French toast is fully inch-thick, drowning in butter.
This happened on the morning of the eclipse.
I’m speed-walking down Palm Avenue, trying to get to the I.B. pier in time to catch the big event, and maybe some brekky out there at the end.
Laura started making lunches for teachers at Mar Vista High School, where her seven kids went.
But mostly, to watch the ocean, because I heard that the moon-shadow races across the waters at 2000 miles per hour when there’s a total eclipse. You can see it coming. It envelops you in its darkness.
Problem I discover when I get there at this latitude there is still too much sunlight to see it coming clearly. I would have had to be up on the Oregon coast.
Jerry: “My favorite? ‘Big Breakfast.’ Or, their I.B. Burrito.”
Second problem: by the time I puff up to the end of the pier, most of the event’s happened.
Third problem: the pier eatery, Tin Fish, is chain-link fenced off.
910 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach
“Doesn’t open till 11,” says this fisherman who’s just hauled in three twitching sardines. “They don’t do breakfast anymore.”
Gia's landscape with silhouette of plane
Dang. I wander back up Palm, grumbling. “Stupid, stupid, stoopid.” Also “Hungry, hungry, hongry.” Then, right at 2nd and Palm, I notice this place that’s been around a thousand years. It sits in a white stucco group of shops with sun-faded red canopies. I see folks eating breakfast outside on the patio. Okay!
Big Breakfast is the star.
Flap through the black fabric curtain, and we’re inside, well, an art gallery. Paintings all around the walls, anyway. Mahouts on elephants, whales flying over volcanoes, digital art, and a bunch of landscapes with silhouettes of different planes flying through.
Under the umbrellas is the favorite spot for diners.
“That’s my daughter, Gia,” says this lady, Laura. The owner. “Her dad took her to an airfield when she was tiny and she’s been painting plane pictures ever since.”
“Uh, still do breakfast?” I ask.
“Till around 12,” she says.
Whew. Still a good hour to go. Also, I can tell from the atmosphere and customers relaxing in wicker chairs: I’ve found a real mom-and-pop. “Mom, where’s the sugar?” says the cook. Laura tells him she thinks she put it on the shelf out back.
The menu’s chalk-written across the boards above the counter. Starts off with a $9 “Big Breakfast. Pancakes, potatoes, eggs, choice of meat.”
The more basic version is two eggs, toast, and choice of bacon, sausage, or ham, for $6.50. A three-egg omelet filled with your choice of fillings plus home fries goes for $9. A croissant stuffed with eggs, cheese and meat is $7.
“My favorite?” says Jerry. He’s a customer with a big German shepherd. “‘Big Breakfast.’ Or, their I.B. Burrito.”
The burrito has eggs, cheese, potatoes, meat choice, and avo for $6.
So, lots of variations on this eggs/cheese/potatoes theme. Like, “English Babe” has eggs, cheese, ham on an English muffin. That’s only $5. Cheapest thing is a breakfast melt, basically bagel, tomato, cheese, for $4.
I settle for the Big Breakfast, and a coffee, which is a nice surprise: for $2, you get this moby 16-ounce mug (with free refills when you order breakfast; or 15 cents into “the volcano,” a ceramic honor-system pot that looks like an erupting mountain).
“We have big mugs because customers like to sit around and chat a lot here,” says Laura. “With big cups, folks don’t have to be getting up and down for refills all the time. Uh, do you want pancakes, or would you rather french toast?”
Huh. French toast? Turns out this is the most crucial decision of my morning. I like the idea of two big pancakes, but Jerry says the french toast is really, really, good, so I go for it.
And, man, he wasn’t kidding. They’re not just big fat slices of butter-melting eggy toast. “These are a special bread,” says Laura. “Cinnamon Swirl Texas Toast.”
It’s fully inch-thick, drowning in butter, tastes kinda sweet and fruity, and with some syrup, is just about as wicked as it gets.
Turns out Laura opens at 4 a.m. every day. “I have customers come in at that hour,” she says. “Mostly retired military. They like to have a coffee and play cribbage.”
She got into this restaurant business after she started making lunches for teachers at Mar Vista High School, where her seven kids went. “Those teachers needed something better than the cafeteria lunches.” They told her she should open a restaurant. She says this café has been going 36 years. She took it over 8 years ago, and has been getting up at 3:30 a.m. ever since. Seven days.
“My kids help out, as soon as they turn 14,” she says. “Jersey’s cook today. They have loved it because it put money in their teenage pockets, when their friends had none. And through this job they have learned to deal with people. They can carry on a conversation with anybody, old, young, rich, poor. That’s my greatest gift to them.”
People are talking. “We wear tricorn hats,” Val’s saying. “We march down to the Plank pub, swallow a couple of whiskies, and get into singing old English songs. You should come.”
24 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach
Man, this is so I.B. I’d love to.
Meanwhile, I’m munching. I mean, the eggs are okay, the potatoes are a little underdone, but the french toast is amazing. It’s so full of sweet cinnamon flavor and beautiful gunginess, I’d come back just for that, even though so much more’s going on here. Laura says they have musicians and artists painting out on the patio on the weekends.
Must call Carla. I know she’d come for that. She paints. Plus, she’s crazy about french toast.
“French toast? I’m over the moon!” she says. “But moonwise, you must be so disappointed.”
“You got that right,” I say. “I’m so over that moon.”
208 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach
Hours: 4 a.m.–3 p.m. daily
Prices: Basic Breakfast (two eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, or ham), $6.50; Big Breakfast (pancakes, potatoes, eggs, choice of meat), $9; three-egg omelet, choice of fillings, home fries, $9; croissant stuffed with eggs, cheese, meat, $7; IB Burrito (eggs, cheese, potatoes, meat, avocado), $6; English Babe (eggs, cheese, ham, on English muffin), $5; breakfast melt (bagel, tomato, cheese), $4; Elm Street Club Sandwich (turkey, bacon, ham, mozzarella), $7; salads, $6.50; Fluffer Nutter (waffle, banana, peanut butter, marshmallow cream), $7; The Billy (four eggs over medium, four bacon, toast, avocado, spinach), $8
Buses: 933, 934
Nearest Bus Stops: 3rd and Palm (933, westbound); 2nd and Palm (934, eastbound)