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Lotsa Quarters, No Cow

Park it at Cafe Zinc

OCW StaffLaguna Beach is a curious mix of Marin County and Mayberry. It is a trendy, stylish city, with its amphitheaters and seaside art galleries. But it is also a small town—a maze of tight, winding streets crisscrossing steep hills. City elders cry out for tourists to visit its shops, beaches and art shows, then empty the rubes' pockets with ridiculously rare parking and meters demanding a quarter for every 10 minutes.

Exemplifying this beckoning-yet-rejecting attitude is Café Zinc, partially concealed by shrubbery in the center of town. I was there with my friends Todd and Steve for lunch one recent afternoon. Todd and I had been there before, but always for breakfast, brought in by the patio seating, fluffy muffins and sweet, pulpy juice. This time, we'd try lunch.

The place was packed at 12:30 p.m. It was hot and humid, but a half-dozen people were already standing in line when we got there.

We were hungry, made hungrier by spending 20 minutes hunting for and then walking from our parking spot. We thought about our future meals; we thought about meals past. I remembered from my earlier visits that they had small pizzas—I imagined digging into one heaping with pepperoni and mushrooms. Steve thought of layers of roast beef piled high on a baguette with lots of mustard, while Todd dreamed of a nice turkey sandwich. All perfect sidewalk-café fare.

The line inched forward. I could see the beautiful cakes and biscotti and pies displayed near the counter, but the menu was still hidden, mounted against a wall. After an eternity, I was able to stick my neck inside and see it.

It was all there—salads, pizzettes, sandwiches. But wait, what's a mixed-vegetable sandwich? Why is the word "garden" in front of the word "burger"?

"Uh," I said, turning around to Steve, "this place is vegetarian."

His eyes flared and then became subdued. He was not happy. I was in trouble. He took a deep breath. "Okay," he said, clearly not pleased. Not pleased at all.

At the counter, a gentleman in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves asked for my drink order. I asked for lemonade and got a tall glass filled with zesty juice sporting a sprig of mint.

As he was getting my glass, I took a step to the left and faced an attractive woman in glasses who then took my food order, asked my name and finally took a fair portion of my money.

We sat inside at a cramped table by the door, as all the tables outside were full, occupied by locals quietly drinking iced tea and discussing things like future train trips to Seattle.

Originally, I wanted the mixed-vegetable sandwich, loaded with fennel, celery, radishes, peppers and a hard-boiled egg—wait a sec, that's not even close to a vegetable!—but they were all out. The Zinc Burger I settled for was tasty, but like all garden patties, it needed the full packet of Gulden's mustard that came with it.

The pesto pizzette, loaded with, of all things, pine nuts, was also tasty. Steve wolfed down his stuffed peppers, the day's special, and Todd wasted no time consuming his quesadilla and vegetarian chili.

It's all good—and all expensive. My Zinc Burger and lemonade cost me $10. Considering the burger came with no side order, that's a pretty pricey snack. Then again, considering this is Laguna Beach, it's a pretty good deal compared to the parking.

Café Zinc, located at 350 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, is open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 7 a.m.-5 p.m. (949) 494-6302. Beer and wine. Lunch for two, $20, food only. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.

 
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