Potato Shack Café

120 W. I Street, Encinitas

Encinitas. Hour to kill before the Coaster. Spotted these giant ficus trees. They’re the kind you see in National Geographic, strangling ancient cities. Then I noticed a little ol’ building huddled under them, and a sign.

“The Potato Shack.”

Huh. Potatoes. I was jes’ hearing they can actually be good for you. As good as broccoli or Brussels sprouts, if you eat ’em right, meaning, with skin and sans gunk. Packed with vitamin C, B6, high fiber. Plus they’re from here, and from Central and South America. Locals have been doing fine eating them for — can you believe? — 7000 years. Baked, skin on, and with, say, olive oil or roasted garlic, they’re a health plus.

I come in past Spuds — the little potato mascot, flanked by a big Stars and Stripes and a red Marine flag — and look for a seat inside ’cause it’s a little chilly on the sidewalk today. Inside’s crowded. Bunch of firemen just about fill one room. The other has patches of everybody, from church guys yakking about how non-Bible songs are creeping into their services, to surfers gathering after a morning on the waves, to this bunch of gals united by one fact: they all have 14-year-old daughters. Lots of laffs.

“How ’bout here?” says Chris, one of the two waitresses. She sits me at a tree trunk. Okay, it’s a table made of a two-inch-thick polished slice of a redwood trunk. Beautiful. She leaves a menu. I order coffee ($2.25, unlimited refills), then start reading. At 9:00 in the morning, we’re talking breakfast. Even so, I was all set to order a simple, healthy baked potato with garlic when this guy nearby opens up. “Best chicken-fried steak I’ve had, honest!” he calls to Tracy, the other waitress. “Twice as thick as other places. And I’m from Fresno.”

I search the menu, and there it is, under Specialty Breakfasts. “A” is a choice of top sirloin steak, chicken breast, chicken-fried steak, or two pork chops. All come with two eggs, a pancake or toast, and “American Fries,” $10.75. “B” is two strips of bacon, one sausage patty, two eggs, fries, and toast ($7.75). And “C” is one pancake or two slices of french toast with two eggs, two strips of bacon or one sausage patty ($7.75). You can replace toast with biscuits and gravy for $1.50 more.

I signal Chris. “I’ll have the chicken-fried steak with steamed eggs and squaw-bread toast…and American Fries.”

The hell of it is, the menu says the “Plain American Fries are all-you-can-eat! Just ask for seconds!” Also — this is so cool — “At the Potato Shack you can split ANY order at no charge!”

There were plenty of other breakfast possibilities, like three-egg omelets starting at $6.50 and “Man Hole Cover Size Pancakes” — $5 for plain, with, like, blueberry or chocolate chip for a couple more bucks. Spuds get a whole page, starting with American Fries. “We dice red potatoes fresh daily, boil, cool, then sauté until golden brown in canola oil that’s cholesterol-free,” unless you want them deep-fried, and you can get that, too. It’s $5 for a plain plateful (with unlimited refills). Sweet potato fries go for $6.75. Then, at a buck-20 each, you can add everything from pepper-jack cheese to broccoli to sausage gravy.

Hmm…I ask Chris to add mushrooms and feta cheese to my fries.

It’s a nice, warm place, with some walls painted butter-yellow and others paneled with dark varnished timber. Military paintings hang above the booths. One is of the first USS Constellation (painted for its bicentenary, 1797–1997), all sails set. Another shows the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima.

They have painted wooden hanging signs, too: “Do you want to talk to the man in charge, or to the woman who knows what’s going on?” “Children left unattended and running will be towed away at the owner’s expense.”

So, yes, I blow the health thing. But this is one helluva breakfast. The steak smothers the American Fries, the country gravy smothers the breaded steak, and the eggs mess in great. It’s tender, tasty, and plentiful, just as the gent from Fresno said. Plus, those mushrooms and feta certainly tang up my, uh…American Fries? Wow. Wonder if this is part of that “freedom fries” kerfuffle from back in ’03, when the French opposed the Iraq attack.

But, no. “They were called ‘American Fries’ by the first owners in 1983,” says Scott, who’s wandering among his customers. “We just kept the name.” He and his dad Jim are co-owners. “Dad bought it in 1988.” Jim, who coaches high school football these days, was a Marine officer in the Vietnam era (that explains the flag outside), and he swore only one thing when he got out: that he’d never buy a restaurant.

Don’t know why, but I leave feeling charged with energy. Blame the potatoes? Who knows, maybe they’re gonna be the new açai.”

The Place: The Potato Shack, 120 West I Street, Encinitas, 760-436-1282
Type of Food: American
Prices: top sirloin breakfast steak, two eggs, pancake or toast, “American Fries,” $10.75; chicken breast, chicken-fried steak, or two pork chops with same sides, $10.75; two strips of bacon, sausage patty, two eggs, fries, and toast, $7.75; pancake or two slices of french toast, two eggs, two bacon or one sausage patty, $7.75; three-egg omelet, fries, toast, $6.50; “Man Hole Cover”–size pancakes, $5, plain; blueberry, chocolate chip, $6.25; American Fries, $5 (unlimited refills); sweet potato fries, $6.75; baked potato, $4.75; California chicken lunch sandwich, $9.50; mahi sandwich, $9.25; Tuscan salad with teriyaki chicken, $9.50
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. (till 2:30 p.m., weekends)
Bus: 101
Nearest Bus Stop: Highway 101 at H Street
Train: Coaster
Nearest Train Stop: Encinitas, at E Street (four blocks north)

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