‘Do you know how to operate this projector?” asked H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff.
“Sure,” said Tony Vasquez. And from that day on, Tony, the guy sitting next to me at the counter, became Nixon’s projectionist.
“His favorite movies? W.C. Fields and The Sound of Music. I must have screened that one at least five times for him.”
What is it about Lemon Grove? Is this where all the presidents’ men hang out? Because a year ago, I ate at Bleu Whisk, the diner a quarter mile down Broadway, and discovered that John, its cook-owner, has cooked for four presidents: both Bushes, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.
Tony is the husband of Anna. Yeah, Anna of Anna’s Family Restaurant where I’m sitting.
Tony’s eating a luscious-looking cheeseburger. Me, I’m into one of the wickedest breakfasts I can remember. I came in here late for breakfast. We’re talking 2 p.m. and then some. Inside, it’s like the last of the old-line coffee shops. It’s woody. Has cabin rafters. It even has a fireplace. Flat-screen’s showing FABLife right now. Couple of late eaters stare up at it.
“Know if they still have breakfast?” I ask this lady.
Turns out she’s Anna herself.
“Oh, sure, breakfast anytime,” she says. She hands me a menu.
There’s two pages of breakfast items. A gent sitting to my right’s finishing off a ½ lb ham steak with two eggs and hash browns ($8.99). Chicken-fried steak and pork chop are also $8.99. A “Hungry Man” ten-ounce rib eye steak ’n’ eggs, sounds, mmm, tempting. But, $13.59. Three-egg omelets start at seven, and I like the idea of “Anna’s Sweet Potato Pancakes.” Short stack’s $4.99; with an egg and bacon or sausage, $6.99.
“Anna’s Morning Classics” are all $8.29. These are, like, country scramble with ham, mushroom, bell peppers, onion, tomato, and cheese. Or huevos rancheros, breakfast burrito, eggs Benedict, country biscuits, or, hey: Grove Egg & Potato Skins. “Stuffed with scrambled eggs, avocado, bacon, onion, pepper, and hollandaise or country gravy.”
Now that sounds naughty. And new.
“It’s an old recipe,” Anna says, “but good. I prefer the hollandaise.”
Me, too. I order that plus a $2.29 refillable coffee. Have never had this combo for breakfast before. Sandy the waitress brings it on a white oval plate, a bulging, steaming, golden mound of hollandaise over eggs with greenish-yellow chunks of avocado peeking out the ends and brown potato skins glowering underneath. And a small bowl of stewed apple slices with cinnamon sprinkled on top.
I don’t know how many eggs are in here but it’s a lot. Plus, crunchy green onion and bacon and the flesh and skin of the two baked-potato halves. Dang, but it’s good, all swaddled in the lemony hollandaise. So good you know it has to be bad.
“Anna got the dish from Tyler’s Taste of Texas. That’s what this place used to be,” says this gent. Turns out to be Tony. He’s come from the kitchen with his cheeseburger ($7.99).
We get to talking. “Anna has been working all her life,” he says. “She arrived here at age 15, from Greece. She went straight to the strawberry fields and started picking. Since then she has worked as a waitress, owned a bunch of places, then, after a divorce, had to become a waitress again, here, when it was Tyler’s. One day, Tyler offered to sell her the place. She’s owned it since April 1st, 2001. She’s kept serving his catfish, and she still serves the Grove Egg and Potato Skins.”
Plus, more Tyler heritage on the wall. “BBQ Beef Ribs. Thur & Sat. All You Can Eat.”
Tony manages the financial side for Anna. Before, he was in the Coast Guard and Navy. He’s been all over. Says he managed base maintenance in Scotland, Italy, Spain, DC and CD.
“Camp David. I got there when President Johnson was leaving and President Nixon was coming in.”
Thing he remembers about LBJ? “He was easygoing, but demanding. Like, we were flying in a plane to Washington DC. He insisted on putting down at this airfield in Texas just so he could go grab a bottle of NuGrape, his favorite pop soda.”
Thing he remembers about Richard Nixon? “I was surprised. He wasn’t a big man, but he had a big, commanding voice.”
Tony got to know Nixon through the movies he projected for him. “This was the days of 35mm film. Sound of Music was 15 reels. Those canisters weighed a ton.”
He flew with Nixon to France for President de Gaulle’s funeral, met Pat Nixon, Bob Hope, Bebe Rebozo, Ehrlichman, and the toughest of all, Haldeman.
And how did he team up with Anna?
“I was a single dad. My son kept saying, ‘Dad, I want a mom. I want a sister.’ And one day we were in here eating, at that third booth over there, and Anna was serving us, and my boy said, ‘Dad, she doesn’t have a ring on her finger.’”
A lot of good food and conversations later, Tony proposed. “And the great thing? Anna had a daughter by her previous marriage, and she and my boy hit it off straight away. He got a mom and a sister.”
On my way out, I see a certificate on the wall. “This is to certify that the President of the United States of America has awarded the Presidential Service Certificate to Antonio B. Vasquez, USN, for Honorable Service in the White House.”
I’ll be back, for more presidential talk, but especially for more of those outstanding breakfast skins.
8099 Broadway, Lemon Grove
Prices: ½ lb ham steak with two eggs, hash browns, $8.99; chicken-fried steak, $8.99; pork-chop breakfast, $8.99; ten-ounce rib eye steak, 3 eggs, $13.59; Anna’s Sweet Potato Pancakes, $4.99 short stack, $6.99 with egg and bacon or sausage; country scramble, $8.29; huevos rancheros, $8.29; breakfast burrito, $8.29; country biscuits plate, $8.29; Grove egg & potato skins, $8.29; fish and chips, $7.99; half sandwich and soup or salad, $5.99; prime-rib dinner, $16.99; breaded-catfish dinner, $10.99; bacon cheeseburger, $8.59
Hours: 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily
Buses: 856, 936
Nearest bus stop: Broadway at Grove