I’m sitting at Nick’s Cafe, a restaurant that’s operated on the corner of North Spring Street and West Elmyra Street in Chinatown since 1948. It’s a quiet, open intersection across from Los Angeles State Historic Park, and it shares the block with a restaurant supply store. Most of the customers are seated outside under red and white tents in front of the building, but I’m perched inside, in the hollow of the counter near the restaurant’s open red door, to get a sense of the place . This is my first time here.
My phone tells me it’s 68 degrees at 8:30. A waiter told me to sit where I wanted and she would wipe my spot when I chose her. Staff and customers speak a mix of Spanish and English. Across the room, a father feeds his young daughter scrambled eggs. A man below me is drinking both coffee and a Coke while waiting for his breakfast. My waiter hands me a menu, and when I order, she calls me “honey” and “baby” in a quick, unaffected manner. This is how it addresses all customers. I call her “ma’am” back.
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For this week’s review, I wrote about Clark Street Diner, the Hollywood Hills restaurant that relaunched the 101 Coffee Shop space, which closed in early 2021. Clark Street Bread owner Zack Hall took over the space and installed chef Juan Pablo Garcia; the kitchen team brings an extra touch of finesse to buttermilk pancakes, pristine lemon-colored omelettes and melty cheese and onion patties. Soaking up its scene over breakfasts and lunches over the past few weeks made me think of the intrinsic restaurant culture of Los Angeles.
“We’re here for the food and the atmosphere, but mostly for the loose ritual of it all. Each location has a certain similarity that somehow defines its individuality; collectively, they offer insight into LA and its tidal beats that few other institutions can,” wrote Patric Kuh in a 2017 essay on diners for Los Angeles Magazine. It’s a great read, a reminder of how some of these icons draw in customers via their swooping Googie architecture, some for their late-night vibes and others for strong coffee and thick, toasty French toast. to start the day.
And of course, these restaurants designed to be affordable keep disappearing amid brutal and ever-increasing rents. Two beloved restaurants — the 101 and Swingers on Beverly Boulevard — have been brought back to life after closing during the pandemic.
I hadn’t eaten enough in LA restaurants before COVID-19 kicked us out of eating indoors. I was talking about all this with Laurie Ochoa and she suggested I go see Nick’s. “Order the ham and eggs,” she said. “I’ve always liked it with the salsa that goes with everything.”
The menu is huge, with the usual range of eggs in many variations, waffles, pancakes, hot melts of all kinds and chili fries with the option of adding pastrami. But ham has been a specialty at Nick for decades.
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I ask for the ham and the eggs. A second waiter keeps coming by and refilling my cup of coffee while it’s still three-quarters full. I look at the walls lined with images of the downtown skyline in older, less cluttered geometries. A sign reads: “In memory of Lois Fuentes, a friend of everyone at Nick’s Cafe. A guy comes in and sits down and my waiter says, “Your habit? and he smiles without looking up from his phone and replies, “Please.”
My breakfast is coming. The ham is indeed the star. One slice covers most of the plate, falling on the hash browns and half the over-easy eggs. It is coated with a brown sugar glaze and tossed on the griddle to caramelize and bronze along the edges. It turns out that the salsa served in a squeeze bottle is earthy and very smooth, but the counter is lined with shopping carts containing numerous brands of hot sauces. Between generous squirts of salsa and equal doses of Tapatío and Chipotle Tabasco, I find the right balance of flavors. The ham is taut and chewy and pleasantly stringy in places. It reminds me of the South. I’m calm for a moment before the day really begins.
I’m planning on returning to Nick’s for the Sonora breakfast – a variation of chilaquiles with scrambled eggs, nopales, a bunch of vegetables and both queso fresco and cotija – but I might end up ordering the ham again.
My server watches me take too many pictures of my food and asks, “Are you having fun there, baby?”
Yes, ma’am, I am.
Nick’s Cafe: 1300 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (323) 222-1450, nickscafela.com
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