401 West Main Street, El Cajon
What’s this? Anglo push-back? The huge café that used to be a Chaldean eatery now has a sign that reads “Goody’s Cafe” in yellow letters on a giant, red ’50s-style sign pole.
The banners in the windows all advertise traditional greasy-spoon stuff. Like, “Breakfast Special, 7am–11am, 2 eggs, 2 bacon or sausage, hash browns or grits, 2 pancakes, $4.99, Monday–Friday.”
Or “Lunch Special, 11am–3pm: ½ burger, fries, soda, $5.99.”
This big, ranch-style wooden building takes up almost a block. It has a total glass frontage except for big chunks of river-stone wall at the corners and around the main entrance. And it looks like what it is: totally ’50s, ’60s moderne.
First time I came by here it was the Hammurabi Family Restaurant and looked pretty romantic. It was a warm night. People were out on the terrace that fronts the building, smoking hookahs, chatting, drinking tea, and watching soccer on a big outside TV screen set into the stone wall.
Everything was so different. A couple of the guys I talked to said that for $225 you could roast an entire side of lamb on the streetside terrace and throw a party right there. Man, I longed to have one of those. And they had real exotic food, like stuffed honeycombs and intestine, plus lamb tongue and lamb shank with rice, or cut-up marinated lamb hearts on a skewer, as well as the everyday shish kebab dishes.
So, I always wanted to come back. Sad to say, last time I came in, it was looking kinda down-at-heel. They had taken all the counter stools away, and the booths didn’t look too cool. You felt the place wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
And now this. Transmogrification to all-American diner. Gotta go in and see what’s up. Plus, a late breakfast would go down well, even if it isn’t honeycomb and intestines.
I get inside and straight away this gal Karla has brought the menu and some coffee. First thing you notice is the gleaming-new red booths and new rack of black bar stools, 13 of them running down this lo-ong counter. Black-and-white photos of ’60s stars such as Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor, Eastwood, Bronson, the Duke. Then you notice the massive stainless steel kitchen behind and one busy cook. And plenty of customers. That’s good. Life coming back into the building.
You also feel like you’re time-warped back to the ’60s. The menu is back there, too, in everything but price. One side is breakfast, the other side is lunch. Lunch is, like, eight-ounce cheeseburgers for six bucks; an eight-ounce buffalo burger goes for nine; and a top-sirloin steak dinner for ten.
But for me the breakfast side has it all. Omelets — like the Farmer’s, with ham, bacon, sausage, tomato, onions, and cheeses — mostly go for $7. Or the three pancakes with two sausages and two eggs are only $5. And breakfast sandwiches such as the bacon, egg, and cheese are also $5.
At this point, greed takes over. The skillets get my vote. Mostly $8. Choices are: Texas Skillet (chicken), Philly (sirloin), Greek, Mexican (chorizo), or veggie.
Gotta be Philly, just because of the meat, even though it’s a buck more than all the others at $9. Then I have to insist on bacon, too. Another $1.50. The cook, Bill, gets right on it. And before I’ve had three slurps of joe, Alex, the other guy here and Bill’s brother, brings it sizzling — and I mean sizzling — to the brown Formica countertop.
Huh. The iron skillet sits on a wooden raft with a little mitten covering the handle. And it’s jumping. The sizzle sends little jets of steam up from underneath like fumaroles. I had my eggs scrambled and got the biscuit. It’s just been baked. It’s fresh and hot, but I thought it was going to be biscuits and gravy. Dang. Should’ve gone for the pancakes. Miss that syrup, seeing we’re playing damn the torpedoes and up the cholesterol.
Best thing? The racks of thin-sliced seasoned beef. They are so delicious, way tender, full of flavor, lashed by tons of sautéed onions, ’shrooms, chopped home fries, and I don’t know what else. I squirt a big red pile of ketchup for home-fry dipping purposes. Karla keeps refilling my $1.99 coffee.
So, what happened here? Back to the future? “It was Kozak’s Coffee Shop from 1964 till 2000,” says Bill. “They were an El Cajon institution. Everybody had breakfast here. Our dad bought it in 2000 and named it Goody’s Café. And then, in 2004, a Chaldean group came and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
So, the Chaldeans turned it into the “Hammurabi” for eight years. They named it for an ancient Babylonian — an Iraqi lawmaker who was, like, the world’s first to encode the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” Pretty cool guy. But with the economic downturn, seems they couldn’t make Hammurabi happen anymore. And after a lot of soul-searching, Bill and Alex and their dad (who still owned the property) took back the operation and revived Goody’s, the same Kozak’s-style all-American diner they had given up eight years before.
So, is this a sign of push-back by the valley’s comfort-food-loving base? “Well it hasn’t been easy, getting people to come back,” says Bill.
They do have competition. As I leave, I notice Hometown Buffet’s set up right across the road, and Greek, Italian, Mexican places are clustered nearby.
“It was a big decision, starting it up again,” says Alex.
Next time, I guess I’ll try the Greek omelet. Why? Because I love feta. Turns out Bill and Alex and their dad are Greek-Americans. Who could know feta better?
- Hours: 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., daily
- Prices: Greek omelet (with feta cheese, tomato, onions), $6.99; bacon, egg, cheese breakfast sandwich with home fries, $4.99; Philly skillet with sirloin, onions, mushrooms. bell peppers, eggs, potatoes, cheeses, $8.99; 3-egg, 3-bacon breakfast, $5.99; Goody’s cheeseburger, 8-ounce patty, fries, $5.99; buffalo burger (8oz), $8.99
- Buses: 815, 816, 871, 872
- Nearest Bus Stop: West Douglas and El Cajon Boulevard
- Trolleys: Orange Line, Green Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: El Cajon Transit Center (catch same buses to get there)