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Richard Walker's Pancake House

520 Front Street, Downtown San Diego

Heh heh. Got this card in the mail, addressed to "Occupant." "Free! One Walker's Apple Pancake."

It has a picture of this ginormous mess of apple slices and bloated pastry that could make a country boy cry "Grandma!" and burst into tears. 'Course there's an asterisk. It's free if you get something else of equal or greater value. £Qué lástima! That means I'll have to eat the pie and another full breakfast order.

Well, someone's got to do it. Naturally, I tried to tempt Carla. Busy. Hank. Busy. So here I am at Front and Market, among rows of leafy young sycamore trees, walking on large black-and-white pavement panels. Nannies push double strollers. Professional dog guys walk gaggles of pure-bred pugs. It looks like a picture out of 1500s Venice, say. Okay, there's a Pacific Waste Services garbage truck parked. But even that's smart and new.

I amble about 20 yards down from Market to this brand-new, classy-looking, black-canopied sidewalk cafe sticking out into Front. Sign has a rabbit. "Richard Walker's Pancake House," it says. "Since 1948." Yeah, right. Chicago, maybe. That's where this outfit's from, isn't it? Here, we must be talking months, max. I walk in, flashing my free introductory offer card, then decide to sit outside, even though the interior's aircon calls like a Lorelei: "Come ba-ack!"

First thing you notice when you sit at your sidewalk table is the black canopy above you. That punishing sun radiates heat down through it. Onto the black uniforms the poor crew has to wear. Guess Richard's brought his Chicago colors down with him. Uh, your climate or ours, buddy?

Still, it's nice and solid here. Heavy metal green chairs, faux marble tabletops, well-to-do condo crowd forking away at eggs and pancakes and waffles with classy silverware and big china plates. Hmm. Now I have to decide what to have with my "Walker's Apple Pancake" to make it free. I find it on the menu under "From the Ovens of Brittany." It costs $8.95. Dang. Equal or greater than $8.95.

Couple of older guys arrive. Midwesterners, Chicagoans for sure. You can tell from their short-brimmed hats. They look like Gene Hackman in The French Connection. Popeye. Lady with a little dog under one arm tackles a Caesar salad ($10.90, with chicken breast) at the table behind me. Young, laptoppin' couple nibbles flapjacks. In front, two pretty gals are just ordering late breakfast, like me. One, Emily, gets potato cakes ("the Finest Idaho Potatoes with a dash of onion, served with apple sauce or sour cream, $6.75"), Meredith, her friend, "A Chocolate Explosion." Oh man. Breakfast? "Smooth imported chocolate wrapped delicately in a warm crêpe." It's topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Costs $4.95. Nigel, guy who joins them, orders the "Dutch Baby" pancake ($7.75), "German-style," puffy, light, lemon and powdered sugar on top.

"The only thing they need here is mimosas," says Meredith, chewing on her chocolate crêpe. "We need mimosas."

But I need to eat something worth $8.95. So heads-down again.

The menu tries -- too hard? -- to get you grinning. Like "Fresh Strawberry Patch" flapjacks ("the more the berrier!") or eggs Benedict (Hey: $8.95. A contender), called "The Benediction." "We Are Gathered Here To Fully Enjoy This Creation. Amen!"

They have a mushroom-and-cheese omelet that's $8.95. It has a "warm sherried mushroom sauce on the side" that sounds kinda interesting. Or maybe something savory would contrast well with that sweet apple pancake. Like the "Dutch Harvest" pancake, "filled with fresh broccoli, onion, tomato, mushrooms, and topped with Havarti cheese from Denmark," $8.50. Near enough. On the other hand, broccoli? For breakfast? With sweet apple?

I race through griddle cakes (most are six or seven bucks); flapjacks (pancakes with fruit, most around seven or eight clams); and crêpes and waffles (same). Just as well Hank didn't come. They look like mostly sweet, pancakey, doughy Midwesty stuff. He'da had a choice of Caesar salad -- or Caesar salad.

Me, what the heck, I end up going for corned beef and basted eggs ($8.50). Inspired choice! Even though, when Jessica brings them they're a small red pile in the middle of this big plate, with two big over-easy eggs just kind of...there. But I know this is going to go great with my Free Walker's Apple Pancake. Jessica plops it down. It glistens and steams in the sun. Bits of Granny Smith apple slices stick out around the edge, and in the middle. I cut myself a chunk. Oh man. Crunchy, caramelly, appley. And the "pure Sinkiang cinnamon glaze" is addictive. I keep crunching beautiful nuggets of glaze. If you alternate with the corned beef and eggs, and with the really good coffee ($2.25 with endless refills), you're halfway to Nirvana. Now I forgive them their sun-soaking black canopy. I forgive everybody around me here for being rich and living inside this bubble they call the Marina District.

But Lordy. Shouldn't have attacked both platefuls so fast. Can't move. Next time I'll come early. Give myself time. Like 6:30 a.m., when they open. I'll haul Hank along. Hey, we've got Granny Smith here. An apple pancake a day keeps the doctor away, right? And Carla? They have eggs Benedict. Say no mo'.

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