Aunt Emma's Pancakes

700 E Street, Chula Vista




She comes up, swings her -- What do you call it? Caboose? Back porch? Tush? LZ? -- whatever onto a stool, flicks back a lavish, '40s-style mane of wavy black hair, and bathes in the swoons of admiration escaping from the rest of the diners -- all men -- seated here at the semicircular counter. She's like a Lorelei.

At least, that's the way I read it. If this had been a straight counter, half of us would never have noticed her. Yeah. Let's blame our heartache on Robert Roland. He's the guy who started up this joint in 1959. Or maybe it's his Aunt Emma's fault. She's the lady who inspired the entire restaurant.

It's a miracle I found Aunt Emma's at all. I mean, I love you, Chula Vista, but you don't love us walkers. Admit it: You're bought and paid for by Detroit. What other explanation?

I got off the trolley at H Street, thinking I'd find some eatery I hadn't been to before, to, like, breakfast. I walked up to Broadway, was told by this gas-station worker to look on Third, three "blocks" up. Guess he thought I had a car. Man! Wanna know why your streets are so deserted? Because your blocks are bigger than some states back East.

I must have made a wrong turn. I ended up on E. Guy at a bus stop took pity. "There's a breakfast place down by the trolley," he said. "Ask for Aunt Emma."

"Do they do lunch too?" I asked, just in case.

By the time I arrive at Aunt Emma's, I'm so thin, I don't even have to open the swing doors to get through. But inside -- what an oasis. It has that stone-painted brick-timber look that makes you think "Fifties," and is all abuzz. Hostess leads me over the blue-green carpet, past a sea of busy tables and booths to the counter at the back. It's a sort of Hollywood Bowl, with an orange-red mosaic, populated by a semi-circle of gents, chowing into their pancakes, glancing at their papers.

I climb aboard a stool.

"Coffee?"

It's Annie. Maroon tee, black slacks.

I nod, too weak to speak. All that walking -- trolley, Anza Borrego, just about, then back to the trolley. I'm pooped. She comes right up with a cup and my own coffee pitcher. Love it. Soon I'm gluggin'. Coffee starts to course through my veins. That's when the Lorelei comes in. It's like Delilah cutting your hair. I'm all weak again. Can hardly hold up the big, glossy menu.

"It's always pancake time at Aunt Emma's," it says. And yes, they look good. Very Happy Days. Coconut pancakes go for $4.49 short stack (3 cakes) or $5.79 full stack (5 cakes). Oh boy. They have potato pancakes with sour cream or applesauce ($4.49/$5.79), peanut butter pancakes ($4.79/$6.29), cajeta crêpes (topped with cajeta, Mexican milk caramel, pecans, and cream, $5.29 for two). And of course they have other stuff, like French toast ($4.49, or $5.29 with bacon or sausage links), eggs (two "any style" with, say, hash browns or rice and a couple of buttermilk pancakes run $4.19), or omelets. The Californian ($6.79) comes with sausage, avocado, and jack cheese (same sides).

"Don't forget the specials," says Annie.

Oh, right. Looks as if they have two, at $3.49 each: two eggs any style, two pancakes, two sausages or bacon; or a two-egg omelet "any style," with two pancakes.

"You mean, I can have any omelet on the menu?"

"Sure," says Annie.

Wow. What a deal. "Ho-kay," I say. "I'll have the Californian."

"And if you want to upgrade your pancake, you can do that for $1.25 more."

Fact is, I'd had my beady eye on the chocolate pancake ($4.79/$6.29 as a stand-alone), "topped with chocolate chips, powdered sugar, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream." Never imagined I could get it through the special.

"Deal," I say.

It's all as good as it sounds. The full-size omelet bulges with chopped sausage, avo, and sprinklings of cheese. Nice salsa. The chocolate pancakes look like Granny, dressed up for a hoedown.

"Syrup?"

"Of course."

"Which?"

"There's more than one?"

"Maple. Boysenberry. Apricot. Coconut."

Lady who's come to sit on my left tries not to laugh when Annie clanks all the syrups down in front of me. Melanie. She squeezes in, not without difficulty. "I'm five months pregnant," she says. Turns out she's a jazz singer and karaoke sound technician. Loves Billie Holiday. Her favorite song? She gives a winning smile. "'God Bless the Child.'"

Huh. There's a beauty in a woman when she's about to have a child. She is the universe. She is time, hope, a fragile goddess, the giver of life. She makes us males look like stagehands.

Also, Melanie's ordering something close to my heart: biscuits and gravy ($4.39). "This is what I come here for," she says, attacking it. Must be a pregnancy craving. In what seems like two minutes flat, she's demolished the plate and left.

Man. I'm overstuffed. I've hardly looked up from the plate. But I wonder now where the Lorelei is. Oh no. She's getting up, too. She leaves without a glance back. Suddenly, the whole counter section feels empty. We're all poor pathetic drones once again, trapped in a world of newspapers and coffee.

Well, not quite.

"How was it?" says Annie.

I think about that question. And, actually, it was great. This generous place hasn't lost its '50s style. Maybe that's what makes you feel, just for a moment, like, say, the Fonz. Important.

Except the Fonz never had to walk megablocks to find his hangout.

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