Standing adjacent to a motel of the same name for more than five decades, Cameo Cafe exudes an honest, often imitated, never replicated type of cool that is rapidly going extinct in Portland. Each morning starting at 6:30 a.m., Roseway neighborhood locals and Cameo devotees from far-flung corners of the city duck through the diner’s sliding-glass door, plastered with photos and old restaurant menus, in pursuit of coconut waffles and kimchi omelets.
In the dining room, the worn floral wallpaper and cottagecore decor give the space a homey feel and familiarity, with Portland-esque kitsch: Paper umbrellas and ornaments hang from the diner’s chandeliers, and a planter filled with faux greenery glows with Christmas lights. On any given day, longtime waitress Katie Currier ferries plates piled with pancakes — bindaetteok or blueberry — from the open kitchen, sporting novelty shirts stamped with quips like “I forgot your ranch... on purpose” and “The WiFi password is don’t call me sweetie.” Often, at the center of the dining room, owner Sue Gee Lehn can be found holding court, chatting with generations of regulars and dropping off bottles of house-made raspberry jam and hot sauce at the tables.
Traces of Lehn and her family are scattered across the diner. A framed candid of Lehn’s daughter, Kimberly, sitting with former president Barack Obama at the White House, where she served as associate director for East Asia on the National Security Council, appears pride of place next to the counter that runs the length of the dining room. Snapshots of Lehn’s grandchildren are interspersed with tchotchkes throughout the dining room, and portraits of beaming beauty queens memorialize the 16 years Lehn served as a judge of the Miss Oregon pageant.
Before Lehn took over, Cameo Cafe was not much more than a motel diner with a five-item menu. And before Cameo Cafe, Lehn was no restaurateur. An immigrant from South Korea, she dabbled in various things, ranging from hosting trade shows to working as an interior designer. However, over time, Lehn imparted enough of her charm and creativity to the space to make it a truly iconic Portland restaurant. The diner’s introduction of Korean dishes to its ’90s-era Portland menu made it a quiet trailblazer in the city’s restaurant scene. And now, its blend of Korean staples and diner standbys have become a quintessential part of Portland’s dining world, a recontextualized Americana true to Lehn and the city at large.
The Cameo opened in 1969 as a utilitarian hamburger-and-milkshake spot. Lehn and many Portlanders know little else about its early years — much of its pre-Lehn history has been lost to time. But when Lehn took over the restaurant in 1992, she and the cafe experienced a second act. “My husband said I’d be good in real estate, but between the language [barrier] and different culture, I didn’t have any confidence,” says Lehn. “But I’m a good cook — I thought, ‘Maybe I could do the hamburger business.’”
When Lehn saw a for-sale ad for the Cameo in the Oregonian, she decided to jump at the opportunity. Despite having no prior restaurant experience and filing for personal bankruptcy around the same time, she bought the Cameo and the land it sits on with a $100,000 down payment pooled from her family. “I invited [previous owner] Alice Smith to my house,” Lehn says. “I made a Korean dinner and asked if she would trust me with her restaurant.”
When Lehn took over, she took on multiple roles, from cooking and waitressing to busing and washing dishes. Since she moved to the U.S. from Seoul as an adult, she’d never eaten many of the dishes she now serves, including pancakes and French toast. Despite this, she transformed the once modest menu to include a laundry list of diner classics, particularly griddle standards. “The Cameo brand is large [portions] — pancakes, omelets — it’s satisfaction,” Lehn says.
But she wasn’t content with just eggs and bacon. From the beginning, she strove to include more of her cultural foods on the menu. In the ’90s, Portland was home to few, if any, explicitly Korean restaurants; within the city’s restaurant world, Korean flavors first emerged on menus at delis like Taste Tickler or teriyaki shops like Du’s — both of which opened after Cameo Cafe. Lehn started with dishes she felt would be appealing, like chicken and bulgogi stir-fries, rather than launching straight into fermented foods. “Maybe people don’t like kimchi and say ‘it smells bad,’ you know?” Lehn says. “So I didn’t even try.”
Eventually, kimchi did make it onto the menu. About five years into running the Cameo, Lehn decided to give kimchi samples to all the diners, imploring them to give it a try and issuing assurances that she wouldn’t be mad if they didn’t like it. The overwhelmingly positive response encouraged her to cook budae-jjigae, or Korean army stew, here called the “spicy soldier soup bowl.” The dish was created in postwar Korea with the surplus of processed meats salvaged from American military bases. It hits close to home for Lehn, who was born five years prior to the start of the Korean War. Meat was a luxury reserved for special occasions. “We were poor, and after the war had to figure out how to feed everyone with limited ingredients,” Lehn says.
Today, the menu at Cameo is a natural blend of both Korean and diner standbys. For instance, the slogan “Home of the acre pancake” is emblazoned on the diner’s outdoor awning, and indeed, fluffy, dinner plate-size pancakes are available here, plain and in flavors like apple, blueberry, or banana. But Cameo is also home to a very different pancake: In contrast to its Western counterpart, the Korean bindaetteok is made with a mung bean batter that holds a confetti of julienned vegetables. True to diner form, it comes with two strips of bacon and two eggs your way. The fusion pancake, a Lehn original, combines American and Korean cuisines with rice in the batter and a crust of cheddar cheese.
As an American entrepreneur, Lehn has been able to achieve things that would have been nearly impossible for a woman in postwar South Korea. Back then, women rarely went to college, and the small percentage who entered the workforce were relegated to clerical jobs. Despite attaining a college degree, Lehn was “ineligible” for those jobs because she was a married woman. After a brief stint selling eggs, Lehn went on to land a job at Hankook Ilbo, a daily newspaper where she worked her way up from newspaper press operator to copy editor, but then left her country in pursuit of better opportunities for herself and her son.
There were four locations at the height of the Cameo empire. A few years after taking over the original, she bought her second restaurant, Cameo West, located in a converted Victorian house on NW Westover Road, but Lehn sold it when her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. Lehn even expanded the Cameo to Busan, South Korea; the outpost was run by her sister until COVID shuttered it. Today, only the original location and a second cafe and bar in Vancouver remain. Lehn continues to spend her mornings bouncing between both locations, joking with regulars in her signature suede fedora.
While being a diner owner wasn’t Lehn’s original plan, her career seems almost preordained. Lehn has always considered eggs the symbols of her life: She’s raised chickens since she was a teenager, and as a young woman, she sold eggs to markets around Seoul to earn a living, schlepping them on a two-hour bus ride from the countryside to the city. Now, at age 77, she’s come full circle. Chickens are nestled in a coop outside the Cameo. And she’s still slinging eggs; except now, she serves them sunny side up. “I’m still in the egg business,” Lehn says. “That’s my life.”
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Cameo Cafe is not in Montavilla.