After about a year of construction, permit-acquisition, inspections, and menu-finessing, Ran Yun opened up Café Andamiro (241 W. Chase St.,  453-9314, facebook.com/CafeAndamiroBmore) in a sunny, cozy corner spot on Chase Street in Mount Vernon last September. It was the same week that her eldest daughter (and the café's general manager) Bomin Jeon began her senior year at MICA.
"That first week kinda went by and I was too focused on this—I would constantly call my mom like, what's going on, is it okay? Is there people?" Bomin says, laughing.
The café—housed in the first floor of what was the GLCCB's headquarters from 1980 to 2014—is small, but feels spacious thanks to the large windows on the front and side of the building. A clean, minimalist aesthetic with white walls and black-and-white checkered floors and lamps whose shapes recall funnels, bells, and bowls, plus a rotation of art on the walls (usually made by the café's employees, most of whom are also artists) and bright flowers and houseplants all help to open it up, too.
"For [my mom] it's really important for the space to feel cozy, and for a person to feel like they're welcome to stay however long they want, eat their meal and not feel awkward or feel the gaze of other people," Bomin says. (Full disclosure: Bomin is a friend of mine. And since I do not speak Korean and Ran doesn't speak much English, Bomin is translating for us.)
Ran raised her family in Seoul, South Korea, where she worked as a graphic designer. She grew up learning traditional Korean cooking from her mother, and whenever she traveled around for work, she took notes on all the different kinds of food she enjoyed, some of which she now riffs on for the menu at Café Andamiro—especially Italian food; paninis, pesto, and pasta feature prominently among the café's offerings.
Ran and her family moved to the U.S. in 2008, partly because she felt that the education system in Korea was too focused on college prep, and not enough on developing kids' personalities, passions, and hobbies. The U.S. might be less stifling in that way for her kids, she thought.
They settled for a while in rural Illinois, and then Bomin moved to Baltimore in 2012 to attend MICA. As a city, Baltimore didn't feel nearly as frenzied as Seoul did, Bomin says, nor was it as isolated as Mahomet, Illinois, so her mom and siblings (Bokeum, 20, who's also now a MICA student; and Bokyo, 18) moved to Maryland two years later.
Ran had an idea of what kind of environment she wanted to create and what food she wanted to serve before she first saw this location in 2015. Otherwise, she pretty much started from scratch to open the café—the inside was gutted when she saw its potential. Though it meant more work and a delayed opening day, Ran wanted to build out and design the space to her liking.
Now, the family works together to run the place: Ran plans the menu and prepares the food, all day every day; Bomin takes care of administrative things; Bokeum takes care of finances and other number-oriented things; Bokyo, along with his siblings and the handful of other employees, interacts with customers and takes orders.
Bomin took a year off school to help her mom open the café. Even for people who were born here, the process of starting a business or opening a restaurant is complex, Bomin says, from negotiating and scheduling with inspectors, landlords, and contractors, and getting everything up to code for every department.
"That process really actually made me think about other immigrant-owned businesses, like, how the hell did they do it? Or how do they start?" Bomin says.
They're still honing the menu and trying things out, and finding a balance between traditional Korean food and what they think might have broader appeal. Bomin says one of their past specials, the chicken ginseng soup ("which is very traditional Korean," she says) was more popular among non-Korean customers.
"This is really tricky for us because we come from a different country so we don't really understand what's standard taste, or like a popular taste that most people can enjoy," Bomin says. "We don't wanna serve something that tastes really esoteric. So we're always trying to see and balance and always check with other people, and all the workers get to try the working, developing menus because most of them are American."
I have stopped at the café for coffee and lunch several times and it's always been a filling, satisfying treat ("Andamiro," by the way, means "overflowing or bountiful plate of food" in Korean, according to the café's Facebook page). It's the kind of place that's pleasant without trying too hard, and it's friendly but quiet enough to get some work done or talk with your dining companion.
There's not much on the menu currently in the way of a hearty breakfast, but they do have pastries from the local Patisserie Poupon as well as a variety of coffee, tea, and espresso drinks—plus a light, refreshing ginger-lemon tea. They also offer standard sandwiches (roast beef, turkey) and sandwiches with slight twists (mozzarella and sweet pumpkin panini, bulgogi panini), pasta and tuna salads, sweet potato curry soup, along with specials like a house-made hummus plate and a bulgogi platter.
I usually go for their specials, which rotate quarterly. For the Lunar New Year, they served handmade mandu (Korean dumplings—beef or veggie) and ricecake soup. Until recently, they offered bibimbap, the delightful, classic Korean dish that brings together kimchi, veggies, succulent bulgogi, and rice—but hopefully it'll come back sometime. Their current special is a cold buckwheat noodle bowl piled high with sliced carrots, beets, white and red cabbage, chicken, microgreens, and a spicy, tangy sauce. There's also a vegan option, with tofu instead of chicken.
They may consider the menu a work in progress, but my belly and I kinda enjoy that Andamiro has been fairly expansive in its identity, hesitant to tie itself down.
Café Andamiro is open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.