs were boasting the probiotic benefits of kale kimchi, and in some cases even before Beaverton became the go-to burb for Korean stews and barbecue, several Northeast Portland old-school dining institutions were teaching customers how to pronounce bulgogi. Whether in hash browns, in teriyaki marinades, or on Italian bread, these restaurant owners helped prime non-Korean palates for sesame-soy, garlicky goodness.
Opened in 1969, Cameo has several star dishes to choose from: the blueberry-studded hotcakes so big they’re dubbed “quarter acre”; bindaetteok, a.k.a. Korean pancakes, with bacon, eggs, and toast; bulgogi-topped kimchi hash; squeeze bottles of house-made raspberry jam and sweet-spicy “Oh Baby” gochugaru-garlic hot sauce. Then there’s the star of the dining room, Sue Gee Lehn.
“I am very wild—a little bit of a crazy side,” Lehn says. “You see me, you think, ‘She’s a funky lady.’”
The Seoul-born 76-year-old matriarch and 1966 beauty pageant queen still roams the dining room, which is bedazzled with a mini carousel and a fork-and-knife chandelier, every day. She dresses to the nines, greeting regulars and newcomers alike. A former newspaper editor in Korea, she purchased the café in 1992 knowing nothing about the restaurant business—only that she needed to make a living for her two kids.
“One day I just opened the Oregonian newspaper. [It said] ‘Restaurant for sale—includes property. Breakfast and lunch.’ I was very excited, so I decided to drive down and [check out] the small little restaurant. I’d never eaten pancakes; I’d only eaten kimchi and rice,” Lehn recalls.
But her early days at Cameo Café were hard. “Somebody [came] in [and said], ‘Chinese [people] smell; a Chinese girl owns this place.’ I really cried. We are not welcome to being a restaurant owner of an American breakfast place. How can I ever try introducing my Korean food?”
But Cameo Café began building a reputation for its breakfasts. After a couple of years, she introduced her first Korean-influenced dish: stir-fry. “They loved it, so I thought … I’m gonna make kimchi. [I made] one small, one-gallon jar of kimchi. I put one piece of kimchi, said … ‘Try [it].’ Some people love it, some people just spit it out, drink a lot of water. Then I made bulgogi. Now I’m going to add [more] traditional Korean banchan.”
Lehn has not only given many Portlanders their first taste of Korean food, but she’s also become a community fixture. Some of her staff have worked at Cameo for 25 years. She fills her free time at the Portland Rotary Club. For 16 years, she trained Miss Oregon hopefuls at Cameo Café’s Vancouver branch. Photos of her trainees adorn the walls, as does a photo of her daughter Kimberly, pictured meeting with Barack Obama while working for the State Department in DC—proof that those years of hard work were worth it.
“I love people. I love my customers…. I love my employees,” Lehn says. “They’re my blood, my bones…. So I’m a very happy woman.” 8111 NE Sandy Blvd, cameocafe.com
“Friends used to … only eat at Du’s Grill,” Portland-born Aminé raps in his song “Turf.” It’s proof that Du’s, open since 1995, is a true Portland institution. But what Du’s devotees might not know is that although the word teriyaki is Japanese, Du’s Grill is perhaps the city’s finest example of the Korean-style teriyaki popular throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The parents of the current owner of Du’s, Anthony Park, took over the business in 1998. His mom refined the teriyaki sauce recipe, and now nearly every customer requests an extra container or two with their order. That sauce is actually based on a bulgogi marinade, featuring soy sauce, garlic, and sugar. “I think all Koreans know that taste is familiar,” Park says. Alongside grilled chicken, pork, and beef: the same clingy-grained white rice you’d find in Korean households, plus optional sides of kimchi. That famous poppy seed dressing, though, is his mom’s riff on an American recipe.
Park took over Du’s from his parents in 2009. He kept the menu exactly the same until the pandemic, when he and his wife introduced spicy chicken teriyaki inspired by Korean sweet-spicy fried chicken. Will more Korean-inspired items come to the menu? “I would definitely be open to it,” Park says. “I’m just glad that Korean food and Korean cuisine has gained a lot more popularity, and people are learning and being a lot more open to other cultures.” 5635 NE Sandy Blvd, dusgrill.com
When it comes to retro charm, Taste Tickler, opened in 1971 by German immigrants, delivers in droves: an old-school illuminated menu board with a few letters missing, assorted bags of chips galore, and, in nonpandemic times, a back dining room with tennis balls on the chair legs. Grant High students, construction workers, and work-from-home folks alike reliably flood this sandwich shop near the Lloyd Center every day at lunchtime, but that wasn’t always the case.
“Oh my Lord, it was so slow,” says Andy Kim, whose parents bought the sandwich shop from a pair of Korean brothers in 2005 when he was 19. “Just me sitting there, trying to keep myself busy or reading a magazine.”
Kim’s parents improved upon classics like the Famous Tickler, an old-school Italian sandwich with pepperoni, ham, and salami. They’ve also snuck bulgogi marinade into their Philly cheesesteak sub for years. But Kim credits much of their success to more recent explicitly Korean creations like the bulgogi sub, which his parents begrudgingly added to the menu after much coaxing.
And now, he’s adding even more Korean dishes to the menu: a tofu-kimchi rice plate, japchae, and banchan like pickled garlic and cucumbers.
“It might sound like I’m biting off more than I can chew, but I feel confident. It’s an exciting time for our restaurant. This past year was really hard for our family,” Kim says. “I’m just so grateful for even the smaller things. I’m doing a lot of things that I’ve put off and have been wanting to do for a long time.” 1704 NE 14th Ave, facebook.com/TasteTickler