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Kohnie's Island

James Wright, a Kohnie's regular, catches up on some business news with his breakfast.
Erik Guzowski

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."

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.

Heat shimmers in enchiladas con huevos as well, a flat version of double-corn tortillas cradling the over-easy eggs and a dab of salsa in a shallow pool of tomato sauce. Huevos rancheros delivers the same perfect eggs and tortillas mantled with creamy vegetarian refried beans, piquant salsa de tomatillo and salsa de Mexicana. A fine on-the-go entree, meanwhile, comes in the huevos a la Mexicana, a fat tortilla wrap stuffed with scrambled eggs, sautéed tomato, onions and jalapeño.

Much of Kohnie's cuisine is health-oriented, but a blatant nod to long life fails to excite -- what's the point of eating out if it's to chew on a bialy rendered lifeless with Egg Beaters, mustard and tomato (150 calories, no fat, and it tastes like it)? Instead, save the calories for Sunday, when Ellie rolls out her classic eggs Benedict, optionally crowned with vegetables or nova lox. Or, splurge on my addiction: a steaming mug of hot chocolate paired with one of the Kohn's homemade scones, 23 varieties of dense wonders gussied up with touches like lemon, maple oatmeal, orange, raspberry, apricot, almond, and the stunning Santa Fe (jalapeño jack cheese, pimientos, corn and chiles).

Large, on the other hand, is the word of the day for lunch dishes. Sandwiches are enormous with top-notch innards, and salads are massive, overflowing large bowls that easily make two meals (consider getting the dressing on the side so leftovers don't wilt as quickly).

Chinese chicken salad is a perennial best seller, and no wonder -- what a charming toss of breast meat, carrots, almonds, mandarin oranges, scallions and crispy noodles resting on a bed of romaine and Napa cabbage in a mildly sweet glaze. The whole thing's been chopped into a delicate pile, so each forkful marries a richness of flavors. And while the noodle mix is a closely guarded secret, it appears to be an effective toss of spaghettini chow mein noodles and diced Ramen.

The Kohns have crafted the best chef's salad in town, too, with a masterful mix of crisp romaine and field greens, tomatoes, turkey, Cheddar and Swiss, plus firm egg topped with croutons and a surprise cameo of asparagus. There's no lemon-herb dressing today, but Thousand Island fills in nicely, creamy, peppery-sweet and tasting like it's made from scratch. Superior dressing also makes a chicken caesar sing, gilding greens with a robust character and coating hefty carvings of bird teamed with homemade croutons.

One day's special of grape chicken salad needs no greater glow than the light moistening of vinaigrette, with red grapes split and roasted to a fig-like consistency, tumbled with pleasantly bitterish field greens, sharp, crumbly Gorgonzola and diced walnuts.

Kohnie's order board boasts 10 sandwich selections, in reality fewer, depending on the whim of the kitchen. Multiple visits find the cafe out of corned beef (the star of Jim's Ultimate, paired with lettuce, tomato and cream cheese; or served hot or cold on dark rye with Dijon). Each visit, too, promises that "tomorrow" will be the day for a Garden burger on an onion bun, but no such luck.

Kohn assures that even red-meat eaters will find satisfaction in his B.L.A.T.T. It's true: the monster groans under mountains of slender turkey slices, thick carvings of bacon, milky avocado, lettuce, tomato and a slathering of Kohnie's special sauce (a punchy Dijon/mayonnaise/spice blend). O.T.B. doesn't leave anyone hungry either, loaded with turkey, bacon, cream cheese, lettuce and tomato. Even a simple turkey sandwich shines when coupled with an excellent grade of Swiss.

Still, nothing beats Eddie's Tuna, without a doubt the sexiest sandwich in town. Charlie Tuna would be proud to be the centerfold of this layout, marrying all-white albacore with just a glistening of mayo, then folding it atop tomato, sliced cucumber, Kohnie's sauce, a smear of avocado and field greens. Each bite is better than the last. Served alongside Poore Brothers chips, carrot sticks or a wonderful potato salad sparked with spicy mustard, this sandwich could lead me to stalk Kohnie's cafe.  

The Kohns easily could cut some corners, cut prices, and expand their pool of followers to the masses more comfortable with the $5 sandwich range. They could work a lot less -- surely getting up every day at 4:30 a.m. to make everything from scratch is wearisome.

But that's as likely to occur as seeing Robert bubble over with joy, kissing up to each and every newcomer that passes his doorstep, or seeing Ellie restrain from whooping gleefully "I'm out of here!" as the kitchen closes at day's end. Say it loud and say it proud: In a sea of same-old menus and smarmily sincere service, there's nothing phony about the top-notch eats at Kohnie's.


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