Lamar icon Kampus Korner keeps adapting, but doesn’t fix what ain’t broke

Gyros, Chicken Quesadilla, Bobby Patel

Bobby Patel bought Kampus Korner Restaurant in 2009, ran it for a semester and then shut it down for remodeling. Reopened in August 2010 with a new look to accompany the newly rebuilt Rolfe Christopher Drive, this Lamar University icon was completely different, yet somehow the same.

The old-school diner with the antiseptic red-and-white motif is gone, replaced by the chrome and wood more commonly associated with a neighborhood bar, but with muted red accents paying homage to its Cardinal heritage. A full-service bar with 12 taps overlooks a seating area that Patel says diners modify to suit their own needs, pushing tables together or pulling them apart. More comfy bar stools face not the bar but the big windows looking out on a campus that itself has been transformed in recent years.

Farther down from the food counter where you place your order are more seating, pool tables, sofas, four TVs and even a smoking patio — very important considering the restaurant’s proximity to the non-smoking campus. 

“It caters to multiple needs at the same time,” Patel said, with quiet corners and room for large groups.

Across the street from the Maes Building and Cherry Engineering, at the corner of Rolfe Christopher Drive and Colorado Avenue, just a couple blocks from MLK Parkway, Kampus Korner is popular with professors and students, refinery workers and residents of the South Park neighborhood. That’s something that hasn’t changed since Ebrahim Motiee open the restaurant in 1981. But what keeps them coming back?

The gyros, for one. Kampus Korner is known for this Greek sandwich, of sorts, with mixed lamb and beef with onions and tomatoes topped with tzatziki sauce (Google it) made from scratch at the restaurant, all served on a pita. You can get a gyros plate for about $9.

“That recipe has been here unchanged since 1981,” Patel said, passed on by Motiee himself. “That sauce is what makes it.”

And there’s the Chicken Special Sandwich, also on the menu since Day One. The chicken is boiled, deboned, marinated overnight with onion and seasoning, then served on a wheat hoagie with lettuce and tomato. A little spicy, it’s the antithesis of fast food, but at fast-food prices — about $5.50,

“When they come in and order the Chicken Special, I know they’ve been coming since the ’80s,” Patel said.

With that kind of tradition and quality, why branch out, take a risk and try something new? Because you’re missing out.

Take the turkey sandwich, for example. This is no cold-cut compromise, but grilled mesquite turkey served hot with the cheese of your choice (go with the Swiss). The shredded turkey is moist and tasty, and served on a jalapeño bun. Delicious.

Relatively new on the menu are the quesadillas. We tried the chicken. What looked like an ordinary quesadilla had an extraordinary taste. The secret, Patel said, is the mozzarella cheese, instead of the traditional Monterey Jack. And it comes with guacamole, sour cream and pico on the side. At $6, it’s worth your attention.

Sticking with the Mexican theme, we moved on to the fajita plate. Your choice of chicken or beef fajitas is served with grilled onions and peppers, but not with tortillas. In the spirit of Kampus Korner’s famous gyros, the fajitas come with pita bread to wrap it all up for that important plate-to-mouth transition. All that and a salad will set you back about $9.

Kampus Korner customers come from the far corners of Southeast Texas (think Silsbee) for these and other dishes like Philly cheese steaks, pizza and burgers, but few have come so far as Patel himself, a native of India who earned his masters in chemistry at Lamar in 1987. He would move away after graduation, working at Smithkline Beecham in Pennsylvania. But the pull of Beaumont is strong.

“The people here are so nice,” Patel said.

So the chemist came back to Beaumont to engineer himself a fortune selling sandwiches. And it’s going well so far, so well that parking can be a problem at peak hours, which can vary depending on the ebb and flow of university students. But Patel said he has an understanding with the bookstore and bank next door, and his customers can park in their lots. 

So what comes next for Kampus Korner, the steadfast yet adaptable Beaumont bar and grill? Watch for expanded coffee and cappuccino offerings in the near future, and by fall, a burrito and salad line reminiscent of Chipotle.

But always and forever, there’ll be the gyros.