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Studio Diner

4701 Ruffin Road, Kearny Mesa

Rocky writes in Arabic across the page, right to left.

"See that word? With the double dots that fuse together above it? It means 'coffee shop.' But now look at the difference."

He writes it again.

"Just the one dot this time. Now the word means 'cemetery.' So get that wrong and you could land your people in big trouble. Which is the problem with so many U.S. translators in Iraq. They don't know Arabic well enough. Me, I'm from Lebanon. I went through the whole civil war as a kid. I can help out, translate accurately."

Rocky says he's applied to go to Iraq. Security. Translator. Wow.

We're looking out over a broad valley that kind of plays host to the I-15. A bright yellow awning turns everything on this patio sunny, even though it's a cloudy day. The rest of is one big chrome diner, with long, smoky oval windows -- just like the legendary roadside diners of the 40s and 50s.

Rocky is a stunt man who's involved in training films for troops headed for Iraq. He's played terrorists, insurgents in urban situations. Right now, he's taking a break from work at Stu Segall Productions -- hey, they're right next door. That's the back lot out there. Sets, vehicles, bits of jungle.

I met Rocky while I was checking out the diner's retro feel, waiting for Hank to find a place to park. I'm not the only star-struck guy here. Lots of people come out to meet movie folks like Rocky. I mean, don't hold your breath for Tom Cruise, but Rocky and others give this place a whiff of Hollywood that's, well, exciting.

Yes, it's artificial, a '50s movie set. But inside, it's über-cool. There's all sorts of movie studio gear, like lights on stands at each booth, and film reels.

I find Hank at the counter. "Where the heck were you?" he asks.

"Talking to this terrorist."

"What?"

"Kidding. This is movieland, remember? There's a guy here who plays terrorists in training films for the military."

I take a seat beside Hank. The counter is nicely varnished, two kinds of wood. The booths are red. The silver steel ceiling is hooped like a railroad carriage, with yellow neon highlighting the edge.

"Über-cool," I say. Just want Hank to know how current I am.

"Say what?" says Hank.

"Über-cool, dude. You heard it here. By tomorrow, everybody's going to be saying it."

"You're behind, dude. They already are."

In the stainless-steel kitchen, three cooks look ready to rock and roll. The green, three-spin milkshake machine reminds me of the Fonz, or maybe Barstow.

"You gents ready for your close-up?" says Meghan, the waitress.

Actually, she doesn't say that, but that's how it computes. She's wearing a sky-blue tee and black jeans, like all the gals.

"Über-cool," I say.

"Don't überdo it," says Hank.

We order iced teas ($1.75 each) and start hunting. The menu is one of the best parts of the experience.

"Get this," says Hank, "Babe."

"What'd you call me?"

"No, Babe. Sandwich."

"You interested in a knuckle sandwich?"

"It's a pork sandwich, dude, with fries or fruit, $8.25. Babe! Get it? From the movie."

Oh. Right. Now we're eating movie stars.

I spot "Bad Movie Dinner" on the menu. It's turkey, of course, $11.95 with mashed potatoes, cranberry, veggies. "Renegade" is a pot roast, $11.50. (The TV series was shot here.) But, hey, these prices. They're kind of über for us.

"Shall we turn to Page One of our script?" I say.

Page One's labeled "First Shot of the Day." Breakfast. "Mihammy Vice." Good line. Ham and scrambled-egg sandwich with Swiss cheese on sourdough, with hash browns, $6.25. Then, under "Take 3," they have a whole bunch of omelets including "The Improv" ($7.25), which you create with any three ingredients. "Crew Stew," an "all American" beef and veggie stew, looks like a deal at $3.65 for a cup, $5.85 for a bowl.

Hank's focusing on the "Mom Said 'Eat Your Greens' " page in the "Let's Do Lunch" section. He's looking at pear salad with grilled chicken, gorgonzola cheese, and candied walnuts, for $8.95. Sounds delish, but Hank shakes his head. "Too much sugar," he says. Guy's still serious about cutting weight.

"Prime Time Prime Rib" looks gr-r-reat, except for two things: it doesn't start till 4:00 p.m., and prices range from $14.25 (for the 8 oz. Editor's Cut) to $23.95 (for the 18-oz Director's Cut).

"Cut!" says Hank. "That'll take us way over budget." He settles for a "Lox-Ness Monster," salmon plate. Problem: Hank can't handle the hash browns and toast that come with it. Meghan suggests a salad of melon, grape, pineapple, and cottage cheese instead. Now Hank's virtue is rubbing off on me, dammit. When I order "Shannon's Burger," basically a patty (but a nice big half-pound patty) with a ring of pineapple and teriyaki sauce, I take a side salad instead of fries.

"Can't believe I did that," I say.

"That's one small step for a man, or in your case, a walking sack of lard," says Hank.

I ignore him. And soon I'm lost in my burger. Lord, it's good. Juicy, rare, as Meghan promised it, with plenty of teriyaki drooling out the bottom.

"The only real man around here," I say finally, "is Rocky."

"Who?"

"The stunt guy I told you about. He's applied to go to Iraq. Now that's guts. Makes us look like limp lettuce leaves."

"Speak for yourself," says Hank.

"Maybe we should apply..."

We both hesitate. A thousand images rush forward.

We say it at the same time.

"Maybe not."

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