999 Park Boulevard, East Village
Mama Teresa... After 12 years, here she is, beautiful, smiling, slim, fair-haired, 87.
I first met her 15 years back. Her place at Park (12th) and Broadway hasn’t changed much. On the outside, it’s still the same whitewashed building with the blue-painted stripe running ’round above the windows and the black tile below, and that red one-word sign: “Restaurant.” No “Mama Teresa’s Restaurant.” Just “Restaurant.”
The same plate-glass windows let you see through to a long U-shaped counter with a couple dozen red stools circling it. It’s the nearest thing to that Edward Hopper painting from 1942, Nighthawks.
Today, when I saw it while hauling up to City College on the Orange Line trolley — it’s right next to the leaning white tower that says “Popular Market” — I had to get off, to see how Teresa was doin’ and maybe have some breakfast. (Yeah, missed desayuno again).
I hop off at City College, cross over Broadway and Park. A big poster on the window says, “Greek Omelet, with feta cheese and three large eggs. Made with: tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and spinach. Served with: hash brown potatoes, toast, and jelly, $6.99.”
I make for the exact same stool I sat on last time, lo these many years. And, behold, there’s Teresa, sitting on the opposite side of the U-shaped counter, eating fresh peaches and cottage cheese. Her daughter Connie — I recognize her — has just brought it to her. Teresa looks up and — miracle! —remembers me.
“I’m so happy!” she says. “You have put on weight!”
Connie says that, yes, the breakfast is all day and gives me a menu. There’s huevos con chorizo with refried beans and Spanish rice and tortillas for $5.95; a nopalitos plate (chopped up cactus paddles with the same fixins, for the same price); and chilaquiles plus frijoles, rice, and tortillas at $5.50. They have a Spanish omelet with bacon and cheese or a mushroom one for $6.50. I see Teresa’s bowl of peaches goes for $4.50.
The breakfast plates are really reasonable. Two eggs, hash browns, toast, jelly, $4.75. Three hotcakes and two fried eggs, $5.50, or two hotcakes, two eggs, and bacon or sausage, $5.95. If you’re really skint, $2.90 will get you an English muffin and coffee, or $3 will buy a hamburger.
Then I remember another special in the window: 2 large eggs, 2 link sausages, hash browns, toast and jelly, for $4.99. Years ago, when I came in that first time, the same special was pasted up on the window…for $2.79.
It’s still a deal.
I ask Connie, “So, how come you added the Greek omelet?”
“My husband’s Greek,” she says. “I did it for him.”
Think I’ll try it. In next to no time, Connie brings it out on a thick white plate. It’s laden with egg, spinach, and white bits of feta popping out. I’m surprised at how luscious it is, with that spinach-feta combo and lots of slippery sautéed onions and tomatoes and green peppers. By contrast, the hash browns are crisp and salty. It comes with tortilla chips, hot sauce, and four pieces of toast. And not just any toast. Seven-grain.
“People have to say so if they want plain white,” says Teresa. “Not good for you. I want them to be healthy.”
“Do you like pineapple?” Connie asks.
“Sure,” I say.
She walks down to the kitchen and comes back with a little bowl of golden preserves.
“Try this,” she says. “Apricot and pineapple jam. It goes so well with this bread.”
I spread some of the jam on the seven-grain. Oh my, what a taste. Beautiful combo. Couple of slurps of coffee. Wraps up the meal beautifully.
Then Connie comes back with a fresh-cut piece of watermelon.
“We’re about to close,” she says, “and we don’t keep stuff.”
Jesse, Teresa’s son who runs the Popular Market next door, comes in to help clean up. He says Teresa has been running the restaurant since 1956. That’s 55 years. She came up from Guadalajara in 1952 and got a job working in the Van Camp’s tuna cannery.
“When my husband Juan and I had saved a little,” she says, “we bought this business for $1000. This was a smart part of town, a busy corner. Pearson Ford was across the road, there was a furniture store. People were respectable. We worked hard, and then we were able to buy our house in Mission Hills, for $27,000. The monthly mortgage payment was $157.”
Of course, this downtown area has been on a four-decade slide. But Teresa held on through the skuzzy years, partly because she had to: her husband died at age 44 and she had seven kids to raise. In 40 years, she took no vacation.
Now, Connie has pretty much taken over. But I don’t see her kids helping out.
“The grandkids?” says Teresa. “They all went to college.”
“Mom’s been to her grandkids’ graduations all over,” Connie says. “At Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, USC, UCSD, UCSF…”
“That’s because they were all brought up in here,” Jesse says. “We told each of them: ‘You can continue working here, or you can go to college. Either way you have to work.’ They decided college.” ■
The Place: Restaurant, 999 Park Boulevard, at 12th and Broadway (City College trolley stop), downtown, 619-232-5998
Type of Food: Mexican-American
Prices: Two large eggs, two link sausages, hash browns, toast, and jelly, $4.99; Greek omelet (three-egg, with feta cheese, spinach, hash browns, toast), $6.99; Spanish or mushroom omelet, $6.50; burger, $3; ground-beef tacos, $2.25; cheese enchilada and beef taco combo plate with rice, beans, $6.75
Hours: 6:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m., Monday–Friday
Buses: 2, 5, 7, 15, 20, 210, 810, 820, 850, 860, 929, 992
Nearest Bus Stop: Broadway at Park Boulevard (#2); 11th and C (all others)
Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: City College