See, if Hank were here, it'd be a slam dunk. No ifs, ands, or cigarette butts. He'd be frog-marching me across Fifth to Kung Food -- Nuts and Twigs Central -- so fast I'd get windburn.
But as it is, I'm on my lonesome. Had no breakfast, again. Stumbled out of the house heading for a job in Balboa Park with eyes half shut like a newborn kitten. Now, four hours later, I still want something that feels like morning fare. Cawfee, eggs, bacon. And kitty-corner to Kung Food is this nice corner deli, looking as if it's got all I need.
But, dammit, I'd like to Do The Right Thing. I even popped in earlier, on my way to the park, and picked up a Kung Food menu. Heck, these people are serious. They have a "100 percent plant-based menu," solar-heated hot water, burgers that are good for you, Polynesian veggies, and they give their food waste to farmers to compost. I mean, check this out: the cutlery is biodegradable, along with the plates and bowls. (Should we worry that we, the customers, are biodegradable, too?)
Max's Deli, on the other hand, is kind of ordinary. Gray, blue, faux-tile roof. Three wobbly-looking green plastic tables outside on Quince share two green umbrellas. A deli means sandwiches -- "Pastrami and Swiss," "Turkey and Jack." I'm thinking, the bland leading the bland.
I just want breakfast. Two minutes later, I stand inside this black-and-white floor-tiled place. There are pics of people like Tom Waits, John Lennon, John Fogerty, Kenny Rogers, and B.B. King on the white walls, along with bon mots such as "Mr. Rogers: You Are Special." And a framed T-shirt that has been signed all over by -- wow -- the likes of the Fonz and the Smothers Brothers.
"Amber Mahin, the lady who owns this place, likes musicians," says Mike, the guy behind the counter. "That's from Hollywood Squares."
"So the big question," I say, "are you still doing breakfast stuff?"
Mike glances at the cook. "Uh, yes."
'Course breakfast is in the form of sandwiches and burritos. I scroll through the menu. Good prices, at least. The "Californian" sandwich, with scrambled eggs, avocado, tomato, and jack cheese, is $2.99. They have a Plain Jane with just scrambled eggs for $1.99, but the more interesting ones are, like, the Breakfast Slam Sandwich, which has a sausage patty and three cheeses for $3.99. The most expensive items seem to be the hot sandwiches, such as the Chicken Cordon Bleu: chicken breast, ham, melted Swiss, tomato, and lettuce, for $5.99.
I almost go for a couple of delish-looking 'wiches. At $4.79, the liverwurst, bacon, and avo sounds a steal. And yes, they have vegetarian sandwiches "stacked high" with fresh veggies. The "veggie" one I nearly fall for is the Elvis, with peanut butter, banana, honey, and walnuts, for $4.29.
But it's still not breakfast. So I go for a burrito. The American, with scrambled eggs, cheese, home-fried potatoes, and bacon, $3.99. I get a coffee ($1.00) and haul it outside to those streetside tables.
Oh man. Sitting in the sun slurping away is such a pleasure. This burrito's generously stuffed with eggs, cheese, bacon, and those home fries, plus they include a pretty fair packaged hot sauce called Salsa Del Sol. The coffee's served in a large-size polystyrene cup.
Then there's the number of people you can't help meeting out here, this place being a natural eddy in the river that is Fifth Avenue. I watch two guys get out of an old blue Escort. They're American Sikhs. Anglos. Rion and Abinashi. School friends, must be all of 18. We get to talking. Their parents had taken them over to India to go to Sikh school in the Punjab. "It changed everything. We know people from all over the world now," says Abinashi (his name means "The one who cannot be destroyed"), "but the number of American Sikhs in town is probably not even 30."
"So why aren't you eating vegetarian across at Kung Food?" I ask.
"We do," Rion says. "We work there."
Uh, okay. That's when Denise, the area's postal carrier, arrives for her deli fix. She's been coming to Max's "every day" for the two years since Amber took it over and remodeled. "I was looking for more flavor than you got across the road," she says. "Here, the meatloaf sandwich [$4.99] is to die for. The roast beef Ortega's delicious too [$5.49]. Only thing I found a little bland was the chicken salad [$3.99]. But all the other stuff's great."
"So who was Max?" I ask Mike when I take my things in.
"This place has been going since the early '70s," says Mike. "They say the original owner named it after his dog Max."
I finish eating, then take a minute to just sit here sunning myself. I feel like the Cheshire Cat. Full, satisfied, and I made it under five bucks. Don't get any better than that.
But, oh man, I gotta go get a bit of work behind me. I still feel guilty about not eating tofu across the road. But no worries. I'll mention Max to young Hank, and he'll have me back out here smelling the organic carrots at Kung Food quicker than you can say "nuts and twigs."
[2009 Editor's Note: Max's Banker's Hill Deli has since closed.]