It’s Sunday morning. I’m in this mom and pop diner in downtown Oceanside. My friend Mary told me about it. Said it had won the prize — okay, in 2004 — for best cinnamon bun in the county. And who doesn’t love a good cinnamon bun?
307 North Coast Highway, Oceanside
It’s a nice breezy day outside. Warmer and crowded inside. Everybody seems to be in family groups. Marines and their girlfriends, couples, grandmas and grandpas helping each other into their seats. First thing you notice is the sign above the kitchen. “In God We Trust. One Nation Under God. God Bless America. God Shed His Grace on Thee.” And around that, nostalgia. Poster tributes to Coca Cola’s 50th anniversary, “1886-1936,” a California US 101 sign, chalkboard ads for “meatloaf dinner Wednesdays” (with roasted potatoes, $10.95), and a whole bunch of little signs. “Life is short. Smile while you still have teeth.” “There is a $5 charge for whining.” “You don’t have to be crazy to work here. We’ll train you!” And “Stop and Thank a Soldier.”
I sit down right next to a hanging chalkboard ad for “Sweet Tea.” The place actually feels a little southern. Madi even has a southern accent. She’s the waitress who comes to leave a menu. “Alabama,” she says when I ask where she’s from. She says it in a way that lets you know she ain’t lying.
Oh boy. There’s a lot of menu. Hmm. Mary told me that these guys are also famous for their fried chicken. Oh yes.
“Fried chicken, with your choice of a waffle, French toast, or pancakes, $13.95,” says a sign. “Add two eggs for $1.50.” They’re also pushing an 8-ounce New York steak for $14.95. Oh, and right on the wall is the cinnamon bun citation. San Diego Magazine. “The best cinnamon bun in the universe can be found at Mary’s Family Restaurant, a humble diner in Oceanside that’s also a culinary best for comfort-food breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
So yes, cinnamon bun, but first let’s look at those chicken possibilities, and all the others on the all-day breakfast menu. I see they’re really big on waffles, pancakes, and French toast.
“What’s best?” I ask.
“You can’t do better than this,” says Madi. She’s looking up at a whiteboard special. “Lumberjack’s Delight. Ham, sausage, eggs, bacon, choice of potatoes, and a slice of French toast!” Costs $11.49.
Or, beside it, Portuguese linguiça and eggs, $10.95. Basic brekky seems to be The Touchdown: two eggs, two pancakes, four bacon or four sausages, $10.50. Three pigs in a blanket is also $10.50. Cheapest looks like $7.49, Mary’s short stack. But maybe the best deal is Mary’s Power Breakfast, three eggs, three bacon, three sausage, country potatoes and two pancakes for $12.50. Or maybe half a pound of ground beef steak and eggs, $11.95. And oh, another cheap one: two (“homemade!”) biscuits and gravy, $7.75. The chorizo omelet with jack cheese and beans or potatoes runs $12.75.
So foodwise, the 1950s are alive and well. They say Oceanside, with its heavy Marine presence, is more like a Midwest town than California’s nuts and twigs culture. Though Mary’s does have salads, and specials like Spinach Delight, which is spinach, tomatoes, onions scrambled with three eggs, avo, potatoes and toast for $10.49. Deal. Healthy deal.
But I go with Madi’s reco, Lumberjack’s Delight. Then, crazily, I ask for a chicken basket as well, four pieces with fries, from the lunch menu ($11.50). Jes’ wanna try that chicken I’m hearing bubble away in the frier. Figure leftovers’ll be good for a couple more snacking days.
Lumberjack’s good. Generous slab of ham and French toast. Sausage and bacon a little on the little side, but the whole thing is more than filling, and the stupidity of my gluttony comes out loud and clear when the chicken plate arrives.
I do take a couple of jabs at the chicken, and have to say, the crunchy flavors are glorious.
“It’s all in the breading,” says Jose, the owner. He’s doing a tour of the customers. “And there’s also the egg, and the honey, and the herbs we rub in. We are known for it.”
Jose Hernandez is one of those success stories you read about in books. “I started off at 12, working in the strawberry fields here, then I wanted to better myself, so I got a job washing dishes at a Daisy’s. That was a chain — Daisy chain! — and after 25 years, I was the general manager of all 17 of them.”
In 1998, he bought Mary’s from the real Mary, who ran it as a fast-food kind of Buddha lounge. “I turned it into this family restaurant. Within a day of taking over, our sales went from $400 per day to $2000 per day. And up from there.”
He hesitates. “And now, the sad part of the story. The building has a new owner. He has tripled my rent. This was two years ago, just as minimum wages went up. It’s too much. I must close, or move. I have to do something.”
Jose looks up at his sign over the counter. “God Shed His Grace on Thee.”
“Maybe God will make something happen.”
I know I’ll be back. If only to support Jose.
And try that cinnamon bun.
- The Place: Mary’s Family Restaurant, 307 North Coast Highway, Oceanside, 760-722-3052
- Hours: 7am-8pm, daily (till 3pm, Sunday)
- Prices: Fried chicken, with waffle, French toast, or pancakes, $13.95; 8-ounce New York steak, $14.95; Lumberjack’s Delight (ham, sausage, eggs, bacon, potatoes, French toast, $11.49; Portuguese linguiça and eggs, $10.95; The Touchdown (two eggs, two pancakes, four bacon or four sausages), $10.50; 3 pigs in a blanket, $10.50; Mary’s short stack, $7.49; Mary’s Power Breakfast (3 eggs, three bacon, three sausage, country potatoes, two pancakes, $12.50; 8oz ground beef steak and eggs, $11.95; biscuits (2) and gravy, $7.75; chorizo omelet, $12.75; Spinach Delight (spinach, tomatoes, onions scrambled with 3 eggs, avo, potatoes, toast, $10.49
- Buses: 101, 302, 303, 313, 318, 392 FLEX, 395 FLEX, RTA 202, Greyhound
- Nearest Bus Stops: Oceanside Transit Center, 195 South Tremont Street
- Trains: Coaster, Metrolink, Amtrak, Sprinter
- Nearest Train Stop: Oceanside Transit Center, 195 South Tremont Street