3804 Grim Avenue, San Diego
Arnold Schwarzenegger sweated here. Stern’s Gym, North Park, “California’s oldest bodybuilding gym.” So did half a dozen Mr. Universe winners. So should I, except that right now I’m searching out the North Park Post Office. It’s about ten, a fresh, breezy morning. I pass the Rubber Rose sex shop, San Diego Art Department — a studio with people painting pictures inside, and other little galleries — and then I spot it, the lostest post office in the county, where Grim Avenue meets North Park Way.
Just as I’m about to cross Grim, I notice a red screen door in a blue-tiled wall. The blinds are half down behind the windows. I lean and squint through the glass. Huh. I see two counters thrusting out next to each other in a double “U” shape, with counter stools and, yes, folks chowing down. The place looks like a holdover from the 1950s.
Hmm…I do owe my gut a breakfast. So I swing through that metal screen door. Half the counter seats are filled, even this late in the mornin’. There’s a smell of joe in the air — not espresso, more like Hills Bros. — and bacon. Perfect. I head for the second island and plunk myself down.
Decor-wise, the place feels Chinese. Cream wallpaper decorated with Chinese pagoda scenes, paintings of misty Chinese mountains, dozens of porcelain knickknacks, mostly Chinese, like Buddhas, elephants, koi fish, pandas, peasants, and coins — but with baseball, football, and horse racing represented up there, too. Plastic one-page menu sits in front of me. “Lucky’s Golden Phenix Restaurant,” it says. “Open Monday to Saturday, 7:15–Noon.” The menu is strictly breakfast. And strictly Western. And, whoa, strictly cheap. Like, one egg with hash browns, toast, butter, and strawberry jam goes for $2.75. One hotcake costs $1.95. Nothing is over $4.10. Three eggs with three bacon or three sausages or a hamburger patty, plus hash browns and toast, costs $3.60. A ham-and-cheese omelet (same sides) is $3.85. The three $4.10 items are the Denver omelet, three eggs with ham, and two hotcakes, two eggs, with bacon, sausage, or hamburger patty.
“Coffee?” says this elderly Chinese-American gent behind the counter.
“Is the Pope Polish?” I ask. “No,” he says. But he still brings me a big ol’ china mug and fills it up. It costs all of 85 cents. I see there are no lo-cal sweeteners. Only the pouring sugar jar. Now I know we’re in a ’50s time-lock.
“Have the bacon-and-cheese omelet,” says this guy who’s leaving. “Lucky, give him the pancake.”
Huh. So the gent with the coffee is Lucky himself. But I was thinking of the two hotcakes, two eggs with bacon, sausage, or hamburger patty. Hamburger patty appeals. What the heck. “The bacon-and-cheese omelet,” I say. “With an English muffin.”
That’s 25 cents extra. Big spender here. Lucky doesn’t write anything down.
“Next time you come, he’ll remember exactly what you like,” says Jessie, the lady who’s facing me. That’s the thing about sitting around the double “U” seating here, you’re looking right at people. Can’t help talking.
“Uh, maybe I’ll have a hotcake, too,” I say.
“No, no,” Lucky says. “Wait. You might be too full on the omelet.”
Jeez, I’m thinking, this guy is too good for his own good. He goes straight to the kitchen at the back and starts cooking. One-man band. “His wife used to work here with him,” says Kenny, who’s sitting next to Jessie. “They used to do lunch, too. Chinese food.”
From the kitchen, Lucky says, “She stopped working to learn the computer and learn Mandarin.”
“Look at the photo board,” says Kenny. “Amazing people have been here and left their autographs. Leo Stern, who started Stern’s Gym, used to come in, till he died last September. He’d bring people like Arnold.”
I get up to go look on the wall by the door, and there’s the Governator as a young bodybuilder. There are other signed pics, like Gene Autry, Debbie Reynolds — “To Lucky. Happiness. Debbie Reynolds” — to baseball players.
“Lucky’s famous in his own right,” says Jessie. “I’ve been coming in 18 years. People love him.”
The omelet’s fine, crackling with bacon. Hash browns are good, too. Crispy golden outside, soft inside. Lucky’s refilling my joe as fast as I can slurp it down.
“I’ve been going 35 years here,” he says. He was born in Canton, China, but he doesn’t really want to talk about it. Instead, he turns on a little mechanical G.I. Joe on the knickknack shelf who sings “God Bless America,” and then Yogi Bear — or is it Smokey the Bear? — who does a butt-wiggling dance that makes everyone laugh.
“Make it five dollars,” Lucky says when I ask for the check. It’s cash only. Jessie tells me people sometimes only have credit cards. “Lucky says, ‘Don’t worry. Pay it next time.’”
A Chinese zither plays on the sound system. Lucky was right. I’m full. No room for the hotcake. I sit back. How long have I been hanging around North Park and never seen this place? Yet Kenny says it’s crowded, most mornings. That phrase my English buddy Robin keeps quoting at me floats back. “Good wine needs no bush.” Robin says that when the wine-drinking Roman legions occupied beer-drinking Britain, innkeepers would hang a bunch of ivy outside their taverns. It was a signal that they stocked wine. Except, for places with really good wine, the bush wasn’t necessary. Word of mouth was enough.
Guess that’s at work here, though the phrase might need some work.
“Good dine needs no fuss”?
Lucky’s Golden Phenix, 3804 Grim Avenue (at North Park Way, kitty-corner from the North Park post office), 619-297-2760
Type of Food: American breakfast
Prices: One egg with hash browns, toast, $2.75; one hotcake, $1.95; three eggs, three bacon or sausages or a hamburger patty, hash browns, and toast, $3.60; ham-and-cheese omelet (same sides), $3.85; Denver omelet, $4.10; three eggs with ham, $4.10; two hotcakes, two eggs, bacon, sausage, or hamburger patty, $4.10; French toast with bacon, sausage, or hamburger patty, $3.75
Hours: 7:15 a.m.–noon, Monday–Saturday
Buses: 2, 6, 7, 966
Nearest Bus Stops: 30th and University