The story behind this Korean-American cafe broke my heart – San Francisco Chronicle

Customer Doug Stuck (left) poses for a photo for Kenny Kim at Kenny’s Cafe in Santa Clara, Calif.
This week, I wrote about Kenny’s Cafe, a surprising little restaurant in Santa Clara. Proprietor Kenny Kim, 65, opened the breakfast spot nine years ago, with a menu made to appeal to the many construction workers, airport staff and university students that frequent this industrial segment of the South Bay city. Every day, in addition to cooking up breakfast burritos, he’s taken portraits of his customers, totaling more than 20,000 photographs.
Kim was born in the Yongsan district of Seoul, notable for its shopping and a major U.S. military base. When he was a teenager, he made a living cooking burgers for the numerous Americans who came through Yongsan in the 1970s. After immigrating to the U.S., he started a family and opened a few restaurants in the Bay Area. Eventually, he took on a more “respectable” job as a car salesman and did that for 25 years. But he began to crave a change. The kitchen was calling him back. It wasn’t easy: His marriage dissolved as a consequence, and he later became estranged from his son.
Now, in a city known for its thriving Korean cuisine, Kim folds Spam and griddled pineapple into breakfast burritos, stacks burgers with giant onion rings, and churns out Philly cheesesteaks five days a week. Compared to Korean food, “American food is very simple,” Kim said, “Just egg, cheese, potato.” Customers don’t only show up for the food anyway.
The people who come in on their lunch breaks pull down their face masks and smile for him when Kim asks for a photo, and he adds their images to his long-running collection, which has almost completely covered the walls of the restaurant. He posts them on Facebook as well. It’s an awe-inspiring display worth seeing in person, if only so you can witness this tangible representation of almost a decade’s worth of work. Kim, the everyday paparazzi, treats everyone who comes into the restaurant like a celebrity, and you can see it on their faces, from bashful half-smiles to wholly enthusiastic mugging for the camera.
From my standpoint, as a human living through a global pandemic, these photos hit me right in the diaphragm. Kim, who mans the restaurant on his own, started the project as a way to remind himself that he was capable of making others happy, at least for a minute or two. He’s surrounded by smiles, even on days when he’s the only living thing in the building.
You can read more about Kenny’s Cafe here.
Since 2019, Soleil Ho has been The Chronicle’s Restaurant Critic, spearheading Bay Area restaurant recommendations through the flagship Top Restaurants series. In 2022, they won a Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award from the James Beard Foundation.
Ho also writes features and cultural commentary, specializing in the ways that our food reflects the way we live. Their essay on pandemic fine dining domes was featured in the 2021 Best American Food Writing anthology. Ho also hosts The Chronicle’s food podcast, Extra Spicy, and has a weekly newsletter called Bite Curious.
Previously, Ho worked as a freelance food and pop culture writer, as a podcast producer on the Racist Sandwich, and as a restaurant chef. Illustration courtesy of Wendy Xu.


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