Like a Dinette That Grew

Lake Murray Café

5465 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa

"Kraak!" Wow. This giant bird looks up at me, squawks, flaps, and starts slowly running on water. Across the lake. Four-foot wingspan, I swear. Foot-long beak. What next? Pterodactyls? Actually what's next is a noisy little covey of coots tearing out of the reeds.

It's morning. Early. For me, anyway. Not even eight o'clock. Heading for Hank's place, but I ain't due for another hour. So I'm killing time standing at the end of a lick of land that gradually sinks into Lake Murray. The lake's shiny calm, with a few ruffles of breeze. Couple of fishermen on a distant jetty look like a still-life painting. Mount Cowles reflects upside down in the waters.

The Great Blue Heron -- that's what it has to be -- has skidded into shallows farther along the shore. And I have a decision to make. Walk a bunch around the shore to get a bite at the concession Hank and I once found out here -- see if they have breakfast stuff -- or head back down Kiowa Drive to a place I spotted from the number 14 bus, Lake Murray Café?

Then I think of my friend Charlie, who lives downtown. He told me once how some Lexus-driving friends had taken him up to, yes: the Lake Murray Café. "I got Italian sausage and eggs for breakfast with toast for $4.99!" he said. "That was with a coupon. But the sausage patties were so big, my date brought one home and we made a pizza from it."

Wow. So, no contest. Two minutes later I'm trotting down Lake Murray Boulevard until I arrive at a bunch of cars parked in front of this, like, dinette that grew.

I cross under a canvas awning, through the patio, and into a large dining room. First thing I notice is how many people there are in the sea of blue booths, plus all sorts of crazy art on the walls. Next thing I notice is Charlie's breakfast special on the blackboard. "Italian Sausage and Eggs, $6.99." Hmm. Two bucks more. Guess that's the price if you don't have a coupon. I sit down at the low counter and catch my breath after that half-mile trot.

"So why haven't I seen this place before?" I ask the woman sitting down the counter from me. Penny. Eating a spinachy Florentine omelet and a big bulging banana muffin. "Well, they've only been here two years," Penny says. "But thank goodness they came! We didn't have anything like this around here. See how crowded it is?"

The waitress pours me a coffee ($1.79 with refills) and transfers Penny's menu along to me. I start scanning the two pages of breakfast. See Penny's Florentine omelet costs $7.49. Her muffin as a replacement for toast is 50 cents extra (they're $2.29 on their own). Baked here, she says.

So this is gonna be tough. It's not the cheapest, but I like that all the omelets are four-eggers and topped with shredded cheddar and jack. And that you get toast and jelly or English muffin, or biscuits and gravy, or "toast cakes" (like pancakes, it seems) on the side, plus cottage cheese or hash browns (or, today, anyway, home fries) or fresh fruit. Then they divide the omelets into "meat lovers" (like the "Country," with sausage, onion, potato, and cheese, $7.99) and "veggie lovers" (such as the avocado, feta cheese, and olives, $7.49). They also have scrambles like the "Portuguese Sausage" for $6.99 and Mexican plates like the "Chorizo Scramble" for $7.49.

Best deal has to be the two eggs any style for $3.99, 'cause that includes all those sides.

Lessee. I try to avoid the heavy hitters, like the New York steak and eggs ($10.99) or T-bone steak and eggs ($12.49). I'm thinking of having Charlie's $6.99 Italian sausage and eggs special when -- be still, my heart! -- Dasha, the other waitress, swings by, tall, statuesque, kinda like the heron, and carrying a plate of chicken-fried steak and eggs. Never could resist chicken-fried steak. Even though it's $8.49. I order it and the (included) side of biscuits and gravy, just to make sure I don't starve. And, hey hey! It comes with a way-big steak knife with a wooden handle. Wonderful. The steak's covered in the same gravy as the biscuits. But again, home fries win the MVP award. They are so-o fresh and tasty, with crunchy red and green peppers and onions mixed in. They're 'specially great under the golden ooze of my over-easy egg yolks.

Penny says she's had great fish here. (All the fish dishes are $9.99. "They serve it European-style with the head still on," Penny says.) She says I've got to try the liver and onions early-dinner special ($6.99). Plus the daily "Manager's Special." Today, Thursday, it's pork chops with stuffing, $8.99.

Turns out the owner, Alex, is Serbian-American. Turns out Dasha is Czech-born. And boy, does this gal have guts. She has us listening like frightened kids at how, back in 1984, she hid under tarps in the back of a truck, trying to escape from Czechoslovakia. Guards at the border searched but didn't find her.

We want to hear more, but she has tables to service. "It would need a book to tell the whole story," she says.

Half an hour later I've met up with Hank to help him set up for this video thing he's doing. Telling him about Dasha and her incredible story. "Somehow, she reminded me of that tall heron," I say.

"Funny, 'cause you remind me of...what was that other bird you saw?" says Hank.

"Other bird? Which?"

"The coot, you loon."

"You're a funny guy," I say.

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