Hungry patrons of the Pel' Meni eatery have their choice of dumplings, dumplings or dumplings.
There's only one menu item and it's always $5. The restaurant is open only for lunch and very late-night dinner, but customers line up at Pel' Meni to get the Russian dumplings served just about any way they like them.
The Russian dumpling is a pasta shell covering a lump of sirloin, with a spicy secret sauce on top, sour cream and fresh Russian rye bread. Pel' meni translated literally is something fairly unappetizing, said Dave Bonk, co-owner of Pel' Meni, but its loose interpretation is the basis of his eatery: The people's food.
"This isn't a candlelight place where you have to whisper so no one will hear you or where you're afraid to burp," Bonk said. "And there's only one thing on the menu because you can only do one thing really good. I touch every dumpling that goes out of this place. I have to put my heart and soul into it and you can only do that with one thing."
Pel' Meni's hours
Pel' Meni is known for its odd hours and its late-night dinner crowd. The following are the hours of operation.
Dinner 6 p.m.- 1:30 a.m.
Lunch 12-2 p.m.
Dinner 6 p.m.-3:30 a.m.
Late dinner 10 p.m.-3:30 a.m.
Late dinner 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Advertising is by word of mouth at Pel' Meni. It has a small sign above its door, but that's not what tells people it's there, said Drew Gruening, 17, who heard about it through a friend a year ago.
Gruening said people know the place by the smell of dumplings in the hall. They know it by the sounds of scratched Cat Stevens' records on an ancient record player in the corner or by the sounds of debates on whether a late-night bank or spare-free bowling is a better business proposition, he said.
"I've skipped doing homework to come here and eat. I got hooked," he said. "The food's excellent but it's the atmosphere. You get every variety in here. You get the people who aren't afraid to tell you what they think. You get the shy people and some who'll argue something they don't know anything about. People will just start talking to you even if you don't know them. But we all have this one thing in common. We all love Pel' Meni's."
Bonk was working for the U.S. Forest Service when he and his wife, Jeannine, met Pel' Meni's former owner Chip Levis in the summer of 1999.
"We were his first customers that night," Bonk said. "We walked in and Chip said to me, 'I prayed the person who would take over my restaurant would walk in. And you did.' So I said, 'Great, give me an order.' "
The Bonks bought the eatery. The first day open, the Bonks had three customers and he was worried.
"I thought, 'Oh no, did I make a terrible mistake? Did I only buy this place because I like the dumplings and I could eat them whenever I wanted to?' "
Three years later, with lines of people out the door and plans to expand across the country, Bonk has a different attitude.
"This is a blessing. No, it's better than a blessing; it's a gift. This was just given to me and I'm not going to waste it, I'm going to do something with it," he said.
However, he said eventually he wants to be able to have someone else run the store in Juneau so he can "stay home and color" with his daughters Maya, 4, and Saila, 5, as well as his stepson Jacob, 17.
Bonk's plan for Pel' Meni includes a chain of dumpling joints in small communities across the country. He said in October he and his wife will fly to Maui, Washington and Florida offering Pel' Meni franchises to whoever wants to buy them. He said his dream is to dethrone the burger giants and late-night eateries across the country with homemade dumpling ammunition.
"This isn't a restaurant. At a restaurant you're cooking 100 things and you never look up from what you're doing. You don't get to see people's faces when they eat your food," he said.
"It's a relationship. We get to look people in the eye, talk to them and get to know them. That's the fun and that's what people miss out there. It's the 'something' people are looking for."
Melanie Plenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.