2885 Roosevelt Street, Carlsbad
I ask once. I ask twice. The guy at the transit center, the guy at the auto repair. Need a breakfast joint, bad. They both say the same thing. "Just around the corner. Oldest place in town. Don's."
Who am I to question? Been up since five, on the road, and here I am in Carlsbad. My gut has been flashing "Empty!" for two and a half hours.
Ah. There it is. Clean little place, dun-colored walls with gold-yellow tile, half a dozen blue umbrellas and tables out in front. I swivel through the corner door into this narrow, longish space, painted light blue and white with about five tables by the counter. It's a full house of bobbing heads. Cops clustering, older folk blustering, waitresses whipping about, plus a rack of hooped backs -- people eating at the counter. Sure seems Carlsbad is voting with its feet.
"Chosen the best by those who ate at the rest," says one sign. "Home of the best biscuits and gravy in town," says another.
I climb aboard a squiggly stool with a wrought-iron back. Guy beside me is finishing up what looks like a four-inch-high stack of spuds. But no, it's a vegetarian omelet. "Good stuff," he says. "Broccoli, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes. And there's a lot. Too much."
"Something to drink?" says this gal Dora, coffeepot in hand. She's doing her counter patrol, topping up cups and clearing off dishes.
"Uh, yes. Cawfee," I croak, just as this couple comes up and sits down on my other side. The gal plonks a book, Hidden Mexico, on the counter.
"We're on our way to Baja, San Quintín," says the guy, Josh. He puts his arm around her. "Tequila," he says. "Tonight, sunset."
They're ready to order when Tricia, another waitress, arrives. "I'll have the Bob Scramble," says the gal, Grey. That's her first name, with an e, English-style. She's getting one egg on an English muffin with cheese for $2.95. A deal. (With bacon it'd be $3.95.) Plus she gets an order of biscuits and gravy ($3.65).
Josh closes the menu. "I'll have the Heart Attack Breakfast, Number Nine," he says.
I check. Number Nine doesn't say "Heart Attack," it says "chicken fried steak with two eggs, $9.25."
"Last time I had this was 20 years ago," Josh says. "The menu is just as I remember it. Today, we were on our way down from Santa Barbara, got hungry, and I guess I navigated here by instinct. 'Cause I sure couldn't remember the address."
Wow. The guy can't be more than 30. But he tells me he surfs. Maybe that life keeps you young. Or maybe he was a kid last time he came.
Uh oh. Here comes Laura, the third gal behind the counter. She's waiting for me. I think about the chicken-fried steak, but nine bucks? I spot Number Five, a hamburger patty with two eggs and two biscuits and country gravy. Seven Washingtons. Or two sausage patties in the same combo for a nickel less. I'm tossing and turning betwixt the two when my eyes catch a special on the blackboard. "Kielbasa scramble with home fries or hash browns and biscuits, $7.55."
"It's excellent Polish sausage," Laura says.
She's got me. 'Course then I discover it's a dollar extra for some Country Sausage Gravy. Coulda had Josh's dish. But what the hell. Best in town, right?
And yes, it's good, and it's a lot of food. The kielbasa and eggs are tasty with the home fries, big inch-plus chunks with the red skins intact and plenty of slurpy bell peppers and onions. The scrambled eggs are mixed in with olives and onions and that garlicky sausage. I get some of the homemade salsa to kick it up a notch, and by golly, that does the trick.
The problem is, I get so interested in what Josh's talking about, I just wolf it down. Forget to enjoy that taste bonanza. The guy's a glass-blower. Does it by hand. "I call it a dance with heat," he says. Grey's also an artist, a chef at the Hotel Andalusia in Santa Barbara. "Not chef, cook," she says.
"Chef," says Josh.
Her Bob Scramble's like a little egg burger, with avocado. "It gives me my fatty fix for the day," she says.
The guy at the cash register when I get up to pay isn't Don. It's Roberto. Don died two years ago, and Roberto and his wife Rosa run the restaurant now. "Don had the place 25 years," Roberto says. "And it was going for years before that, under a different name. I started off here in the kitchen." And yes, just as Josh said, the menu hasn't ever changed. And the sausage gravy? "That was Don's recipe. That stays exactly the same."
Me, I'm having some buyer's regret. Should've just had biscuits and gravy on their own for $3.65. That would've filled me plenty for half the price. Still, I can take the second half of my kielbasa scramble back to share with Carla. Nothing more delish than a reheat.
But...best gravy in town? Mine tasted subtle, light, slightly peppery, slightly sausagey. Not too overpowering. But I want to hold final judgment till I try the rest. Come back to beautiful downtown Carlsbad on the train. So...would that make it the gravy train?