Photo by Jessica CalkinsThey don't make places like Niko's Café & Restaurant anymore, and maybe that's a good thing. The Fullerton restaurant's once-plush carpet bears the skid marks of a thousand strollers. Hanging throughout the Googie-style building are about a dozen large photographs of John Wayne in various states of determination and drunkenness—or determined drunkenness—the only adornments save for solitary shots of Clint Eastwood and a cowboy Elvis Presley.
Niko's design instincts and culinary emphasis on country make it a must for anyone with a soft spot in his gut for Norm's-style grandeur, but with larger, cheaper, tastier portions and a smidgen less grease. Breakfast offers bloated omelets of sharp cheddar cheese, vegetables, meat—whatever you want, they'll throw in. Really, just ask. Lunchtime introduces a roll call of sandwich Americana: tuna melts, roast beef wedges, half-pound hamburger patties dressed in Thousand Island dressing so tart it transubstantiates the beef into something more sublime than mere animal. The sizzle of steak upon grill presents a pleasant soundtrack throughout the early day.
As at any fine diner, Niko's Café's house specialties are painted on the outside windows. But a debate continues to rage even six years after the diner's opening: Which is the real house specialty? Should newbies patronize Niko's because it's the "Home of the Wagon Wheel Pancake," battered UFOs 14 inches in diameter, sturdy enough to wash a car with, but too tasty to waste? Or are the "Famous Biscuits 'n' Gravy"—flecked with pork bits and floating in lard gravy—the prime choice? As decadent as those pale biscuits are—nothing has clogged up county arteries so effectively since the development of Mission Viejo in 1966—I'd suggest the former. The Wagon Wheel Pancakes are an architectural catastrophe, the pancake actually collapsing under its own weight, a space so vast that the two portions of butter provided are like scoops of ice cream. But the taste? The Wagon Wheel Pancakes would make Betty Crocker hot.