Bleu Whisk owner-chef John Barrios and daughter Taylor
Man, this is one broad Broadway. Broadway, Lemon Grove, that is. I’m looking for the Food Factory. Why? Because I want a retro breakfast, and Food Factory has been going 40 years or more. As retro a diner as you could hope to find.
And thar she blows. Except, ulp, the sign don’t say Food Factory. Says “Blue Whiskey”? I weave a little closer. Ah. “Bleu Whisk Diner.”
Whatever, just hope it’s still serving breakfast at one in the afternoon.
7914 Broadway, Lemon Grove
Bleu Whisk and longtime building-splitter, Chuy's Barber Shop
Shapewise, it looks the same as the old Food Factory: long, narrow, splitting the building with Chuy’s Barber Shop. Bunch of good old boys hunch over the front end of the counter. Waitress patrols behind it. Cook’s holding down a hissing burger patty on the grill. Elvis is howling out “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”
Waitress comes up.
“Uh, still doing breakfast?”
She looks to the cook, halfway back at the oven by now.
“Well, usually stop at 11:00. Can’t do, like french toast, but… Taylor, just show him the standard things.”
Now that I look closer, I can see Taylor’s her dad’s daughter. The same open face, bright eyes, strong chin.
I start checking the breakfasts.
“You should try these sand dabs,” says one of the two gents chomping away at the tail of the J-shaped counter. Jim. He’s boning a flatfish. He points above him.
At first I see a “Cash Only” sign leaning up against a mural of Lemon Grove’s giant lemon.
“City of Lemon Grove” sign says. “Best Climate On Earth.”
Whiteboard next to it reads “Lunch Specials – Sante Sand Dabs w/rice pilaf & pineapple coleslaw, $12.95.”
“Sand dabs?” I say.
Taylor, David, and Jim
“Fish, like a sole,” says the guy next to Jim. David. He’s chowing away at a dab too. “Since John took over, he’s really upped the ante. Like, this has a tropical coleslaw side that just makes it.”
Huh. Dabs. How come I have never heard of these things? Looking at David’s plate, you can see they’re like sole and halibut with the two eyes on top. Turns out they’re pretty common off California and Japan.
“But if you want breakfast, we can do it,” calls John from up the counter.
I do see an omelet special, the Ranchero, “filled w/linguica sausage, peppers, onions, topped w/ranchero sauce, cheese and avocado, $8.95.”
Regulars David and Jim had the fish. “You missed something good here,” said David.
John sees me looking. “But no omelets now. Sorry.”
Corned beef hash. Now break the eggs.
So, I go for a couple of eggs over easy, corned-beef hash, country potatoes with bits of raw veggies tossed in, and wheat toast ($8.95). And endless coffee ($2). I’da gone for the dabs, but fish first thing? I, uh, chicken out.
Can’t miss with corned-beef hash, right?
Right. Ten minutes later, that first gritty, soft, tawny, oniony, garlicky mouth-explosion of the hash. One of the guys says corned beef got big around WW2, when they didn’t have much refrigeration, so they salted the fresh meat to preserve it. The “corned” of corned beef comes from the “corns,” or “horns,” grains of salt they put in with the meat.
But how come this is so delish? John says he adds a poultry spice blend to it, and lots of onions in there, plus plenty of chopped-up spud. So-oo good. I stuff the wheat toast under the two eggs, break’em so they leak out all over everything, and we have lift-off.
“No. You missed something good here,” says David. He’s still into his dab. “This guy does sophisticated sauces.”
“Well,” says John, “the couple my wife Lori and I took over from, Bob and — also Lori — Bailey, they had been running this place for 42 years. So, I wasn’t going to come in and up-end what works. But I have introduced my own regular specials, bring something new. I want to use some of my training. That’s why we put a twist in the name. ‘Bleu Whisk.’ ‘Bleu,’ the French thing; ‘Whisk,’ Because that’s the most common utensil we use here, from the get-go.”
Tom the dishwasher comes and sits down for a coffee break between me, Jim, and David. “Actually, John’s a top-of-the-line chef,” he says confidentially. “He has cooked for four presidents!”
“Well, let’s see,” says John. “I have cooked for both Bushes, and Jeb, and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Plus Giuliani, Powell.”
Turns out they all came to the Argyle Club, a hot-shot institution in San Antonio, Texas, where John was executive chef.
“These were often special occasions, like $10,000-a-plate political-fundraiser dinners. Twenty-five people, quarter of a million dollars. Lot of pressure on me. But they had to work hard, too.”
His take on the presidents?
“All the Bushes? Totally friendly. Jeb and George Sr. stopped in at my kitchen to say thank you. And George W. was really one of the boys. Kidded around. You felt so easy with him.”
Bill Clinton? “He was super-friendly, too. But he talked so much he never finished the roast-beef tenderloin that I cooked for him.”
Rudolph Giuliani? “Offered to come pose with us for a picture, so we didn’t have to ask.”
Barack Obama. “Courteous, but quite reserved.”
Longtime customer Jim Elliott with his $3.50 apple blueberry pie.
Colin Powell? “Very quiet, very serious.”
Does he miss that high-life now that he’s cooking for the likes of me and Jim and David?
“Here’s the thing: what I like is here. We’re important in this community, and in a personal way. People like Jim, if he doesn’t come in, we worry. We call him up. There’s still a little country left in Lemon Grove. All those presidents would like this.”
As I down the last of the corned-beef hash, Big Joe Turner blasts out “Shake, Rattle and Roll!”
It’s nearly half past two. Guess I’d better do just that. Next time, like the ad says, maybe a little dab’ll do me.
Prices: Corned-beef hash with country potatoes, two eggs, toast, $8.95; Ranchero omelet w/linguica sausage, peppers, onions, ranchero sauce, cheese, avocado, $8.95; breakfast sandwich w/ham, bacon, or sausage, $5.95; Bleu Whisk Burger $7.25; grilled-cheese sandwich, $5.75; lunch specials (e.g., sand dabs w/rice pilaf & pineapple coleslaw), $12.95; homemade apple-blueberry pie, $3.50
Hours: 7am – 2pm Monday to Friday; 7am – 12pm Saturday; closed Sunday
Buses: 856, 936
Nearest Bus Stops: Broadway and Grove
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Lemon Grove Depot, 3443 Main Street, at Broadway