It’s all about the chalkboard specials at Café Buna
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
Tourists who drive near the English village of Klevedon Hatch almost invariably stop to take a picture of one of the oddest road signs in the world. Beneath the directions to nearby Brentwood and Chigwell is an arrow pointing to the “Secret Nuclear Bunker.” It actually was a secret once, many years ago, but has now been transformed into a slightly ghoulish tourist attraction.
As unlikely as it may seem, there are parallels between this underground sanctuary and Café Buna, located just west of Lincoln Boulevard. The staff T-shirts bear the motto “Marina del Rey’s Best Kept Secret,” which is a rather odd claim for a place that has both a large sign and lines out the door on a regular basis. If this is the best kept secret, I’d like to know the worst one.
What may qualify as a secret, at least for people like me who like to look up restaurants on the Internet beforehand, is the depth and breadth of Café Buna’s menu. There were at least 20 different specials on the chalkboards by the door, many of them much more intriguing than the items on the standard menu. Since you will almost inevitably wait a while on weekends, you may judiciously consider your order — that is, if you can get the people who are standing in front of the sign to move. One woman seemed to think that I was staring at her in an immodest way, but visibly relaxed when she realized I was trying to read the partially obscured ingredient list for the breakfast burrito.
Two items from that specials list stood out, so we ordered a mortadella, gruyere and avocado omelet and a plate of potato pancakes and eggs. Though I knew I was over-ordering when I did it, I also had a side of hash, since homemade corned beef hash is one of the most nearly perfect breakfasts.
The potato pancakes were made with a mix of potato flour and grated potatoes, which makes them softer than hashed browns, but with more flavor of potato and less of oil. I might have liked a bit more onion and spice in them, but they were quite decent. The lamb patty that we chose as a breakfast meat had a big flavor that woke up our taste buds. Lamb is a favorite at breakfast in Britain, an idea from that often reviled cuisine that I completely appreciate.
The mortadella omelet with avocado, pistachio, green onions and tomato was a great idea that was less successful than it might have been, due to the meat being in large chunks. If this had been diced more finely so that the flavors blended better, the dish would have been a complete success — the rich gruyere, spiced pork and avocado are a combination that plays beautifully together, and I’m sorry I’d never even considered it before. I had ordered the omelet with tater tots as a side; either regular or sweet potato tots are available, along with home fries, or fruit. Tater tots are one of those bad-for-you-but-tastes-so-good items, and I enjoyed the crisp, lightly salty spiciness. I was less thrilled with the corned beef hash, which I had been assured was made in-house but was a bit on the bland side — better than the usual canned stuff, but not as zesty as many of the other items we had here.
Along with chai, tea and smoothies, coffee drinks are served in great profusion, and some are unusual. I had never heard of “Buna Miel,” espresso with steamed milk, cinnamon and honey, and wish I had noticed it before ordering a large house blend. That turned out to be the size of a small bucket, so I’ll have to try the Buna Miel next time.
I was back a few days later for lunch, when I ordered a “Kia Cajun” sandwich of spiced chicken on a torta bun with bacon, mozzarella, barbecue sauce, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes. It was a delightful sandwich, the spice level moderate but lively enough to be interesting and a good partner with the bacon and cheese. I had selected the freshly cut house fries as a side and, while they were a little salty, they were crisp and delicious.
Café Buna is a classic hometown breakfast and lunch place with prices about typical for such Westside establishments —you can have a good meal for right around $15, including the drink. The place has character and the food is tasty and plentiful, so given those attributes this place probably couldn’t remain secret even if they really wanted.
Café Buna is open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Vegetarian/vegan choices available. Street parking only.
Café Buna, 3105 W. Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey (310) 823-2430 cafebuna.com