Eva Knott 9:30 a.m., Dec. 10
The huge red arrow on the signpost bore a message that was brief, to the point and could have easily been interpreted as either a suggestion or a command. EAT, it boldly proclaimed.
Just below it, a partition of wooden lattice separated a garden like patio filled with tables from the actual entrance to the restaurant itself. The name, Café Orleans, was prominently painted on the adjacent wall and immediately conjured up images in my mind of blissfully chowing down on a scrumptious mufaletta sandwich somewhere in the French Quarter.
Now, had I encountered something like this while cruising down a rural highway in some southeastern state north of the border it would have not seemed particularly surprising, but the fact that this place popped up on Avenida Costero only about a half mile south of the Ensenada Cruiseport Marina really perked up my interest. No breakfast in me yet, and my stomach had already begun to growl. I pulled over to the curb and parked.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a real fan of Mexican breakfast specialties, and upon occasion a steaming platter of huevos rancheros, machaca and eggs or Chilaquiles in salsa verde is just what the doctor ordered. Nonetheless, my tortured gringo soul is often hard pressed to forget, and at times cannot resist yearning for, a few of the treasured dishes from my long lost youth that are indelibly etched into my memory, but are not part of the cuisine that one normally finds in Mexico.
Walking thorough the front door of Café Orleans for the first time, I found myself already slipping into another realm filled with tastefully festive décor that practically made me want to toss a couple strands of Mardi Gras beads around my neck and order up a Hurricane. But the best part was the mélange of captivating aromas that wafted through the restaurant. One look at the menu and I knew why. Chicken fried steak and eggs with biscuits and gravy, corned beef hash, Eggs Benedict made with your choice of ham or shrimp, not to mention a pork chop and eggs special. They also offer up a bevy of popular stateside sandwiches like the Rueben, Monte Cristo, French dip with au jus and even a Philly cheese steak. The sign outside says EAT …I say YUM!
But on the other side of the menu, I notice that there is also a list of popular Mexican breakfasts that are available as well. This many great choices all in one place made it hard to decide, so I opted for a standard American ‘grand slam’ breakfast of 2 hotcakes, 2 eggs, 2 bacon strips and 2 sausages. When my order arrived at the table the first thing that grabbed me was the steaming side order of freshly baked biscuits smothered in rich country gravy, then the generous slab of crunchy, golden hash brown potatoes sitting next to my crispy bacon slices, juicy links of lean breakfast sausage and a couple of fresh flapjacks. The real test came when I cut into my eggs; they were perfectly cooked to ‘over medium’, just as requested. But my complementary musings were suddenly interrupted by an English speaking voice asking a question that was clearly directed at me.
“How’s your breakfast?”
I glanced up from the table to see a tall, slim gentleman with a wiry build smiling down at me from behind the cash register. “Delicious!” I exclaimed without a moment of hesitation. “Everything is fantastic …I feel like I’m eating at my favorite diner up in the states. You rarely find this kind of grub down here.” His smile broadened.
He then introduced himself as Jerry Shelby, the owner of Café Orleans, and said that he was the youngest of 5 children and his family moved out to Merced, California from Oklahoma back during the dust bowl days of the 1930’s trying to find better opportunities for employment. Once they were settled in, his parents opened up a small restaurant that they named Dotty’s. “Those were some pretty tough times.” He admitted. “Kinda like the Grapes of Wrath, but not quite that bad. We were still able to keep groceries on the table, but there was nothing fancy back in those days.”
Later in our conversation, Jerry revealed that, while he has always been a lover of good food, it was this particular chapter in his life that taught him the value of good kitchen skills and developing the ability to make the very best out of what you have on hand at the restaurant. This characteristic, of course, is also the hallmark of a perceptive chef. By the time he reached his mid teens, his cooking proficiency was sufficient to secure him work behind the grill as a fry cook, which in turn led to his continuing involvement in the food & beverage industry over the decades.
After opening Café Orleans a few years ago, his menu has continued to expand to include such all American favorites as thick cut pork chops, homemade turkey dinners, pan fried catfish, liver & onions and a full compliment of hamburgers that include a blue cheese burger and even a mammoth masterpiece that is known affectionately as the Triple Bypass.
Because of the quality food and service that he provides his guests, word of mouth has slowly but surely spread around Ensenada, and has helped build Jerry’s business to a point where he has now accumulated a loyal following of dedicated patrons that include local residents Mexican businessmen, families, tourists and members of the ex-pat community. He also has earned a reputation for putting on great special events at the restaurant.
“This month we are offering a fantastic all-you-can-eat Cajun buffet and parade watching fiesta for Ensenada’s Carnival Celebration on Saturday, February 18th. The parade will pass directly in front of our restaurant, so we’re putting up a covered grand stand and our buffet will feature everything from Oysters Rockefeller and Po Boy sandwiches to Shrimp Etouffeé with red beans & rice, and much more.”
Needless to say, after his self proclaimed ‘Grapes of Wrath’ childhood, Jerry is now obviously a very busy man who regularly finds himself in the position of wearing many different hats. If he’s not in back in the kitchen working with the staff, he is in the office working on the books, perhaps organizing the storage room, waiting for a delivery or maybe even personally making a quick run out the door to pick up some additional provisions.
I finish my breakfast and dredge the last sip of coffee from my cup. “Thanks, Jerry.” I say. “It was great talking with you, and that was a really terrific meal. You can definitely count on me coming back sometime to try that chicken fried steak of yours.”
“We’ll be ready for you!” He quickly shot back
“Yeah,” I said “but you’re such a busy guy, when I finally do, I wonder if you’ll even be around here for me to chat with while I eat.”
“No worries.” Jerry replied with a wry grin, “Wherever there’s a guy beatin’ up an egg, I’ll be there.”
CAFÉ ORLEANS 1370 BLVD. COSTERO ENSENADA, BCN (646) 178-32-86