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In a world bloated with slickly marketed restaurants, it's refreshing to find a guy who's completely honest about his eats. Kohnie's cafe owner Robert Kohn charges a lot for his casual fare -- perhaps too much -- and he admits it. He doesn't pamper his customers, offering a brusque "What do you want?" at the order counter. There are no apologies when multiple menu items are unavailable; that's life. And when we wonder aloud what the daily special is, sometimes he informs us that his simply being open and willing to feed us is special enough, thank you.
Corporate chain-contrived cheerful this place ain't.
But we can't say we weren't warned. The posters on the wall are splashed with clever photos of Kohn and his Kohnisms: "Half the service, twice the price." And, "Worth getting insulted for."
Papas con huevos: $6.95
Enchiladas con huevos: $6.95
Huevos a la Mexicana: $6.95
Breakfast bagel or bialy: $4.50
Eddie's Tuna: $7.95
Chinese chicken salad: $9.75
Chef salad: $10.75
Yet this place is popular, inspiring almost a cult following among the smallish group aware of its existence. Kohn's tag line explains the draw: "The food's the thing." And is it. Here in the heart of the posh Camelback corridor is a cafe that doesn't mess around with fluff, focusing instead on hand-crafted breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, soups, scones and specialty coffee drinks. Though it's been open almost 10 years now, Kohnie's plays to an intimate audience of tight-lipped followers who don't care to introduce interlopers to their private oasis. Newcomers are accommodated, but warily. Word-of-mouth is key for admission to the club; even many of my food-frenetic friends admit they've never heard of the joint.
Know Kohn, though, and you're in like Flynn, privy to having a personal coffee mug set aside, often filled with your favorite beverage as Kohn sees your car pulling up in the lot. And happily, the hazing is short-lived. On my first visit, I sit lonely and neglected in a corner. By my third visit, Kohn is smiling at me, suggesting I return for tomorrow's special, joking about "releasing the goods" (my take-out order) once I've "handed over the cash" and imploring me to "enjoy." I feel the love.
Kohnie's is easy to miss certainly, a tiny, six-table end-cap to a strip mall showcasing flashier culinary stars Acqua e Sale and Havana Cafe. Its sign simply touts "coffee" in giant print; inside, it's nothing fancy, starkly finished in black-and-white tile floors, white walls and black window trim.
But slow down. Stop in for a luxurious breakfast. Fight past the pack of country club-garbed moms fresh from dropping off their young charges at private schools down the street, and pony up some bucks for a bowl of steaming-hot oatmeal, a scone, and the coffee, a brew so strong it's a wonder it doesn't eat through the ceramic mug.
Kohn acknowledges that his customers typically prefer highly potent java, warning us only after the flesh has peeled back from our gums in a caffeine-crazed grin. The first sip's the hardest, then it becomes a challenge, experimenting with boutique beans like the San Francisco blend, rainforest, Ethiopian yirgacheffe, and continental blend. The Arden's jahunga is a tasty concoction, but not for first-timers, spinning a cappuccino base with three shots of espresso. A few sips and we're spinning, too.
Kohn's wife, Ellie, is cooking in the kitchen, popping her head out periodically to remind her husband to stop chatting and pass orders on to her. Here's eavesdropping nirvana for foodies -- a counter server gushes to guests about the much-anticipated Nonni's Kitchen, opening soon nearby and promising "a piece of heaven." She argues gently with Kohn over the bread served as bruschetta at the new Postino wine bar (a few streets over), then suddenly Kohn launches into details of a party he's catering, describing in mouth-watering detail the global feast he's creating for some lucky socialites.
It's entertaining gossip and appreciated entertainment during the wait for food. Twenty minutes isn't an unrealistic purgatory: "Hold tight, we've got a big take-out order ahead of you," Kohn bluntly informs our luncheon party. So we amuse ourselves studying a wall full of photos, apparently family, friends and regular customers, plus the babies and pets of the same. Look, but don't touch. A hand-printed sign admonishes us to "Please leave the pictures alone!!!" Other art on the walls we can have for a price -- the elegant black-and-white photos are for sale, the creations of Scottsdale's Amore Mills Gallery.
I'm collecting my cash for the nova lox plate, however, a pricey repast at $11.95. It's a pretty plate, decorated with generous planks of superb fish, silky and thick on a grilled bagel spread with cream cheese, capers, onion and tomato. Toss in another bagel and some more cream cheese, and this could make a light meal for two.
Light is the word of the day for breakfast dishes. Those two eggs with seven-grain toast are just that -- no hash browns, no fruit -- just ova and bread for $4.50 ($7.45 if we want some bacon). There's more substance in a breakfast sandwich, stacked with a pair of eggs fluffed omelet-style under a glorious excess of gooey, prickly-hot jalapeño jack cheese and grilled on a bagel or bialy.
Another Kohnism warns that "Special orders piss me off," but nobody appears to be enforcing it. Indeed, once we're part of the in-crowd, Kohn almost hovers, checking if our coffee is powerful enough (yeah, right), wondering whether we'd like tomatoes in our Caesar, and how hot we'd like our Mexican-inspired meals. Bring it on, is the call for huevos con papas, and Ellie does, packing in the jalapeños until this mild-mannered melange snarls back. This is early morning comfort food, really, mounding a grilled flour tortilla with chunks of potato and two eggs finished as a frittata with sautéed onions and salsa.