2754 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine
Ask great things of people," says Lee, "and they will respond. Teachers have to expect their students to do well."
Lee's a teacher. Professor, actually. Yeah, not all my friends are bums. (Nothing personal, Hank.) Carla knows Lee's cute wife Joanna. They sent the two of us packing, while they had a Girls' Get-Together. "Head for the hills!" Carla said, more as a joke. But seeing as how our neighbor Linda said I could use her car, I suddenly thought, why not? Pan for gold in some mountain rill, eat up a storm in some mountain grill. Experience the chase of the thrill. Thanks, Linda!
Except we're lost. Somewhere near Alpine. No gold. No water. Lee's thirsty. I'm hungry. It's getting late.
Finally, I do what No Real Man Would Ever Do: I stop and ask somebody where da heck we are.
"Lost?" says this guy, looking incredulous. "Just follow the road down to the bottom is all. Under the freeway, the 8, make a right and you're in Alpine."
Tarnation! If I'd just kept going...
Lee is kind. Says nothing. Notice a smile playing about his lips, though.
"There! There!" he says, three minutes later. He's pointing to what looks like a fast-food joint. "Fred's Old-fashioned Burgers." Next to Alpine Village Square. I'm surprised. I thought Lee'd be your typical university-campus type, into tasteless tofu, no-salt nuts, yucky yogurts.
But burgers, even burgers for breakfast, I can handle. I turn in at the cream-bricked, green-tiled standalone. They have drive-through too, but there's nothing I hate more than trying to drive while balancing French fries, burger, and soda between my knees. Besides, Linda would freeze me off like a wart if I brought the car back with a greasy steering wheel.
So we're waiting at the green counter. Pictures of vintage cars are all around the walls. A black-and-purple '40s Mercury. A yellow '39 Ford roadster. On and on. In the corner, a piece of plywood hangs, checkered with signatures. One's signed "Melanie S." Beside her name she wrote, "Fred's the Bomb."
"You mean Fred's a real person?" I ask Melody. She's the cashier gal.
"Right there," Melody says. She looks at this cheery chappy on our side of the counter. He's chatting with a customer.
Fred looks our way. "Need any help...let me know."
Lee and I nod, then check out the menu board above the counter. Hmm. Usual suspects. Junior burger, whatever that is, $1.44. Hey. Sounds like a deal. The quarter-pounder is $2.79 ($5.49 as a "special," with fries and soft drink), half-pounder, $3.79 ($6.49). They even have a three-quarter-pounder "monster burger" for $4.99 ($7.49). I see a grilled chicken sandwich too, for $3.59 ($5.49) and a BLT at $2.99 ($5.49).
"BLT for me," says Lee. Lord. Decisive, like Hank. "And a side salad." The "garden salad," I see, is -- wow -- 99 cents.
"Any favorites?" I ask Fred. I know. Wearing my usual indecision on my sleeve.
Fred leans over the counter, picks up this gi-normous sesame-seed bun. Must be ten inches across. "Well, you could have this," he says.
He points to the menu. It's last on the list. Ohmygod. I hadn't noticed. A two-pound burger. "The Alpine Goliath." Costs $9.99.
"I got the idea from the Red Dog Saloon in Juno, Alaska," Fred says. "About one in 15 actually chomp their way through the whole thing."
Hmm. Another test of manhood.
"Actually," Fred says, "the one I really go for is the patty melt [$3.79/$6.19]. Got the recipe from a customer. Half our menu ideas come from customers. Heck, customers built these booths, the counter...last Christmas, vandals broke in, smashed a window, trashed the inside, stole the tip money from the jar. But this tells you what kind of a place Alpine is: Before you could blink an eye, folks from the car club came up. 'We can get 20 people in an hour to help you clean up,' they said. Next Saturday, 100 of them pulled up in their vintage cars, ate me clean out, stuffed the tip jar. Then they all signed that board we'd put over the broken window. This is how America used to be. Out here, it still is."
I have the patty melt special. Can't go wrong with a quarter-pound of beef between slithering sautéed onions and cheese oozing under grilled sourdough. When it comes ($2.95 with fries, plus a strawberry shake you can almost eat), I'm thinking I got the better deal. Till Lee opens up his BLT. He starts counting.
"One, two, three, four, five, six rashers of bacon!"
"Most places give you two or three," says Fred. "But I like bacon. Most of my customers like bacon. So -- I give them bacon."
Wow. So how come I spot Lee sneaking out half of the slices and hiding them in his paper napkin?
"It's really very generous of them," he whispers, after Fred goes to greet a woman customer. "But you can have too much of a good thing. It overpowers the lettuce and tomato."
Meanwhile, Fred's giving the woman a long hug. "I'm so sorry, Marie. Tony was a good man."
"Well, he died at his favorite car show. Big Bear," says Marie. "I'm a nurse, a take-charge person. But all the CPR...it just didn't work on Tony."
"Tony was the president of the Over the Hill Gang car club in El Cajon," Fred tells us. "He was the guy brought all the people to help me out at Christmas, bless him. He used to love that patty melt too."
"We're having a run for him next Saturday," says Marie.
"Sad," I say to Lee as we head for the car.
"Such good people," Lee says. "Perhaps we should ask Joanna and Carla to come up. Perhaps next weekend. Perhaps tackle one of those Goliaths."
Man. The good prof's getting with the program.
"Great idea," I say. "As you say, ask great things of people...."