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The Mission

1250 J Street, East Village

The Bobcat hovers, holding its victim tight in its claws, then lowers the young plane tree into the hole.

"Arriba, arriba!" a guy in front of me calls. The Bobcat operator lifts the young tree and tries again. And again. Every time, it tips over on a sharp angle.

It's brunchtime, sunny, and I'm slurping coffee and watching the drama from the veranda of the oldest surviving wooden building in town. Right here in what used to be homeless central, that no-man's-land between downtown and 12th and the Imperial transfer station.

I've walked by this rickety building often, waiting for it to be bulldozed. It used to be on 12th and K, where the ballpark is. For 100 years it was a rooming house. Then came the ballpark, and no, they didn't bulldoze it. They rolled the whole sorry edifice up one block, to 13th and J.

Today it's born again, cream-and-green clapboard, two stories, big windows, a wraparound veranda with white wooden railings -- and a familiar sign with curlicue letters cut out of iron.

"The Mission."

Takes a moment...but, oh yes. I know what it is. The Mission, that kinda gothic eatery from Mission Beach.

So I stop and get myself a coffee ($1.75, endless refills), grab a menu, and sit down outside to gawk at the tree movers. "This must be the most expensive piece of sidewalk in history," says this guy in a jean jacket. Bob. Says he owns this building, this piece of land. "We budgeted $27,000 for the sidewalk and trees. Guess how much it's climbed to? Over $200,000."

He says this place is Rosario Hall, first erected on Kettner, which was called Alaska Street way back when. "Colonel Manuel Ferrar built it and named it after his wife Rosario. She was the niece of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor."

It was dedicated on July 4, 1870. Ferrar and other bigwigs gave stirring speeches from the balcony upstairs. Later, it became a saloon on the first floor and a meeting hall above. But Bob says it has also been used for church services, dances, political meetings, and as a brewery for the San Diego Lemon Beer Brewery.

By the time Bob bought it a century later, it had long since been moved to East Village. Rooming house upstairs, "Bert's Diner" down.

"Pity you couldn't have turned it back into a saloon," I say.

"Too much hassle," says Bob. "The vice squad likes wine bars here these days, not saloons."

"Decided?" says a voice at my side.

Uh-oh. Kara, the waitperson, is waiting.

"Still doing breakfast?" I ask.

"Oh sure," she says.

I scan, and...relief! Prices are doable. They have a bunch of pancake dishes around five, six bucks. Cornmeal pancakes are three for $5.95. You can add two scrambled eggs and smoked bacon for $1.50 more. They have breakfast burritos of scrambled eggs and cheese for $5.95. And oh yeah. Under Mission Favorites, "Mission Rosemary" is "crispy rosemary potatoes, scrambled eggs, sautéed tomatoes, and grilled rosemary bread ($5.95)."

Sounds good, till I see the "Chicken Apple Sausage and Eggs." Menu says, "Chicken Apple Sausage is lightly sautéed, served with crispy rosemary potatoes, grilled rosemary bread, and scrambled eggs." Okay, it's $7.95, but heck, only got me to pay for today. I order that.

But the sun's getting too hot out here. I retreat inside to a big space with lots of varnished wood, sandstone-colored floor tiles, a back wall painted terra-cotta red, dark-wood Victorian booths at one end, and lots of blond wood tables in between. Black-bladed ceiling fans look like C-130 props.

I sit at a booth. Kara keeps my coffee endlessly filled, and brings my sausage-and-eggs plate. Whoa. It is huge, beautiful. Wide white plate with piles of scrambled eggs, rosemary-flecked sautéed spuds, two fine sausages, and two great quarter-moons of scrumbo oversized bread, along with green onions and cilantro. The sausages taste as if they're from Italy. But the rosemary bread, it turns out, they bake right here. The potatoes? Can't resist pouring a little pancake syrup on them: dee-lish!

Two guys in the next booth yak away like there's no tomorrow. Natch, I have to butt in. They both live across the road -- but not for long. William, the guy eating the turkey sandwich ($6.50), is taking off for a year in Thailand to help rebuild tsunami victims' houses. And Chris, who's eating plato verde con huevos (corn tamales, eggs, tomatillo sauce, $6.95), has decided to go live in New York for a while. Says he develops websites. "Doesn't matter where I am. The work follows me." Oh man. These guys have a life. I make a note to myself: Sell widgets online! Make something of yourself! Just as soon as you've finished this chow!

Ah well. Next time I'm going to try the "Chino-Latino" stuff they have for lunch, like the vegetarian roll-up (veggies, noodles, peanut sauce, $7.50) or the Indo Chine Double Happiness Bowl (brown rice, veggies, ginger-sesame chicken, beef, peanut sauce, $8.95).

As I head out, I can't help thinking about all the ghosts who must be swirling around here. Colonel Ferrar, Rosario, a hundred years' worth of sleeping renters, and those 1870s politicians, speechifying from the balcony above.

Back out on J, I have to check out one thing. Oh good. The little plane tree's standing straight, ready to shade the next hundred years.

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