Life Is Good

Help me out here. Why is the state of Virginia called a commonwealth? And who was Virginia?

And, oh yeah. Do Virginians make crazy omelets like this, with two hamburger patties and a bunch of French fries fighting it out inside?

You ask this kind of question when you’re eating breakfast near midnight, and your omelet is called the Commonwealth, and the owner is a Virginian.

So here’s the scene. Me and Portia and Melissa and Brian the cook and a drunken customer, who says he was in Vietnam, and a photographer guy named Elle Gamboa and his software designer friend Malini are all sitting up at this counter downing our food, counting our blessings. Like, open eateries are hard to find this time of night.

Portia — think Demi Moore with tattoos — and Melissa (think Melanie Griffith) keep this truly North Park eatery thrumming with lots of jokes and “Hi, hons” and favorite tunes zapping on and off the system. “Oh, turn that up,” Portia says. It’s those Scottish twins, the Proclaimers. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” The drum beat has everybody bouncing up and down on their counter stools and waving their burgers left and right. Me, I’m scarfing this omelet that thinks it’s a burger and swilling it down with range cawfee. Okay, drip coffee, but Hills Brothers, for sure. Feel like a character in that Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks — remember that lonely late-night diner in NYC? Except this diner is far from lonely. In here, life is good.

For all this I thank the Number 2 bus. I was headed for 30th and University when I spotted this ’50s-style green-and-white sign right before Myrtle.

I hopped off, crossed 30th, and walked in past a few green plank tables to this bright neon interior. There were more tables inside and green plastic booths, but I made a beeline for a copper-bright crazy-penny counter. A sea of pennies. Melissa, the server, says there’s $1000 worth strewn under the glass top.

But I’m worried about time. “How long have I got before you close?” I ask. “It’s a big menu. I’m a slow reader.”

“Till midnight, hon,” says Melissa. “No hurry, no worry.”

I see she’s got a black T on. Says “Nite Owl.” The Everly Brothers are singing “Be Bop A-Lula.” Portia passes behind Brian, who’s adding cheese slabs to a row of burgers. She gives him a hefty slap on the back. Couple of cheese disks fly straight off his hand and instantly melt on the hotplate. Brian looks around. He’s tall, thin — rangy, in other words. “She slapped the cheeses right out of me,” he says. Everybody laughs.

“Can I nibble on your ears?” says the drunk to Portia, as she herds him out the front door.

Love it. I check the menu. It’s not so ginormous. This is basically Burger City. They have your plain burger at $5.75, a double for two bucks more, a double western burger goes for $8.75, and sliders start at $1.75 each or four for $6.50. Veggie burger’s $6.50, and meat or veggie chili goes for $3.75 a bowl or $7.50 a quart. Texas Football’s $4.50, and Blue Potato — baked potato with bleu cheese — is $5.50. They have gourmet burgers on a board, too — like the California, stuffed, natch, with avocado — and they average around $8.50. Also, their handcut fries come separately, curly or straight, for $2.75.

So, yeah, burger seems like a good idea. Folks chomping into them all ’round say the basic one is plenty big enough. Everybody seems to be holding up floppy, garlicky fries with skins on. Smells delicious. Except, dammit, I want breakfast.

I ask Melissa. “Heck, yes,” she says. “Any way you want it.”

Three eggs, scrambled, with bacon and toast is $5.50. The rest is pretty much omelets. Bacon and cheese is $5.50. Chili cheese goes for $6.50. The last on the list, the Commonwealth, costs $7.50. “But it has two burger patties in it,” Melissa says.

“And potatoes?”

“Well, we could…”

Long and short is she’ll tell Brian up there on the cooking platform to jam some taties in my omelet-that-thinks-it’s-a-burger for good luck. I get a coffee (endless refills, $1.50) and wait for my brekky. This is when I notice the hot-sauce bottles, hundreds of them. “It’s Leighton, our boss,” says Melissa. “He collects them from everywhere. Do you like hot and sweet?”

Mmm, sounds good. I nod. That’s when Brian brings down my oval plate loaded with omelet and buttered wheat toast. And boy, crunchy, meaty, tasty, oniony — this is one mighty omelet. The potatoes really help. Melissa hands me Eaton’s Jamaican Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce. Golden, sweet, hot. Awesome.

I chow, chat with counter neighbors, and the only problem is, that sweet hot sauce left me hankering for more sweetness. So I order a chunk of apple pie, with cream ($3.50). Oh, man. This is definitely homemade. Big slices of apples, scrumbo crumbles, beautiful fresh flavor under a big blob of cream. Honestly, this is good pie.

Now a stool neighbor, Dan, and I are talking commonwealth. Seems that’s what Virginia and three other states (Massachusetts, Kentucky, Pennsylvania) call themselves. I like the democratic idea. Common wealth. But now the name, Virginia?

“The Virgin Queen,” says Dan, as he chomps his chili. “That was Queen Elizabeth I. Common wealth? That Virgin Queen was the ultimate in dictators. Go figure.”

Suddenly I realize Brian and the gals are picking up chairs and putting them upside down on tables. Wow. That late? This has been a long breakfast.

“I’ll be back in the morning,” I say. “For dinner.”

The Place: Commonwealth Cafe, 3408 30th Street, North Park, 619-295-2233

Type of Food: American

Prices: Three scrambled eggs with bacon, toast, $5.50; bacon, cheese omelet, $6.00; Commonwealth omelet (two hamburger patties inside), $7.50; burger, $5.75; double burger, $7.75; sliders, $1.75 each, four for $6.50; veggie burger, $6.50; meat or veggie chili, $4.25 bowl, $7.75 quart; Blue Potato (baked potato, bleu cheese), $5.50; hand-cut fries, curly or straight, $2.75; apple pie, $3.50

Hours: 12:00 noon–12:00 midnight, seven days; opens 8:00 a.m. weekends

Buses: 2

Nearest Bus Stop: 30th at Myrtle

[2009 Editor's Note: Commonwealth Café has since closed.]

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