Grits and Determination: A Recipe for Success
Sunday, September 3, 2006
To see and hear and smell how America works, go to the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Chesapeake Street NW and step into the Steak 'n Egg Kitchen. The Tenleytown diner is a round-the-clock crossroads for people from all over the world -- all colors and ages and religions and socioeconomic stripes. It's usually accepting, often accommodating, always unlocked.
The tiny place has a red floor, white walls and blue ceiling. There's a "God Bless America" poster on the front window. The menu offers T-bone steaks, corned beef hash, patty melts and breakfast. Everything is served 24/7.
You will also find other things that are not on the menu: the value of hard work, the power of positive thinking, an open-door policy that has functioned well for years.
The hole-in-the-wall diner -- with its 13 black-cushioned stools, a small outdoor patio and a grill not much bigger than your own stove top -- is known by many names: The sign out front says Steak 'n Egg Kitchen. The menu reads Osman & Joe's Restaurant.
But to most folks who know and appreciate the singularity of the place, this is the land of Oz.
It's owned by Osman "Oz" Barrie and Joe Vamboi, transplants from Sierra Leone who took it over in 1997. They didn't put their names on the menu until 1999. "We kept it secret," Barrie says, "being immigrants."
These days, Vamboi spends most of his time at another cafe he owns. Barrie, however, can usually be found at the diner, flipping turkey sausage, making ice-cream sundaes and mopping the floor.
Like America, there are bugs in the system -- and a few flies on the walls. But for the most part, the diner is an exultation of sights, smells, sounds and tastes. It's an eclectic parade of winners and losers with basic dreams and desires. It's slow sometimes; hectic at others.
And usually, it's full of surprises.
Welcome to America
On his first day in the United States, Osman Barrie was robbed at gunpoint.
It was 1990 and Barrie -- who had just graduated from college in Syria -- decided that he did not want to live in his native country, where civil war was erupting. A friend who had moved to Greensboro, N.C., invited him to come to the United States and work on a chicken farm. "They were looking to hire immigrants for low wages," says Barrie, a jovial guy with rounded features, wearing khaki shorts, a Hawaii T-shirt, black Dave & Buster's cap and black sneakers.
When he landed in New York, a cabdriver offered to take him to LaGuardia so he could catch a plane to North Carolina. Instead, the cabbie took Barrie to a dead-end street and pulled a gun on him. "The guy took everything I had," Barrie says.