Stop press: Oh, man. Since I wrote this, the fires engulfed us. Last chance I had to call Debbie at the Campo Diner, on Monday, she was fine. Campo was east of the Harris Fire, which was blowing westward, away from them.
"Know who that is?" says Fred.
It's, it's...wow. It's Tiger Woods, here, grinning at us, plain as day.
"He was standing right here," says Fred. "See? Same wall. Tiger Woods, baby. Campo rocks."
We stand gawking at the photo of Tiger and buddies pinned to the corkboard. Who knew? The Man with the Golden Swing up in li'l ol' Camposito.
"He's been here, oh, three times now," says Debbie, when I get back to the counter. "Comes down for paintball war games with his buddies at the military range. I cooked his burger. It's the same each time. Cheeseburger, medium-rare, with fries."
Debbie's the manager. She flaps her order-book open for me. "How about you?"
I fwop open the big plastic menu book. "Good Eatin' Just Down the Road," says the front page.
Ha! Just down the road? How's about 60 miles up the road from the coast? I was heading east on 94 when I spotted this merry-looking ol' diner, red and white and yellow and green on the outside at a crossroads called Cameron Corners. Looked good. Fresh paint, and a large sign: "San Diego's Best Fish & Chips."
I didn't shilly-shally outside. Too danged windy out here. It's a big room, with more alcoves and party rooms in the back. You know straight off this must be the social center of the valley. I sit up at the red, squishy counter stools by the cash register. Everybody who comes up and pays knows Debbie. Bet she's unofficial mayor around here.
"Decided?" she asks.
I flip through the golden pages. Hmm. Things aren't the cheapest. Rent can't be that high. On the other hand their summertime AC bill must be ginormous. And trucking supplies up here must affect the bottom line. Breakfast ("served daily until noon") does have some bargains, like "simply eggs," two eggs, hash browns, and toast, $5.95, and a half-order of biscuits and gravy, $2.95. The full order's $4.95, and "the Jimmy Special" -- the full plus two eggs -- is $7.45. But choose an omelet and you can kiss goodbye to Mr. Hamilton. A "Campo Firehouse Chili Omelette," topped with cheese, salsa, plus potatoes and toast or pancake, runs you $8.25. The "Meat Lovers'" (with ham, bacon, sausage, and cheese) is $9.95; the "Campo" (with ham, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, cheese, salsa) costs $8.95; and the cheapest (the cheese) is $7.50. Mind you, they're all three-eggers. 'Course the one I want is "the Works." For $12.45 (a half-order is $7.95) you get bacon, ham, sausage, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and potatoes, all pan-fried together and topped with scrambled eggs and cheese, plus toast, biscuit, or tortilla.
Ooh. Could do with that. But I've got to keep enough dinero to fill up for the return voyage, even though it's downhill all the way. Besides, oh yeah. It's past one o'clock. Lunch is salads (the chicken Caesar goes for $8.95); sandwiches (BLT with fries runs $7.95, the triple-decker Clubhouse with turkey, ham, bacon is $9.95); those famous fish and chips $12.95; and burgers: quarter-pounders are $5.95 ($6.95 with fries, $7.45 with fries and cheese; think this is what Tiger had). Half-pounders start at $6.95 ($8.45 with fries) and go up through the cheeseburger ($8.95), mushroom cheeseburger ($8.95), to the bacon cheeseburger ($9.95).
But the thing about these burgers is they're all "certified Black Angus beef," every last one of them. "We guarantee that. It's a struggle keeping the prices down, but it's a point of pride for us," says Debbie.
So I'm veering towards the Tigerburger, when I notice, up in the top left corner, soups and chili. Soup of the day is $3.95 (cup) and $5.95 (bowl). And the Campo Firehouse Chili, "made from fresh ground certified Black Angus Beef," is $4.95 (cup) and $6.95 (bowl).
Daggone it. On impulse I order the bowl of soup -- today's is veggie -- and a cup of chili. Yeah, I realize too late it's a fool's bargain. This is definitely gonna break my Hamilton and then some.
But here's the thing. When it comes, the soup is absolutely brimming with every veggie you can imagine. It's a meal, right there. "Jason makes it. He's out next door, stirring the cauldrons," says Debbie's daughter Kimberly. The chili is totally exceptional too. The meat is tender, fer-lavorful as all get out. I mean, you can tell they have put thought and love into both of these.
And to top it, I suddenly realize I'm late for my very important date with this guy at the Railway Museum down the road. Hank 'n' me have this crazy idea to shoot a video (his cam, my plot -- heroine's tied to tracks, steam train's a-comin'...). But Debbie says she'll hold it all for me till I come back. When I do, three hours later, they still have my food. They heat it up, and I get into one of the most social hours I've had for yonkers, with everybody coming in for their Friday night take-homes. Fred, back from working on the roads out here; Craig, who's with Campo Fire and Rescue; and a psychologist on the run from city life, Dr. Hobi. She's waiting for her deep-fried chicken breast bucket. "I'm a vegetarian," she says. "But tonight I'm going to pig out and watch trash TV. I do this once in six months."
So, what's a townie with a psychology degree doing out in the country?
"Where else could you get a 1930s farmhouse with another house in back and an acre of land for $270,000?" says Hobi. "And a fully flowered picket fence?"