3003 Grape Street, South Park
It’s nearly lost in the blizzard of clever stickers stuck to the wall on my right.
“Lord, help me to be the person my cat thinks I am.”
Honestly, I think people here in South Park kind of are. Better than the rest of us, that is. They hand-pick garbage off of the street, just because this is their South Park. They start circuses. They hold walkabouts. It’s like they live on a better planet or in a better century. Come here, and you want to stop being your usual bitchy self and try and remember all those old ideals. Believe in, wow, something as squishy as…love?
Take this bright, sunny, breezy morning. I had to get off the #2 at 30th and Grape Street and head down to the Big Kitchen, to fuel up on the positive energy field of what people call Judy-World. Judy’s run this place since 1980. The good things she’s made happen in these two little dining rooms recharge you every time you come in.
I walk past sidewalk tables under the trees, into the room with the counter (there’s another with only tables and chairs). The place is bulging, buzzing.
I sit up to the counter next to this guy Mitch. Actually, I think it’s his home fries wafting their aromas that make the decision for me. Oh, man. Rosemary, garlic, onion?
“I’ll have what he’s having,” I say to Mark, the lanky guy behind the counter. “With poached eggs.”
Then I start reading…the wall.
“Hippies use the FRONT door,” says one sign. The handwritten word “FRONT” has been stuck over the original word “BACK.”
“What part of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ don’t you understand?” says another. Yet another backs it up. “When Jesus said ‘Love your enemies,’ I think he probably meant don’t kill them.” A tag explains that the quote’s taken from a song by Linda K. Williams of the First Church of the Brethren, right here in San Diego, California.
I’d like to hear that song.
There’s a big noise at the back, near the left wall, which is plastered with photos of customers, including many who have died from complications brought on by AIDS. Judy’s making a big fuss over one of the many teenage kids she keeps a protective eye on and often gives work to. He’s come out from the kitchen (it is big) in punk-style clothes he’s stitched together himself. Nick. Works here.
Judy shows him off to the customers on that side of the room, then heads over to a booth where an older woman, Sue, is sharing grilled chicken and turkey with a gal who’s tattooed herself right up to her neck. Dahlia. “Hi!” Judy says. She introduces herself, and in a flash she’s sitting down and they’re exchanging life stories.
Nothing has changed from last time I was here. Maybe four, five years back.
Now Mark is bringing my steaming plate out. He slides it in front of me.
“It’s ‘Whoopi’s Breakfast,’” he says. As the entire community knows, Whoopi Goldberg used to wash dishes here, before she got famous. The dish named after her has two eggs any style, plus bacon, those home-fried potatoes, toast, and a large orange juice.
The things I notice are: my potatoes smell just as wicked as Mitch’s did, and they taste as great as they smell. Rosemary, onions, garlic. Also, the bread is thick, golden-grilled egg bread. “Actually, it should be Texas bread,” Mark says. “But it didn’t come today.” And bacon? We’re talking way-thick-cut. Unbelievably luscious.
“It’s 10/12 shingled bacon,” says Mark. “That’s about as thick as it gets.”
Uh, 10/12? Turns out, the lower the numbers, the thicker the slice. I think “shingled” means laid out flat, like shingles on a roof.
And the orange juice?
Mitch sees me tripping on the first gulp. Into OJ nirvana.
“They squeeze it when you put your order in, not before,” he says. “I can definitely taste the difference.”
Me, too. And it’s a big tumbler-full.
“I remember Whoopi,” says a guy down the counter from Mitch. He’s eating a sandwich of bacon with melted cheese and onions, plus a pile of home fries. “In 1980, she was washing dishes, just after Judy opened. It was sure fun being here with those two carrying on.”
That’s what everybody says. The Big Kitchen would have been just another greasy spoon except for Judy the Beauty on Duty. This fire-and-brimstone broad from New York City has done everything from employing guys straight out of the big house to helping start the Fern Street Circus, right here in this room. Heck, Sadie, one of her workers, is an acrobat in Cirque du Soleil. Tim, the guy doing Whoopi’s job these days, is lead guitarist in a death-metal band.
“Look at that: Lucy’s here!” Judy tells everybody as an arty-looking gal swings in through the narrow doors.
And then comes her trademark French phrase: “Très bien, très bien!” It’s not like she’s French, but the story is that her customers flew her to Paris once for a break, and when she came back, she had that phrase. Now it’s part of the lingo here.
“Judy has a big heart,” says this guy to my left. John. “I’m diabetic and have become legally blind. Judy has helped me so much. Taken me to the hospital, made sure I get good food, like this salad.”
He’s working his way through a chicken salad. “My son Rudy,” he says, “started working here when he was 10. Now he’s 34 and the chef. She gave him a good life.”
Whoopi’s breakfast ain’t cheap: it costs $13.95, plus $2.75 for an endless coffee. With tax, that comes to $18. Yes, if I’d looked, I’d have found cheaper choices — like, $4.75 for one egg, home fries or rice, and toast. Instead, I’ve shelled out $20 for breakfast (including tip). Sticker shock? Little bit. But I like to think some of it will go to Judy’s many good causes.
Lucy’s heading out. She’s been Judy’s friend for all 32 years this place has been open. “When I’m not here,” she says, “my heart is.” ■
The Place: Big Kitchen, 3003 Grape Street, South Park, 619-234-5789
Prices: One egg, home fries or rice, and toast, $4.75; Whoopi’s breakfast (two eggs any style, bacon, home-fry potatoes, toast, large orange juice), $13.95
Hours: 8.00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., daily
Nearest bus stop: 30th and Grape