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College Perk may be the first hippie coffeehouse owned by an ex-military man. Chris Gordon is a former U.S. Army Ranger who, by his own admission, sometimes had to perform the “small, unnecessary portion” of his special ops job. He doesn’t like to spell it out, but Jon Davis, manager of Gordon’s grungy mud hut in College Park, has no such compunction. “He killed people, if you want to know,” Davis says.
If you want to know, Gordon’s résumé does more than drip red, white, and blood. It also gushes oil. Before he and fiancée Brewer Thompson opened Perk in 2003, Gordon worked for a company that built small, makeshift hospitals for Fortune 500 oil companies drilling for black gold in various Godforsaken corners of the globe. At one site in Vietnam, while screaming to get construction back on schedule, Gordon realized he needed to, in the language of his peacenik coffeehouse, change his karma. He decided, right there, to become a doctor.
But Gordon never made it to med school. He got sidetracked by an opportunity to serve mankind another way: by serving them coffee and single-herb teas with medicinal qualities. Talk about the hippie ideal of changing the world one person at a time.
If seedy college-town coffeehouses share certain characteristics—a love for retro psychedelia, sandwiches with silly names, and free wireless—they’re also all separated by their stories. When you walk up the steep stairs at College Perk, stroll past some slug lying supine in an old dentist’s chair on the front porch, and get your first glimpse at the décor inside, one thought leaps immediately to mind: What the hell happened here? Turns out the place is full of tales.
Start with the hardwood floors. Dark and discolored, they look as if someone scraped 30 years of paint and bird shit off them, which someone actually did. Before he and Thompson bought the decrepit house, it was “an exotic-bird house, where they sold parrots and macaws.…There were bird droppings from 20, 30 years earlier,” Gordon says. “It has a hardwood floor, but they had painted over it probably 20, 50 times, I don’t know.…It took three days of straight sanding with 18-grit sandpaper, which is like big rocks glued on paper.”
In part because the Perk’s gravel parking lot and kitchen are not large enough to handle crowds, Gordon and Thompson converted the top floors of the house, as well as the cottages in back, into rental units. University of Maryland instructors, students, and even a professional gambler live there, which gives the place a steady supply of customers—who sometimes walk downstairs and into the kitchen as if it were their own.
This collision of tenants, customers, and employees leads to some inevitable collusions on the menu, each with its own story. A firefighter created the Flaming Chas spicy chicken sandwich ($7.95) with barbecue sauce. A former chef, now working for Sysco, helped refine several of the finishing sauces. A nefarious character who always asked for water and quarters for the pool table now has a three-cheese sandwich named after him—despite the fact that he once tried to rob the joint.
Even Davis, the manager who goes by “CoCo,” has his own bit of real estate on the menu. It’s an “anything goes,” build-your-own sandwich section called CoCo’s Hot Tub, a tribute to the parties that Davis hosts. After these blowouts, Davis says, “There’s always something, like roast beef or filet mignon or corn or something, in the hot tub.” CoCo’s not kidding about the concept. One evening, I bit into my friend’s otherwise mouthwatering roast-beef sandwich ($7.95), which she constructed from the Hot Tub menu, and pulled a plastic bread-bag tab from my mouth.
But that’s the risk you take with College Perk, where the evidence of professional culinary experience is as ephemeral as bong smoke. The joint has no consistency and a number of wack-job ideas. The freshly squeezed lemonade ($2.25) can be perfectly tart one day, and taste like sugar water the next. The Nature Boy Sean vegetarian sandwich ($7.95) comes sprinkled with brunoise carrots, making this cheesy concoction taste as if someone dipped it in vegetable soup. The titular ingredient in the smoked oyster platter ($7.95) comes out of a can and looks like ball bearings in motor oil. They don’t taste much better, either.
What’s surprising, considering the lack of a professional chef here, is the care and skill with which a number of sandwiches are constructed. The chicken-and-brie Don Carlos ($7.95), a combination guaranteed to seduce just about anyone, becomes irresistible with the application of an apricot vinaigrette, which tarts up the creamy interior. Even better is Derek’s Fruitbat ($7.95), a chicken-salad sandwich on a buttery croissant, which comes studded with red grapes, walnuts, and large slices of red apple. The Fruitbat is a bitch to eat, given that its chunky ingredients tend to flee from their crescent-shaped hideaway. But if you manage to cram everything in your mouth at once, the result is a richly layered sandwich that begins to blow College Perk’s cover: The place, you realize, is not just a simple, trippy coffeehouse after all.
College Perk, 9078 Baltimore Ave., College Park, (301) 982-0587. —Tim Carman
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