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Alas. Alack. And bummer. San Diego's ostriches have flown the coop. Okay, "flown" mightn't be exact. Been run outta town. Put it that way. A guy named Dr. Laszlo de Borondy had a farm up in Escondido. Had nearly 500 boids.

Hank and I went up there once. What a sight. Man! To see 200 ostriches racing across the valley in their ten-foot-high flocks -- you felt like you'd joined the set of Jurassic Park. One of Borondy's guys at the farm told us that the name "ostrich" comes from Greek: Megas Strouthos -- "Great Sparrow." Honest.

De Borondy's farm is where Julius and Marvin and Jeff and their dad Jerry went too. Why? They wanted to serve ostrich burgers at their place here downtown, where I've jumped off the trolley at Fifth and C. Used to be called JJ's -- now it's the Classic Malt Shop.

I decide to pop in, sit up at the counter. It's a sunny, breezy lunchtime. I'd passed the old JJ's a zillion times, but the Classic Malt Shop is, like, all spruced up. And, hey, they have a $2.99 breakfast special (two eggs any style, country-style potatoes, toast). Mostly, though, the draw on the sandwich board outside is: "Ostrich burgers. Buffalo burgers."

"Ostrich meat is so much healthier," says Marvin, who's working the counter. "There's almost eight times less fat than in beef." Man, I should call Hank.

The Classic Malt Shop has a few tables out under a covered walkway, but the action's inside, where it's all bright whites and reds with a black-and-white checkered floor. Your typical Happy Days milkshake 'n' fries place. The Fonz would fit right in.

Marvin's brother Julius gives me a menu. "Let's go to the hop" plays out from -- hey hey! -- look at these. Way-big, eight-inch, emerald-green hanging speakers. Antique. Great sound. "They came from a roller-skate park," says Julius. "When we changed this all last year, we wanted it '50s retro. So the speakers are perfect."

He's waiting for me to decide. No issue, of course. Yeah, they have a bunch of all-day breakfasts, from that $2.95 eggs, hash browns, and toast deal, through $4.95, three-egg omelets, and $3.25 burritos. There's a pretty reasonable steak with three eggs and toast for $5.95. For lunch, I'm looking at hot dogs, all below four bucks, and sandwiches like BLT or roast beef, both $4.95. The chicken and "fish on a bun" cost another Washington. A Philly cheesesteak also goes for $5.95, and a burger-fries-soda deal's $6.49. The basic burger's $4.95.

"Should try these chicken strips, man," says this guy next to me at the counter, Vincent. "Or the Philly cheesesteak." Turns out he's a musician. Rock.

But not even the $6.59 buffalo burger is going to distract me from my bird. Even though it's one buck more -- just below the menu's most expensive item, the $8.95 "3x3 Cheese Burger."

"Long as it's from Escondido," I say.

"Sorry," says Marvin. "The San Diego Ostrich Farm's closed. They sold their flock."

"Dang," I say. "So no giant sparrow...?"

"Don't worry," Julius says. "We get our ostrich from Iowa now."

Whew. I grab the ostrich burger ($7.59) and a coffee (95 cents). And yes, it arrives on a nice blue-and-white china plate with a pile of fat fries. I squirt ketchup, mayo, and mustard from the line of plastic tubs, and chomp in. Mmm. Tastes like a regular burger, except for a slight birdy, turkey after-flavor. That and the fact that it's slightly drier is the tip-off this ain't no moo-cow.

"What you're eating is a lb. ostrich burger patty," Marvin says. "It has about 3 grams of fat in it. A regular beef patty has 29."

Wow. Awesome. 'Course I may be making up for that with the ketchup-mayo-mustard gunk I'm dipping those fries into. And then, these ladies come in, order malts and shakes, and I just have to have one. Julius gives me a rainbow freeze with Sprite ($2.73). Fruity.

"Blue blue, blue suede shoes," sings an Elvis wannabe through those old speakers.

"I first heard that at my high school, in New Orleans," says Lois. She's sitting next to me, where Vincent had been. "Cohen High School. It's gone now, since Katrina."

Oh man.

We all go back to sucking on straws. Then we're humming along with "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." Jaynetts, right?

"Saddest thing in the whole wide world / See your baby with another girl..."

I notice Julius is wearing a Navy cap: "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

"I wear it because we are Chaldean. Iraqi Christians. We appreciate what young Americans are sacrificing to help our people over there," he says.

Their parents speak Chaldean, Aramaic. "The same language Jesus spoke," Julius says.

Gosh. Jesus, the war, Katrina...finding an ostrich burger ain't the world's most vital issue.

Still, I wanna come back sometime for the buffalo. I hear it has even less fat than ostriches. Plus, oh heck. I hadn't noticed before, but there's a buffet thing going too. "It's $3.50 for an entrée, like meat lasagna," says Julius, "$1.75 for sides. Come back and try our macaroni and cheese. We put American cheese over it. It's so-o cheesy."

Five minutes later, I stand outside, waiting for the trolley. Ostrich burgers. I can't help it -- it just gets me. I wanna yell it out: "Hey, everybody, guess what they've got for lunch in here? Giant sparrows!"

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