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Jimmy's

1198 Third Avenue, Chula Vista




Watch out, art world. There's a new Picasso on the block.

No, don't worry, it ain't Yours Truly. It's Jimmy Daglas. He's about to pick up his brushes.

Lord knows, he's earned the right.

"This was what I always wanted to do," he says. "I went to art school, I learned fine art and commercial art. I wanted to do [fine] art, but there was no money in it. I had to do something else."

So for 34 years, he ran restaurants. Places called "Jimmy's." At one point there were 17 of them, all over San Diego. I must be the only guy in town who hadn't ever eaten at one.

Until today, that is. As luck would have it, I've been down here at County Health and Human Services on Oxford Street. Trying to get coverage for Carla's rehab, all that physio she's going to need.

After, like, four hours trapped in the bureaucracy, they squeeze me out the other end, hungry as heck. On foot, I'm hitting Third and Oxford, when I notice a sign in a window: "$3.99 Breakfast. $4.99 Lunch. $5.99 Dinner."

It's one of those '60s--'70s places, à la Denny's or Coco's. Tile roof, cream walls with green trim, big windows, troppo plants in the front.

Inside, it's all golden wood, seven-foot-high skirting, green metal-hoop chandeliers, maroon carpet, a river-rock wall. There are flowery booth seats and calming, unchallenging paintings -- roads curling round hillsides, bunches of blooms.

"Hi, Jesse," says the waitress to a thin guy in the next booth. "Usual, right?" He nods, and she steps over to me. "Lunch, or breakfast?" she asks.

I've got two good reasons to go for the breakfast. One, I haven't had breakfast yet; and two, the $3.99 breakfast special is cheaper than the lunch special.

I hesitate 'cause Avelina -- that's her name -- has left me two big plastic-covered menus: lunch/dinner and breakfast. First, I check out those $4.99 lunch possibilities, just so I don't kick myself later. Hmm. Fried chicken salad, tuna salad, spaghetti, hamburger, chicken tenders, or a beef taco with a chicken enchilada. Spaghetti comes with salad, the burger with fries or mash, and chicken tenders come with mash or fries and veggies.

Okay. They look fine. But maybe a bit much for the first chew of the day. I study the $3.99 breakfast special. There's only one choice: two pancakes, two eggs, one bacon, and one sausage.

By the time Avelina comes with a blessed coffee ($1.49), I'm deep into the rest of the morning menu. Things cost about twice as much as the special -- six, seven frogskins. (You haven't heard of frogskins? C'mon, people, they're, like, greenbacks.) But some of this stuff is interesting. The "Sunriser" is a grilled breast of chicken covered with two eggs ($6.89). Or I could have a pepper char-grilled steak with two eggs ($7.79), or two broiled pork chops with two eggs ($7.49). All come with hash browns, toast, muffin, hotcakes, or biscuit and gravy.

But what really gets my clock ticking is the scramblers. Italian scramble, with "spicy sausage in scrambled eggs, cubed potatoes, tomato sauce, and melted jack cheese," $6.89. They have variations: seafood scramble (shrimp, crab, and hollandaise, $7.29), Santa Fe (shredded beef, jalapeño peppers, $6.89), and Greek (sausage and feta cheese, $6.89).

I should do the $3.99, but dammit, this has to be breakfast and lunch. "Italian scramble," I say, quick, before I get sensible. For sides, I take the pancakes made with batter concocted "from Jimmy's 50-year-old recipe book."

The mess comes in a ceramic skillet. The sausage is nice and herby. The melted cheese and tomatoes are great, and a bowl of salsa gives it all kick. The two six-inch pancakes are thick, fluffy, like blotting paper to the syrup. I eat -- then sit back, sated.

"I've been coming here for lunch Monday to Friday for 18 years," says Jesse, the thin guy in the next booth. Seventy-six years old. Worked 28 years at North Island. Says he eats the seniors' deal every day. It's $7.99 and includes a main dish, plus soup or salad, dessert, and iced tea. "You'd pay $13, $14 at other places for what you get here for $8.61, including the tax. Besides, you get used to the taste, and the company. I know everybody here."

So today, being Tuesday, is for Jesse like every Tuesday: he's having his chicken teriyaki stir-fry. "I come up from San Ysidro," he says. "They have a Denny's and a Coco's down there, but, no comparison."

At the cashier's desk, I say hi to this lanky fellow who's talking with the gal at the register. Wow. Turns out he's the real McCoy -- "the" Jimmy. Okay, one of three Jimmys, all guys of Greek origin, who pooled their treasure back in 1971 and opened the first restaurant. In the mid-'80s, there were 17 Jimmy's open all over San Diego. Now they're down to 3, and Jimmy (this Jimmy) is pulling out of this Third Avenue location. "Look," he says. "I'm 75. I studied to be an artist when I was young. I've put it off long enough. I'm going to get back to that. Martha" -- he points -- "she's that waitress over there. Been with us 34 years. She and a partner are buying us out. But don't worry, it'll still be Jimmy's."

That's good, 'cause I like the art he created here -- art you can eat. The only changes may be the paintings on the walls.

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