Sweet, cushiony cakes in National City

“The aunt of the first owner. It’s her secret recipe we use for our pancakes, still.”

All this for $3.99, Monday through Friday.
  • All this for $3.99, Monday through Friday.

"Attack of the Killer Pancake. Now Showing.”

Painting of National City in the ’40s at the welcome desk

Painting of National City in the ’40s at the welcome desk

It’s this movie-house marquee in a painting that hangs above the welcome desk. I’m in this very ’60s coffee house. All stone, glass, and wood. Just got in in time. Aunt Emma’s Pancakes is basically a breakfast place. Open 6 a.m.–2 p.m. That gives me all of 15 minutes.

The painting? It shows National City back in the ’40s, by the look of the cars. They’re all angle-parked around the “National Theater,” the one with that crazy movie.

Symbologist Gallery

2060 Logan Avenue, Suite C, Barrio Logan

Aunt Emma's Pancakes

700 E Street, Chula Vista

“Well, Aunt Emma’s has been going since 1959,” says Ariana, one of the managers, when she sees me staring closely at it. “Except the original restaurant is in Chula Vista. We’ve had this place six years. It used to be Keith’s.”

Keith’s Family Restaurant? Oh, yeah. Remember passing that place.

Sixties architecture — ideal for a cold, rainy day

Sixties architecture — ideal for a cold, rainy day

Another waitress, Gina, puts a big plastic menu in my mitts here at the long counter. I’m sweating the time. But the place is still buzzing with customers. So, pancakes? Basic buttermilk short stack (3 pancakes) is $5.99. Full stack (5) is $6.99. Then, sky’s the limit, flavorwise. Coconut ($6.00) chocolate ($7.39), banana nut ($7.69) Hawaiian ($6.99), potato ($6.99), peanut butter ($7.39) bacon and caramel ($8.29), on and on. Crêpes like the Manhattan (with sour cream and apricot syrup — yum) average maybe a buck higher. Waffles, a buck further. Chicken and waffle costs $10.99. Waffle with two eggs, two bacon, two sausage costs $10.59.

Or, you can eat pancake-free, like two eggs with hash browns or, say, fresh fruit ($6.79). “Big Breakfast” ($10.99) has two eggs, two bacon, two sausage and ham. Chicken-fried steak and eggs runs $10.49 and steak (8-ounce New York strip) and eggs is at the top at $12.49.

“So, what did you have?” I say to the gent on my right.

“Number five,” he says. “Can’t beat it.”

Number five? Don’t see it on the menu.

“Oh,” says Gina. And she goes off and brings back a glossy little card.

“Breakfast Specials.”

Wow. What a difference. Prices here go from $3.99 all the way up to, uh, $4.99.

Seriously, these look like bargains. For number one’s price of $3.99, you get two eggs, two pancakes, and two bacon or sausage. Deal! The other three specials all cost $4.99. Number two is a two-egg omelet any style — chicken fajita, nopal, California, Denver, Greek, whatever, plus two pancakes. Number four is french toast, one egg, and two strips of bacon. And number five is two biscuit halves covered with sausage gravy along with an egg and hash browns.

But — and this is weird — they only have item numbers one, two, four, and five. No number three.

“Number three was delinquent and ran away,” says Homara, one of the waitresses. Everyone giggles.

Whatever, I order the number one and a coffee. Total, $6.48, plus tax. Deal.

The breakfast burger is yuge. Bacon, eggs, hash browns, and healthy onions.

The breakfast burger is yuge. Bacon, eggs, hash browns, and healthy onions.

Of course, as fate would have it, Homara walks by carrying this giant burger and sizzling stack of onion rings. Says it’s a breakfast burger. Comes with bacon, egg, hash browns, all stuffed inside the burger, on top of a half-pound patty.

Dang. Looks too delish. But, could share this with Carla back at the ranch. I ask for one to go. Ayee! This turns out to cost $10.89. So instead of $6.48, I’m suddenly spending $17.37. Plus tax, $18.89. Plus tip.

But first, have to say, my number-one breakfast special is truly value for money. I get the eggs over-easy. And when I ask for some strawberries to add color to the pancakes, they throw them in, along with a sexy splot of cream on top. I pour the golden syrup, and we’re squelching our way through sweet, savory, cushiony cakes and crispy bacon. It’s a plentiful fill for breakfast. And $3.99. Turns out these specials only happen Monday to Friday.

Now I sit, waiting for the breakfast burger, and listen to the waitresses asking cooks for bacon pancakes and Oreo cookie milkshakes (they’re $3.89), and the clinking of dishes as others shelve fresh-washed saucers.

Angie, who manages this place, has just ordered herself a ginormous meal. “Been on my feet eight hours,” she says. “Time for replenishment.”

Angie’s chicken and salad

Angie’s chicken and salad

She gets sautéed chicken, salad, a ham/cheese/tomato sandwich, cream of mushroom soup, pumpkin crêpes. Wow.

Ariana comes over to chat with Angie.

Aunt Emma's pumpkin crêpes

Aunt Emma's pumpkin crêpes

I have to ask. Was there a real Aunt Emma?

“Definitely,” says Ariana. “The aunt of the first owner. It’s her secret recipe we use for our pancakes, still.”

“Can you tell me the recipe?”

Ariana glares at me.

Ariana, Angie, and Angie’s lunch

Ariana, Angie, and Angie’s lunch

“You need to be careful with Ariana,” says Angie. “She’s a fighter.”

Turns out this is true. Ariana is an actual boxer.

“I love it because it mentally relieves me of all the stress that builds up during my day,” she says.

As I walk out, I’m already dreaming of my next visit to pancakeland. And it’s gonna start with that wicked bacon-and-caramel combo.

Carla and I share the breakfast burger for dinner. Oh, man. All those hash browns stuffed in with the bacon and egg and the half pound of beef. It is enough for the both of us. Carla’s complaint? “Too much together for a distinct flavor.”

I respect her judgment. She’s the burgermeister around here. (I thought it was pretty delish.)

Aunt Emma's Pancakes

700 E Street, Chula Vista

Aunt Emma's Pancakes

214 National City Boulevard, National City

Hours: 6:00 a.m.–2 p.m., daily

Prices: Buttermilk pancake short stack (3), $5.99; coconut pancakes, $6.00; chocolate pancakes, $7.39; banana nut pancakes, $7.69; Hawaiian pancakes, $6.99; potato pancakes, $6.99; bacon and caramel pancakes, $8.29; Manhattan crêpes (3), with sour cream, apricot syrup, $7.49; chicken and waffle, $10.99; waffle, 2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 sausage, $10.59; “Big Breakfast,” (2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 sausage, ham), $10.99; steak and eggs, $12.49; breakfast specials (Monday to Friday only) include #1, 2 eggs, 2 pancakes, 2 bacon or sausage, $3.99; #2 (2-egg omelet any style, 2 pancakes), $4.99; #5 (biscuits and sausage gravy, egg, hash browns, $4.99

Bus: 929

Nearest Bus Stop: National City Boulevard at 2nd Street

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