[This Hole-In-the-Wall Life] A Delicious Relic at Cowgirl's Cafe

Next to Mexican and Middle Eastern restaurants, my favorite dives are old-fashioned American diners. Not only are they endangered due to Orange County’s majority-minority reality and changing eating habits, but most remain an artifact of a different era, a time when pot roasts and dinner rolls ruled and newspapers were read instead of ignored. COWGIRL’S CAFE—a time warp of a Western-themed place in industrial Santa Ana, where whites are the majority and even the Mexicans know English—is such a museum, and its Rosetta Stone is the kielbasa special.

Now I know why the United States was once the undisputed ruler of Earth. A turgid, pornographically large sausage the length of my forearm curved around a plate. Below it were thin-cut potato ovals sautéed with onions; on the side was a bowl of peas. Peas! Buttered peas! Who the hell eats peas nowadays in this epoch of endives and heirloom everything? No bread, no soup, no salad: just the meat, taters and freakin’ peas. It’s the type of meal that’ll either kill you or fuel a long day of empire-building, and generations of Americans subsisted on such hearty, to-hell-with-calories meals. You can usually forgive a restaurant if it ignores flavor in favor of bulk, but the kielbasa special (available only when available—how’s that for redundancy?) was as delicious an entrée as any at Morton’s. The sausage—sliced every couple of inches for your easy knifing, blackened on the skin but juicy throughout—was light enough to trick your stomach into finishing it. The potatoes weren’t life-changing, but you’ll remember how delicious they were for a couple of weeks. And those peas . . . they sat in a small pool of melted butter that seeped into the infamously earthy legume, making each bean a mini-marble of gluttony.

Other remnants of edible Americana fill Cowgirl’s menu—a tart Cobb salad, a scrumptious meatloaf, the forgotten grace of liver and onions. But most people who eat at the diner (whether feasting at the counter or in green booths so ancient they’re divided by etched amber panels) scarf down on three things: the omelets, burgers/sandwiches and breakfast. I’ve never seen so many types of sandwich at a place that doesn’t specialize in them—29, all massive, all accompanied with a side. Virtually every sandwich that’s part of the American lexicon is here, but I like the steak variety—a grilled slice, some tomatoes and an onion ring. Simplicity writ juicy. The choices aren’t as vast for the hamburgers and omelets, but every one is just as good.

Final note: You gotta give love to any restaurant that hangs a pencil-drawn portrait of Gabby Hayes with no irony. And if they serve edible cuisine? Priceless.


Cowgirl’s Cafe, 1720 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 542-8877.

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