Down-Home American, Korean Style

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MINOT, N.D. -- Charlie's Main Street Cafe in the heart of downtown here is a monument to small-town Americana.

The menu offers down-home favorites: eggs and bacon, chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, chicken noodle soup, vanilla ice cream and, yes, apple pie. Polished timber panels provide a log-cabin atmosphere. Framed black-and-white photos from generations past adorn the walls: carriage-style cars cruising down Main Street, baseball players in stirrups and knickers, President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a black top hat shaking a man's hand.

It is a gathering place for local leaders, and for residents to catch up on gossip.

This could well be a haunt on any idyllic American street corner. But Charlie's is a bit different.

The purveyor at this landmark of deeply American culture in a town that is more than 97 percent American-born happens to be a South Korean immigrant who traces her earliest awareness of the United States to a story her mom told her when she was in elementary school in Seoul, about a place that boasted of 31 flavors of ice cream.

When Geewon Anderson, 48, bought Charlie's in May, she not only embraced the tradition the cafe represented, she also worked to bolster it.

She overhauled the dirty and dilapidated interior and then decorated the walls with old pictures of Minot and its people that she found online. Her husband, Joel, a Minnesota native, carved an image of an American Indian and a buffalo out of bloodwood and hung it behind the cash register. She washed an old blue-and-white sign posted behind the building that read "Charlie's Fine Food" and hung it inside the restaurant.

Most important, perhaps, she left the menu alone.

"Meat and potatoes," she said. "That is a tradition of the Middle West. I want them to carry on. I don't want to come here and disturb their tradition. I don't want to modify it. I want to enhance it."

She added, "I want my customers to feel this restaurant is theirs."

Ms. Anderson moved to Anchorage in 1991 with her husband, whom she met while he worked in Seoul as a computer engineering contractor for the United States military. She built a career as a mortgage originator in Anchorage. She also worked as a translator and was involved in civic activities. She counts a red BMW convertible among the fruits of her hard work.

Though she had no ties to North Dakota before hearing about Charlie's, her latest venture, it was the unlikely vehicle she chose to provide her family with a shot at the American dream.

Just six months ago, her mother, two sisters and brother-in-law had not even heard of sunny-side ups, ranch dressing or tomato sauce. They moved here from South Korea in June to help run the restaurant. Her brother-in-law, Sung Chun Lee, a 56-year-old retired banker, has taken to American favorites like hamburgers and is now one of the cooks. This Thanksgiving, he helped prepare a turkey dinner that the restaurant served.

"I am becoming more and more American," he said.

Ms. Anderson is helping open a franchise of CherryBerry Yogurt Bar in the mall here that her younger sister will run. Once her family becomes comfortable operating the businesses here on their own, Ms. Anderson hopes to return to Anchorage.

Other family restaurants in Minot have come and gone, but Charlie's has endured. Though residents were uncertain about the date it was established, it has been around at least since World War II, when it was called the Victory Cafe. It became Charlie's in 1957, when Charlie DeMakis, a Greek immigrant, bought it, according to his son, Greg, who runs a bowling alley and lounge in town.

Charlie once cooked a meal for President Eisenhower when he came to Minot for the dedication of the Garrison Dam in the early 1950s, Greg DeMakis said. The restaurant has always specialized in home-style cooking, though Charlie did occasionally cater special meals for groups, Greg said.

"It was the meeting place in Minot in those days," he said.

Charlie DeMakis sold the place because of failing health, and ownership changed hands several times before Ms. Anderson and a friend from South Korea bought the building that houses the restaurant and 11 apartments this year for $390,000. Ms. Anderson first visited Minot (which she once pronounced MEE-not, before residents corrected her, saying, MY-not) last January after friends in Alaska told her about the economic opportunities that had resulted from the oil boom in western North Dakota.

The restaurant renovations cost about $50,000 and were completed on Aug. 1. Ms. Anderson put up decorations in October when she moved to Minot full time. She fills in where she can, helping to clean the kitchen and the bathroom, for instance, or chopping vegetables.

Customers at the cafe one recent morning seemed visibly smitten as she darted between tables. One customer affectionately clutched Ms. Anderson by the wrist as they spoke. She brought hot chocolate topped with whipped cream to three burly construction workers, and their faces melted into smiles. All the while, Ms. Anderson, who stands about 5 feet tall at most, bounced around the restaurant wearing a glittery Santa hat that played Elvis Presley's rendition of "Here Comes Santa Claus" with the push of a button.

"She's always upbeat," said Gary Kramlich, 72, a real estate broker who has been eating breakfast at Charlie's since 1963 and who was the broker when Ms. Anderson bought the restaurant.

Ms. Anderson seemed to favor American life from the start.

Her father worked in the South Korean Navy as a liaison to the United States Navy. Though he died when she was 4, her mother passed along his glowing stories about the United States. Later, Ms. Anderson frequented the same bars in Seoul as some American expatriates, and that was where she met her husband, with whom she has a 23-year-old son, Victor. Her first visit to the United States was to Hawaii in 1987, where she was sworn in as a citizen. One of the first places she visited on American soil was a Baskin-Robbins shop, for a banana split, she said.

She does not view herself as American or Korean, but rather as a citizen of the moment. During the day, she is happy to speak English to her customers and enjoy the hearty cooking. At night, she watches Korean soap operas on satellite television.

"I cannot totally live with Koreans; it would drive me crazy," she said. "I cannot totally live with American people; it drives me crazy. I love being in between and being a bridge."

Matthew Staver contributed reporting.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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