Last of Little Italy’s toy soldiers stands guard outside Harbor Breakfast
1502 India Street, San Diego
Oh, yes! What a way to start the year. Haven’t had these since I was up in Gold Country. San Andreas? Placerville? Columbia? Frisco? Probably all four and more.
I’m looking down at my Hangtown Fry. Seriously. This is the only time I’ve seen this dish in America’s Finest.
So glad I got up early (for me) today, in time for breakfast. For the first time in a while, found myself in Little Italy. My, my. How things have buzzed along. Ironsides, the wrought-iron works, has become Ironside, the swanky eatery. Also gone: Pete’s Quality Meats, where they ground their own sausages and grilled the beautiful spitini sausage sandwich. Pete’s is now a new brick building with a juice bar.
I’m hoofing downhill when I see something different, at the corner of India and Beech. Instead of that old Harbor Marine Supplies place that sold nets, floats, navigation lights for the working-boat community, there’s this brand-spanking-new eatery in the old building, all golden varnish wood and blue. Called Harbor Breakfast.
So, before you can say “Jack Robinson,” I’m in, hoisted up to the lengthy bar. Ain’t dallying because even though it says “Breakfast All Day,” it also says they close at two. Gives me just an hour.
Karla comes up (not my Carla), white blouse, black bow-tie. Brings me water, hands me a menu with breakfast and lunch on it.
First up, a cup of joe. It’s $3, but you get endless refills. And...ulp. Need a couple of gulps, because, sticker-shock: things ain’t that cheap here, even if this is a bit above greasy-spoon diner-level looks. All omelets are $15, if you have any meat in them; like, spicy Italian sausage, ham, chorizo, or bacon. Vegetable ones are just a buck less at $14, like “The Farmer,” with tomato, zucchini, spinach, peppers, onions, goat cheese. You do get homefries, hash browns, or fruit with each omelet, plus toast.
Fruit treat including persimmons comes with Hangtown Fry
And, okay, some things are cheaper, like two eggs any style with the same sides for $8. Or $11 with meat. Biscuits and gravy go for $10. Eggs Benedict is $11 and steak and eggs, including a New York strip, is only $12. Pancakes or waffle (“pumpkin or plain”) are $8, $12 with two eggs and meat.
But what stops me in my tracks is the item above the fried-egg sandwich (which comes with bacon and cream cheese, $10). It’s those two magic words: “Hangtown Fry.”
My mind zips back to when my buddy Frankie and I did a roam around Gold Country. This was the dish that had the lore, the smell of those days. A Hangtown Fry was what you demanded as you thumped your bag of gold dust on the counter, fresh from the assayer’s office. Because Hangtown Fry had oysters, bacon, and eggs, which back then, up in them thar hills, were rare and expensive items, pre-refrigeration. And, got to say, for me, even now, there’s something wickedly expensive-tasting about oysters, in among the bacon and eggs and spuds and ’shrooms.
By now the other gal, Edybeth, has come up with her order book. My one battle is over the price. But, what the heck. “I’ll go for the Hangtown Fry, with multigrain bread and fruit. And a side of hash browns,” I say. Now I’m going crazy. That’s $15 for the dish, $3 for the hashbrowns side, another three for the coffee, then tax, then tip. Saying sayonara to nigh on 30 buckeroos here, fellers.
But when it comes...worth every cent. “We put the oyster in batter and then the panko crumbs,” says Karla, who’s standing by with a coffee urn for a refill, “and then cook them on the flat top. Not deep-fried.”
The combo of those crunchy oysters, and eggs, green onions, and King Oyster mushrooms, which feel and taste like clams, plus a shake of Cholula hot sauce on top, is plain Nirvana. Plus, the thyme-soaked rough toast, plus — oh, man — hash browns. Yeah, it’s just shredded spuds, but there’s something herby and sweet about them. I ask the manager, Eddie, who’s sat down at the counter for a break. “We put in Hungarian paprika, herbes de Provence,” he starts saying, but trails off. Maybe he has a secret he doesn’t want to let out.
No matter: by now I’m into the fruit. Not the usual orange-and-grape combo, either, but kiwi, blueberries, raspberries, and persimmons. These persimmons are totally luscious and clean out your palate for another attack.
“So, was Hangtown Fry really invented in the Gold Rush?” I ask Eddie. “Or is that just myth?”
“No, sir. You’re looking at maybe the first true California dish,” he says. “It was invented in Placerville, maybe 1849? Gold prospector comes in to the Cary House Hotel there. Throws down his sack of dust and demands the most expensive dish they can dream up. So, they got eggs, which weren’t cheap up there, bacon — they say that had to come from back East — and oysters, which would have to be brought up in ice from San Francisco. So, you can imagine how much they cost.”
Why Hangtown Fry?
“Because ‘Hangtown’ was Placerville’s old name! And it was called that because they would hang so many thieves they caught killing the prospectors for their gold when they came to town.”
Wow. I look out through the corner windows. They have a clever system of sidewalk booths — all blue — that the waitresses can access through sliding doors. This is one cute place.
And it comes with its own history, too, Eddie says. “This used to be a brothel upstairs and liquor place down here. It’s been open since 1887. Same building.”
“No, and I should know. I live upstairs.”
- Prices: Two eggs, any style, $8; with meat (e.g., bacon, chorizo, ham), $11; omelets with meat, $15; with veggies, $14; biscuits and gravy, $10; corned-beef hash with two eggs, $10; Eggs Benedict with ham, $13; steak and eggs (with New York strip), $12; pancakes or waffle (“pumpkin or plain”), $8; add two eggs and meat, $12; Hangtown Fry (with oysters, bacon, mushrooms, spinach), $15; chicken-salad lunch sandwich, $12
- Hours: 7:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., daily
- Bus: 83
- Nearest bus stop: Beech and California
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy, Beech and California