"A quickie and a soup?" says Hank. He's looking at the menu. "I know this is French, but ooh-la-la..."
"Quiche, dude. A quiche and a soup."
'Course I think Hank's deliberately causing trouble here. The guy's got this insane thing about the French. Blames them for Iraq, for Vietnam, for refusing to speak English like the rest of us. He's a Freedom Fries sort of guy.
And yet he ends up chowing down in a place like this. Loves a good French salade Niçoise. He's hooked on the baguette vegetarian sandwiches. I even caught him mumbling something about French onion soup.
A La Française is new up here in Normal Heights. After years in Mission Hills, they've moved into this bricky Rosie O'Grady's building. O'Grady's is 'sposed to be the oldest Irish pub in town: 60 years! The building looks straight out of Boston, but its old red bricks are newly scrubbed, pink, and very cool. Normal Heights is gentrifying.
So around 11:30 a.m., after the call from Hank, I hopped off the Number 11 at Adams and 34th and straight away spotted his white Camry. He'd parked it beside a row of sidewalk tables under maroon-and-cream umbrellas.
I stepped into this airy place with an exposed brick wall behind the counter. The other side was filled with a mural of the French countryside, plus local artists' paintings. Maybe 15 blond-wood tables were scattered around, with folk of all ages sitting, chowing, chatting. Then I noticed a little knot of kids. They came in, went straight to the soda fountain, poured themselves drinks, capped the plastic containers -- then hightailed it out the door and off up Adams Avenue, letting out victory whoops all the way.
"Friends of yours?" I asked Hank. I'd spotted him sitting at a long blue-cushioned bench against the wall.
"Here," he said. "Check the menu before Vita comes back. She's brutal."
Vita the waitress turns out to be fun, actually. And patient: I've got a lot of deciding to do. Like, I'm starved, but should I have breakfast or lunch?
At least Vita says breakfast's on right through till two.
"The Hollandaise sauce in the eggs Benedict is supposed to be good," says Hank. "But I'm just having a nice salad."
He turns to Vita. "I'll have that nice salad," he says.
Vita gets it. Hank doesn't want to speak French. She says, "Right. Salade Niçoise it is."
Here's my dilemma: I want breakfast, but I love the idea of their Croque Monsieur, grilled cheese and ham on an English muffin with béchamel sauce. Or the Croque Madame, which is the same with an egg sunny-side up on top. But they're not the cheapest, $9.25 and $10.25, respectively.
On the other hand, they have $7.95 specials, like soup and a petite sandwich. I'm thinking ham and mustard and mayo and lettuce in a baguette and French onion soup. What's wrong with that?
The call of Breakfast, that's what. Eggs. Stuffed omelets, a man's breakfast. They start at $6.95, but that's for a plain omelet. I'm interested in the omelette Provençale ($8.95), stuffed with tomato, onion, zucchini, and eggplant. Except, no. How about the Paysanne ($8.95)? They pack that with "country potatoes," bacon, and sautéed onions.
"So Vita," I say. "I'll have the Paysanne. 'Cause, let's face it, I'm a paysanne at heart. That's 'peasant,' right?"
"'Uh, peasant girl, sir'"
"Hey hey!" This is Hank. "Does Carla know this?"
I ignore him. "And can I also get the soup and ham sandwich in a baguette, only with the sandwich packed to go?"
I'm gonna take that home to Carla.
"What kind of soup?" Vita says.
"You have to ask? French onion, of course."
Breakfast and lunch are going to be mixed. But no probs. Vita brings the soup first, in a round ceramic pot. I can see this one little dish is going to make it all worthwhile. The top's sealed over with a layer of bubbling, golden cheese. When you break through with your spoon, there's that sea of swirling snakes -- the onions. Oh man. Great, with a bouillony kind of flavor, garlic croutons. It comes with a kinda bolillo Kaiser roll.
Just as well I'm hungry because breakfast -- the omelet -- is big and chunky, with plenty of spuds inside. I get some pico de gallo to kick it up. Meanwhile, Hank's bobbing through his Niçoise, with the tuna, fresh-steamed green beans, red potatoes, boiled egg halves, and -- anchovy fillets slapped across the top like pirates' crossbones. I almost wish I'd had that. But no, it's the croques I most regret having missed.
"So how, like, French was this?" Hank asks. "I mean, my salad was great, but where's the French signature dish here?"
He's got me thinking. We've adopted so much French stuff, like French bread, French mayonnaise, French toast, French crêpes, they don't feel French anymore. Then I remember my taste buds.
"The soup, dude. Onion. Croutons. Cheese. As French as it gets. I'd walk a kilometer for another of those."
Vita arrives with the ham baguette in a box, and the check. Thirty bucks. Ow! Well, what with my coffee ($1.65, with refills), Hank's iced tea ($2.25) and tuna salad, plus Carla's baguette and French onion soup, it's not a bad deal. Still, it hurts to fork it over. Hank sees my expression.
"We could cut and run like those kids," he says. "But let me go first."
The Place: A La Française Café & Bakery, Normal Heights
Type of Food: French, American
Prices: one-egg breakfast, with fresh fruit or potatoes, or both, $4.95; two eggs, $5.95; Provençal omelet, with tomato, onion, zucchini, eggplant, $8.95; Paysanne omelet, with potatoes, bacon, onions, $8.95; eggs Florentine (with creamed spinach), $8.95; salade Niçoise (with tuna, eggs, beans, anchovies), $9.50; Croque monsieur (grilled cheese, ham, muffin, béchamel sauce), $9.25; soup and petite sandwich, $7.95; roast beef sandwich, $7.75; French onion soup, $4.95 (cup), $5.95 (bowl)
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. daily (kitchen open till 2:00 p.m.), seven days
Nearest Bus Stop: 34th and Adams (heading towards SDSU); Adams and Holly (heading downtown)
[2009 Editor's Note: A La Française Café & Bakery has since closed.]