Wild Pile at Lion Coffee

“We’re not into coffeehouses like you. But you’d probably ask for a soup.”

The waffle is a sticky, crunchy, chocolaty mess.
  • The waffle is a sticky, crunchy, chocolaty mess.

Anastasia from Vladivostok brings my waffle.

Melissa — her family is from Guam — hands me my coffee.

The coffee’s Kona, from Hawaii.

The waffle is from…heaven.

Sigh. Love a surprise. Here I was, ambling along Market. Biggest care in the world was a slightly grumbling gut.

It’s around 2:00 in the afternoon. Looking for first food of the day. Heading east. I pass that mini-canyon, an actual earthquake fault line right where Market Street and First Avenue meet. It looks pretty wild down there. They’ve turned it into a rock-garden affair.

The first shop east of the fault gully has a banner in the window. It says, “Hawaii’s Lion Coffee.” There’s a menu up in the window, too: “Lion EATS.”

Aha. Prices are good, $5–$7. And I have this thing about Kona coffee. It tastes chocolaty, earthy, round, and smooth. Love it. ’Course, it costs more, and I see a Starbucks farther on, but what the heck?

I head in.

First thing is the big welcome from Melissa.

“Hi there!” Full of gusto, like she really means it. “Practice Aloha,” reads a sign taped to the cash register.

The small 100 percent Kona coffee costs $2.50. They have the ordinary stuff, too (small, $1; medium, $1.85; large, $2), but I figure I’ll save on the food.

“Still serving breakfast?” I ask.

“All day,” Melissa says.

“Well, it’s ten o’clock somewhere,” I say.

The choice is between breakfast burritos (bacon, ham, chicken, sausage, or veggies), with eggs, potatoes, and cheddar. Or ham or turkey breakfast sandwiches. Everything’s $4.95. For lunch, they have $5.95 sandwiches; you pick your own meat, cheese, bread, and extras.

I’m almost tempted by the lunch combo: half a sandwich and a cup of soup ($5.95).

But then I spot the waffles. Lordy. There’s a basic Belgian ($5.95), a macadamia, a chocolate-chip, a coconut, a chocolate-coconut ($6.95). You get a choice of maple, coconut, or guava syrup.

I go for the chocolate-coconut waffle. Ask for the maple syrup, then straight away wish I’d gone for the guava, but Melissa’s already on her way. So, no biggie.

I could go sit outside, except the good talkin’s happening here, in the warmth. Place looks kinda like a Starbucks, with blond wood tables. One big difference: they have a lion painted into the concrete floor, another looking down from the ceiling. The shelves are stacked with red and yellow and black bags of Hawaii’s Lion Kona coffee beans.

Anastasia makes my waffle on a waffle iron right there behind the counter.

She’s studying international business. Student exchange. “You think this is cold?” she says. “Right now, in Vladivostok, it’s 20 degrees below, Celsius.”

I ask what I’d eat if I went into a Vladivostok restaurant. “We’re not into coffeehouses like you,” she says. “But you’d probably ask for a soup. A vegetable soup or a borscht [the beet-root soup Russia is famous for]. You’d probably get a kompot, made from dried fruit, to drink. You’d pay about $5.”

So, hey, not so different.

But the coffee…IMHO, Kona coffee’s in a class all its own. For sure, my brew is velvety smooth. Also: the waffle is a sticky, crunchy, chocolaty mess.

So, guess what? Next day, I’m passing up Market again, and I can’t resist coming back in to try the lunch sandwich/soup combo. This time, Anastasia is doing the greeting.

I ask for another of those delicious coffees and the half a sandwich and soup combo. Anastasia brings over a big royal-blue bowl of steaming chicken-vegetable soup, plus a chunk or two of French bread. This is filling enough in itself — hot, briny, chunks of chicken... Then I start on the sandwich. You get your pick of turkey or ham (I chose ham) on a bread or bagel or croissant (I chose the wheat bread), cheese (I chose pepper jack), and free “extras,” like, lettuce, tomato, red-onion slices, and pesto.

She toasts it all up and brings it over. It’s a wild little pile of ham and cheese and all that fresh stuff. For $5.95, it’s a good deal. Even with the $2.50 Kona coffee, I’m out under $10.

Larry, the boss who’s just come in, says the Lion company started in Toledo, Ohio, in 1864. Which makes it the oldest major American coffee company. They became important players in the U.S. coffee-roasting scene back when Teddy Roosevelt ruled the roost. But by about 1980, when everything had fallen apart but the name, a Hawaii-based fellow named Jim Delano bought the rights to the name for his company — and took it over to Hawaii. Now Lion roasts and sells beans that grow on the Big Island’s volcanic slopes. And Larry here is trying to re-launch the Lion brand on the mainland. This Market Street location is where he’s stuck his flag in the sand, the first of what he hopes will be a, uh, Hawaiian chain in the continental U.S.

“We’re definitely number one in Hawaii,” he says. But here he’s only just begun.

I’m thinking…so this is supposed to be the first of many locations…

Anastasia comes over.

I have an idea.

“Larry, Anastasia! How’s about this: Vladivostok’s not big on coffee places, Kona, whatever — not yet. Right, Anastasia? So how’s about we launch a Siberian chain of Lions. Could break that market wide open.”

“And you’d go over and open it up for us?” Larry asks

“Oh, sure, no problem,” I say.

Anastasia says, “Even though it’s 20 degrees below, Celsius, in Vladivostok right now?”

“Oh. Right.” I think about the lovely Carla, happy in the warm San Diego sun. “Can I confirm tomorrow?” ■

The Place: Lion Coffee, 101 Market Street #100, downtown, 619-299-5466

Type of Food: light American

Prices: breakfast burritos (bacon, ham, chicken, sausage, or veggie, with eggs, potatoes, cheddar, $4.95; ham or turkey breakfast sandwiches, $4.95; lunch sandwich (turkey/ham, choice of cheese, bread, extras), $5.95; Belgian waffle, $5.95; Macadamia, chocolate-chip, coconut, or coconut-chocolate waffle, $6.95; acai bowl, $6.95

Hours: 6:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. daily (Sundays, 6:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m.)

Buses: 3, 11, 120

Nearest Bus Stops: 4th and G ( for #3, and #120, Southbound); 5th and G (3, 120, northbound); Market and 3rd (for #11 southbound); Market and 4th (for #11 northbound)

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