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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Meet-and-Three: Durham's Current Cafeteria

Posted by on Sat, Dec 31, 2011 at 10:40 AM

Debra Craig and Sook Rha at Current Cafeteria in Durham.
  • Debra Craig and Sook Rha at Current Cafeteria in Durham.
Sook “Sue” Rha, a Korean native and former bookkeeper with no formal cooking experience, surveyed the sandwich stand she purchased with her husband, Bong Kya Rha, on North Roxboro Road. There was eight-month old food in the refrigerators and a menu she knew little about: hot dogs, hamburgers and biscuits. New to Durham, however, she needed the work that the shuttered restaurant, Mama Ann’s, could provide. “We had to have a job,” she recalls. “We had to do something.”

The answer was stuck to a wall. A yellowing piece of paper listed contact information for Mary Jacob, who had run the stand for years before. Sue called. Soon after, Jacob returned to Mama Ann’s, willing to teach the Rhas everything she knew about cooking. “We were just beside her learning,” Rha says of their time together. “We catch up pretty good.”

But they didn’t just catch up. The Rhas mastered a traditional Southern menu. Five years after re-opening Mama Ann’s, customers prodded them to move their business a few blocks up Roxboro to what was then a failing meat-and-three, Current Cafeteria, that opened some 50 odd years ago. “You’ll be the right person over there,” Sue recalls of their conversations with her.

It was a good fit. Feb. 2 will mark the Rhas' 18th year at the restaurant, where they serve breakfast and lunch from a short hot bar. Stacked wood-patterned trays anchor one end where dessert is up first. A glass cabinet displays slices of pie before steam trays of vegetables and entrées.

Hanging high above the serving area, a menu with interchangeable placards displays the dishes available each day. But ordering is a conversation. When I visited on a recent Monday, Debra Craig stood behind glass, pointing out and describing each pan of food.

There was thinly breaded crisp fried chicken or chicken livers and a steaming pan of beef stew accompanied by green beans, tomatoes and okra, potatoes, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and cabbage, among other options. On top of the buffet, rolled tightly in wax paper, individual packs of greasy golden rounds of cornbread warmed under a heat lamp. At the serving area’s end, an entrée with two vegetables and bread rings up for a mere $4.70. “We try to keep as low of prices as we can,” Sue says.

The recession has made breakfast—fatback and red hot biscuits and egg plate specials—more popular than lunch. When I dined shortly after 1 p.m., only a handful of people were seated in the dining room’s red booths. Still, Sue says she is “blessed” by what business she does have. “I really enjoy this job. My children grew up here,” she says.

Others have, too. Sue estimates that her customers are almost entirely regulars. “Some people come morning and lunch. I know them, they know me.” She speaks to each of them.

“Be nice. That’s my main goal always,” she admits. And try to be clean and fresh.”

But with a 50-year-old cafeteria the desired look is “something not completely shining.” It’s Current Cafeteria but it’s well worn.

Current Cafeteria is located at 3002 N. Roxboro Road in Durham.

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