Orange Cafe: The Spirit of Earl's
Remember Earl's Home Cooking in Orange? God, how I miss that place. The room in which you could legally smoke, a pleasure indulged in mostly by coffin dodgers one heart attack from the Pearly Gates. It proudly proclaimed to be open 25 hours a day, and even the salads came with a side of grease on top of the grease. Earl's closed years ago, but I always remember it whenever I'm driving up Tustin Avenue, the Champs-Élysées for working-class American breakfast diners in OC. Between Arthur's, Johnnies Jr., Flappy Jacks, Polly's Pies and the usual chains, hash browns here are a sacrament, the pancakes outnumber the tacos and the wealthy of the hill communities to the east come down to mix it up with the common folks over a cuppa joe.
Each breakfast joint has its pluses, but I usually find myself at Orange Cafe, and not just because the portions can feed a high-school football team. It's no-frills down to the dining counter, the single line of vintage license plates on two walls that passes as décor, and the owner, who'll plop out The Orange County Register to read during down times (you want old-school? That's anyone who still reads that fish wrap). The menu is just a couple of pages, all featuring the tried-and-true: pancakes, omelets, ham, sausage—but no waffles, bizarrely enough. Lunchtime brings burgers and sandwiches; there is no dinner. Yet in this decidedly prole environment, the chefs do take stabs at creativity. Fluffy pancakes come stuffed with strawberries and vanilla cream. The Denver potato pancakes are a Rocky Mountains of latkes, ham, sour cream and bell peppers; slit your over-easy eggs over them, and the umami factor explodes to a trillion.
Orange Cafe's greatest accomplishment, though, is its eggs Benedict, that most hoity-toity of egg breakfast dishes. The regular one is fine; better is the country version, smothered in unctuous gravy and served atop biscuits and a ham hock so massive you can fling it as though it were a Frisbee. Special versions will appear from time to time—chili Benedict, a crab cake variety, even a chorizo one for the many Mexis who swing by. Is this Break of Dawn? No. But sometimes, OC's stomach yearns for the specials of yore, wants toast with a side of Greatest Generation eaters. And until Earl's returns (there are rumors of such a glorious development), Orange Cafe is the place to visit—even if ol' Earl's brings back its nicotine-stained beauty.
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