With so many new restaurants having opened up, it’s a good time to give a shout-out to those who have been serving it up for a long time, who are as much a part of Rochester’s history as the corn tower. If you have a spot, let us know, as over the months, we can focus on an oldie but goodie.
We have to start with one of the oldest, the grandfather of them all, Cheap Charlie’s (11 5th St. NW).
To drive up and park in front, the structure looks like the next strong wind might take it out, were the pig on the roof not anchoring it down (it doesn’t). First-timers going in might also wonder what they are in for — the décor hasn’t changed much in decades, and the menus are well-worn.
Here, however, is what you get: a hearty, reasonably priced, breakfast and attentive, friendly service. David Tran, the owner and a fixture since 1998, makes sure of that. When not in the kitchen cooking, he’s making customer rounds, mingling and greeting. He is only the third owner in more than 60 years.
The restaurant really is more of a diner, with two long counters and a series of small tables and booths. It has been an active spot since 1955, when Charlie Clark, a Kahler chef in the 1940s, opened it up close to the railroad tracks, not far from its current location. Railroad workers would stop by, grab a bite and then be on their way. Clark would also buy them drinks at a nearby bar but eventually stopped doing that. That’s when he got the nickname Cheap Charlie’s, and it stuck.
The second owner was Richard Chia, who made a few structural changes in an effort to modernize the facility. The popular upstairs dining room, favored by groups who are Saturday morning regulars, had been the Clarks’ apartment. These were also the years when politicians and celebrities would come by. Senator and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and Gov. Wendell Anderson would stop in for coffee when they were in town.
Tran, a Vietnamese refugee, arrived in Rochester in the winter of 1981, barely out of his teens. So determined was he to make a decent life for himself, he took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, including intensive ESL classes. That often meant walking through snow from near Saint Mary’s past the old Kmart to a church where classes were held.
“I only had flip-flops for shoes, so I stopped at restaurants and hotels along the way to warm up,” he said.
To support himself, he took simple jobs in kitchens at hotels, working his way up so eventually he was cooking at the Radisson and the old Hoffman House. In time, he became an assistant manager at Wendy’s, where he said he learned the most about efficiency and running a kitchen.
Tran’s goal had always been to own his own place, so when Cheap Charlie’s became available, he bought it. It has been a successful marriage.
He has literally fed thousands over the years, including retired physician groups and business leaders who gather in the upstairs space.
“Some have been coming here for so long I can get their orders going when I see them coming,” he said.
Tran is there every day, cooking, and proud that everything is made from scratch. While most restaurants around town change up the menu seasonally, not here.
“I might add something, but my customers don’t want something more upscale. They can go other places for that. Here, we serve the basics, and folks expect that. Ninety percent come for breakfast, and we do a great job with that. It’s a specialty,” he said.
He also serves lunch, and while I was there, I saw a delicious-looking plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes being served. In fact, he told me that a customer comes every day for just that.
What about the landmark pig on the roof? That has been standing guard there for over 40 years, having traveled around a bit prior to its current spot. In fact, it was also a kidnapping victim, missing for several years, until it was spotted in the back of a truck by a policeman, then returned. If it could talk, it likely has stories to tell.
A sentence on the back of the menu sums up Cheap Charlie’s: “Where the pig stands, and the locals go.” Open every day from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekends.