Located on one of those annoying mini-streets that run parallel to Newport Avenue near the 55 Freeway exit, SIDE STREET CAFE is a welcome repository of all things hick. The cluttered walls feature various mementos proclaiming the glories of Texas, pictures of John Wayne and Larry the Cable Guy-esque signs like the one that advises eaters about their dining choices: “1. Take it; 2. Leave It.” Country music from the recently anointed Go-Country 105 on KKGO-FM 105.1 yodels from the radio. The menu is handwritten on wrinkled blue paper. Side Street Cafe's waitresses aren't the sexy sticks that populate too many restaurants nowadays; they're well-proportioned, comforting, the type of women you would've invited to strike it as homesteaders in a previous era.
Side Street's down-home feel isn't forced nor does it come off as hokey, although I can do without the cookie jar that claims it contains the ashes of a complaining customer. The secret is the menu: think Norm's, but even more filling and without all the grease. The pancakes are gospel, all four of them. Buttermilk pancakes look like fluffy Frisbees and don't need any extra gobs of butter; regular pancakes are topped with enough fruit to give you a cavity. The banana flapjacks feature slices of the fruit judiciously placed within the pancake; not as sweet but just as intriguing are roasted corn cakes, really just griddled cornmeal mixed with jalapeños and cheese. All the pancakes are cooked until they're just a bit crispy and as brown as syrup—ideal.
Most folks chow down on the pancakes for breakfast and wash them down with jars of lemonade, but Side Street can fill you up with many more choices. Fried-egg sandwiches are the stuff of an Elvis fantasy, all about an intense, fatty flavor. Stuffed French toast features a single wedge holding a bounty of fruit along with a slightly melted slice of cream cheese. Chicken-fried steak, three-egg omelets, sandwiches for lunch that I've never tried—here is the refuge for Orange Countians who remember the lay of the land before the Reconquista.
Side Street's been open for almost 15 years, but I hadn't ventured into the one-room restaurant until earlier this year. My lady friend had raved about the cinnamon buns. “Best you'll ever have,” she claimed. And she's right: a dense, steaming swirl of dough, heavy on the cinnamon spread and glazed with so much warm frosting it spills onto the plate and nearly onto the table. Randy Youngman, The Orange County Register sports god, your quest for the perfect cinnamon bun is over.
SIDE STREET CAFE, 1799 NEWPORT BLVD., COSTA MESA, (949) 650-1986.