Welcome to Dining On A Dime, a feature in which Lucas Kwan Peterson surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive and, well, quite tasty in this here city. Where do you want us to go next? Do share.
You know Felix Chevrolet on the corner of Jefferson and Figueroa by USC, with the huge neon Felix the Cat sign? (Sidebar: could something like that ever happen again? A franchisee of a major corporation, who's friends with an animator, asks to borrow a cartoon creation, in perpetuity, as a mascot for their franchise? Leaving us with something like, Spongebob's Heating & Cooling or something? Anyway.) Beginning in the late 1960s, there was a coffee shop behind the dealership called Kenny's. It was owned by an old Japanese couple and served the campus and surrounding businesses until it closed in 2004.
Here's the slightly confusing part: starting in 1972, there were actually TWO Kenny's Coffee Shops, a second one that was spun off and opened a half mile away on Grand Avenue. "Kenny's Two," as it became known, was run by two former employees of the original Kenny's — a husband and wife named Seree and Sherry. They emigrated from Thailand to attend USC in the late '60s and befriended the owners, who gave them jobs at the restaurant. When their student visas expired, the restaurant's owners decided to help them stay in the country by opening a second restaurant and making them (Seree and Sherry) the owners.
Forty-two years later, the original Kenny's owners have passed away but that second restaurant, Seree's Coffee Shop aka Kenny's Two (they still have the original Kenny's sign in the window), is still operating on the corner of Grand and W 28th, caddy-corner from LA County Social Services. Walking in is a bit of a time warp — the colorless exterior and barred windows makes it feel a little like going into a bail bonds place (in a good way) but the interior is homey and tropical; different shades of green paint, pictures of flowers on the walls, a fan blowing, Legion-Hall-style padded chairs. My friend I brought with me said, "Have you ever been to Honolulu? This feels like that."
It is a two-person operation with Seree working the kitchen and Sherry, motherly and welcoming, working the front. Sherry is a spry 67 years old, shuffling around in a sleeveless blouse and skirt that reaches just below the knee. She will, if you ask, happily give the entire history of the two Kenny's restaurants, all while refilling your coffee numerous times and insisting that you eat some baked treats that you're pretty sure you didn't ask for. Seree is busy in the back, a wizened little salt-and-pepper head popping up occasionally behind the pass through that goes back to the kitchen.
The food is good, but honestly, it's almost an afterthought. It's like going home and eating certain dishes associated with your childhood: the nostalgia flavors the dish more than any spice ever could. And Seree's manages to evoke nostalgia somehow, despite your not knowing these people or ever having been to their restaurant, which is no mean feat. The menu is demarcated into two areas: traditional diner fare and '50s homestyle Asian food. Take the name "Seree's Coffee Shop" mostly at face value — this is not Sapp's Coffee Shop, perennial Jonathan Gold favorite that is purely a Thai restaurant and is a "coffee shop" in name only. Seree's actually does solid, workmanlike coffee and great breakfast food: excellent eggs with fried rice, filling omelettes and fluffy pancakes. Everything on the breakfast side of the menu costs less than five bucks, so don't even sweat the price. On the lunch side, prices range between $6 to $8 for different soups and huge plates of freshly fried rice with a variety of meat choices. The combination soup is a winner — a large bowl of Thai-style soup spilling over with noodles, shrimp, beef, chicken, and barbecue pork. Doctor it with a big ladle full of the vinegary onion/jalapeno mixture that comes tableside to add some spice and tang. And then just enjoy being at Seree's. They'll take care of you there. And they won't be around forever.
— Lucas Kwan Peterson
Seree's Coffee Shop is located at 2800 S. Grand Ave. in Historic South Central. Phone number: 213-747-8233
It is open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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