Zen and the Art of Eating
Karma Cafe feels like home
According to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, in Hinduism, “karma is the force of retributive justice that compels believers to behave righteously according to Dharma—the moral order of the universe.” Furthermore, it is “the Hindu view of causality in which good deeds, words, thoughts, and commands lead to beneficial effects for a person, and bad deeds, words, thoughts, and commands lead to harmful effects. These effects are not necessarily immediate but can be visited upon a soul in future lives through reincarnation.” So, the idea of Karma Cafe is that there are no prices—customers can pay whatever they think the food is worth, and perhaps a little more, so than someone else, who maybe doesn't have money for a meal, can come and eat a nutritious and delicious repast, too. Therefore, when you visit the new not-for-profit restaurant on San Pedro and take part in their enlightened business model, you can gain bonus points for the future transmigration of your soul while helping feed your community and supporting a local business. Good vibes to the power of three, que no?
On my first visit, I strolled into the café with four dollars in my pocket, naively believing that there would be some way of paying with a card. (In all fairness to myself, there was a credit card sign on the door.) Thank Buddha my dining partner always carries a giant wad cash. The space was on the small side, but uncluttered, scattered with community dining tables and chairs, paintings, indoor plants and a short bar at the front window. Minimalist lights dangled from the ceiling and the back wall provided a view into the kitchen. We sat down and gazed at the giant chalkboard menu on the side wall. It was bizarre to not see any prices, and while there weren't a ton of choices, everything sounded delicious.
Our friendly waitress approached, explained the pay-as-you-feel system and took our drink orders: a coffee and a water with lemon. Upon her return, we traded our orders for the drinks. Sipping from our cups, my cohort asked how I had heard of this place. I replied that I had read an article about the place starting off at the farmers' market selling food on the pay-what-you-will basis and being successful enough to move to a permanent location. My initial reaction had been cynical (I'm a tad jaded from working in the restaurant business myself.) but when I saw that the customers were making it work, I was excited by the goodwill displayed by the community.
With the arrival of our dishes—biscuits and gravy, and spaghetti with meatballs and a mixed green salad—we oohed and aahed over how tasty, yet homey everything looked. I picked up my fork and twirled it into my spaghetti. The sauce was a light orange—clearly made from real tomatoes—and chunky with bits of onion. Sprinkled with green herbs, it was dolloped over generously-portioned meatballs made from local, humanely-raised Kyzer Farm pork and perfectly cooked spaghetti. The flavor of the sauce was light and a little on the sweet side, but balanced by the saltiness of the meatballs, which were savory and rich. Yum.
I slid my fork to the left and snagged a bite of the biscuits and herb cream gravy with over-easy eggs and seasoned potatoes. The gravy looked incredible: thick and white with crumbles of more Kyzer farm pork sausage; it tasted like heaven—buttery, creamy, delectable. It was like eating heavy whipping cream on homemade biscuits. After rhapsodizing over the gravy, I turned my sights on the salad. It was fresh, zingy and crunchy with slices of green apple and dried cranberries. The raspberry vinaigrette the leafy greens were tossed in was a bit too sweet for my taste, but it was still good.
When we finished, we tallied what we thought each dish was worth, then rounded up for good measure. We dropped our tip in the glass tip jar, jabbed our dollars through the slot of the black pay-as-you-feel box, and bid our waitress adieu. It was that easy.
On my next sojourn for karmic relief, I opted for the artisan breakfast sandwich while my new breakfast buddy went for the French toast. While sipping dark roast coffee with cream, I tried to describe the food: It's all organic, grown sustainably by local farmers and made from scratch. And it's that final descriptor that is key—it tastes like it's homemade. There's something warming about the food, like you can actually taste the good vibes.
The hefty portion of battered and grilled brioche bread topped with cinnamon and apples was, in a word, buttery. The fruit was neither goopy nor overly sweet, but rather tart with just the right amount of sugar and spice. The bread was fluffy. The sandwich, served with seasoned potatoes, was crunchy on the outside courtesy of two slices of grilled sourdough, and soft and chewy on the inside with airy scrambled eggs, gooey Jack cheese and fleshy green chile with just enough heat.
Walking out into the warm sunlight later, I considered my meal. The cuisine itself was excellent, but ultimately, it was more than just breakfast that I had taken part in. With the simple act of purchasing food, I supported my community by helping Karma Cafe fulfill its mission of “providing healthy food ... to its patrons, indiscriminately of what they can afford to pay, strengthening social bonds and social responsibility of all classes.” And that left a particularly good taste in my mouth.
1617 San Pedro NE
Hours: Tue-Sun 9am-3pm
Vibe: Natural, homey, communal, peaceful
Alibi Recommends: Biscuits and gravy, French toast