BUSAN, South Korea – As a general rule, I tend to root for mom-and-pop businesses over big multinational companies…unless we are talking about coffee shops in Korea. Most of the little cafes in pre-spelling-change Pusan served overpriced instant coffee and were decorated to look like the waiting room of a New England podiatrist’s office. Milk was not a given. Windows were sealed and any tables on the street were there because they were being thrown away. Of the dozen or so places that served coffee in my old neighborhood, the best – hands down – was McDonald’s.
Though the mists of nostalgia have done nothing to soften my recollections of those extinct swill factories, one local café whose passing was however mourned was the Nonaim Café near Pusan National University. Kang Jeonghwa and her husband Patrick Carle combined their brains, beauty, and brawn (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who contributed what) and garnered a passionate and loyal following during the two years they were in business before family obligations compelled them to close and finally sell the shop in 2007.
Ms. Kang now employs her considerable talents as general manager of the recently opened Charlie Brown Café near PNU. Though they use the familiar Peanuts characters under license from an American parent company, Charlie Brown Café’s are found only in East Asia, perhaps playing to the well-known Asian love of all things cute. A four-foot tall statue of Charles Schultz’s lovable loser greets patrons at the door, and likenesses of Snoopy, Linus, and the rest of the Peanuts pantheon adorn the walls, tables, and plates. The ground floor seating area is fairly small, but there is a massive second floor with spacious open-air patios, free Wi-Fi, and more Peanuts figures, prints, and memorabilia than you can shake a security blanket at. There is even a small selection of merchandise for sale (t-shirts, bathroom mats, slippers, stationery, etc.) if you’d like some Peanuts to go.
The décor is certainly novel, but unless you’re a die-hard Peanuts fan, it is Charlie Brown Café’s other salient feature that warrants your attention: Ms. Kang’s kickass sandwiches and panini. Though listed on the menu as “Snacks”, the four sandwiches (chicken, ham and cheese, bacon and cheese, tuna and egg) and the four panini (chicken, ham, bacon, and grilled vegetables) are a satisfying light meal, reasonably priced at 5,500 won. You may want to wash it down with one of their “Snow” drinks (5,500 won), which are cold smoothies in a variety of flavors: mango, green apple, caramel, yogurt blueberry and several others. Psychiatric help, as always, is a bargain at five cents, assuming of course the doctor is in.
On the recommendation of Patrick “The Brawn” Carle (oops), I had the chicken panini – a lightly grilled chicken breast and a slice of tomato nestled on a bed of mozzarella cheese and fresh spinach greens, toasted between two pieces of whole grain bread. The touch that raised it to the next level for me was the liberal smear of Ms. Kang’s homemade pesto, which I smelled the moment the dish hit the table; the heady, balanced aroma of garlic, olive oil, and basil whose freshness is immediately apparent.
Ms. Kang’s other big hit is brunch (9,000 won), served on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Two pancakes plus two eggs, two sausages, two strips of bacon and tea or coffee equals a fine start to any weekend.
It would be remiss to end this review of a café without having said anything about the coffee, so let me say this: the coffee’s fine. All of the usual brews are represented, served hot or iced, competently brewed at standard prices. To my mind however, though nominally a coffee shop, Charlie Brown Café could just as well have been dubbed Peanuts Paninoteche. Hey, that has a nice ring to it. Go ahead, say it a few times.
Or don’t. But do check it out on your next visit to PNU.
To get there: From PNU main gate, turn right at Busan Bank, and left at the alley just past Coldstone. Make the first right and find Charlie Brown at the end of that alley. From the subway, take Line 1 to Pusan National University, walk out exit three and continue straight for 150 meters. Turn left at the last alley before you reach the main road (Qook shop on corner), make the first right and then the first left.
There is also a location in Kyungsung across from the Pasta Factory.