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California Classic 

JoAnn's Cafe

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
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When people talk about California cuisine, they mention names like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck and refer to elegant, innovative, generally high-end fare that combines the state's abundance of fresh produce with the occasional Pacific Rim influence and traditional European/American dishes and techniques. Having lived in the Golden State for 22 years, I've eaten plenty of it. I love the stuff -- live for it -- but would add a subcategory to the classification that would include the down-home style of cooking at JoAnn's Cafe. JoAnn's is easy to miss among the strip malls and mile-wide boulevards of South San Francisco. The neon sign in the window is all but invisible during business hours (breakfast and lunch), and I drove past the place both the first and second times I visited, triggering two rounds of curses against whoever decided this stretch of El Camino Real should prohibit U-turns. I mean, does the entire world have to be designed to incur the least amount of risk? Thankfully, JoAnn's doesn't succumb to such timidity. You can get feta cheese, green chili salsa, and sautéed banana with your poached eggs (more on that later) -- or, like me, foolishly order two pancakes, spicy migas, and a banana milkshake for breakfast.

\rIf my choice of meal doesn't sound daunting, you've obviously never been to JoAnn's, where pancakes aren't the limp, thin, pale-doughed creatures you find at Denny's. Here they're a dense, rich, buckwheat brand of madness, dark and decadent, as fragrant as a thousand bakeries, laced with tiny bits of grain that pop against the teeth as you chew. They're as large as some dinner plates and as porous as sponges -- add syrup and it simply vanishes into the flapjacks' depths -- and served with more butter on the side than any health-conscious human being would knowingly ingest in a week. The migas -- eggs scrambled with onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, and tortilla strips -- arrived in a heap big enough to cover potatoes or some other filler, but the dish was pure migas from top to bottom, an electric blend of sweet, savory, and rich corn crunchiness that left my mouth tingling with heat. Had I managed to finish both plates (including the corn tortillas and mound of black beans that came with the migas), plus the entire shake (if clouds were made of banana and ice cream, this is how they would taste), I'm pretty sure I would have died, because that shake was served in a quart-sized tumbler -- and people, the tumbler was full.

This is the food I grew up with -- avocado on hamburgers, eggs wrapped in tortillas, omelets that might come filled with Cajun sausage, chorizo, mozzarella, ground beef, zucchini, jalapeños, tomatillo salsa, or Parmesan -- a hearty, fearless cuisine prepared by line cooks who wield their twin spatulas deftly. The place oozes old-school, coffee-shop charm run through with a decidedly laid-back, West Coast vibe. Its counter and dozen or so tables are often packed with regulars who don't bother looking at the menu before ordering. The first time I stopped by, my girlfriend and I suspected that our waitress was a Wiccan. The second time, sans girlfriend, I got the same feeling about another waitress, a saucy type who seemed quite capable of, say, shooting the breeze with local contractors, then trading curses in Spanish with the kitchen staff before heading out to Highway 1 to walk her dog at sunset.

Of course, the eats are the main draw. I put away nine devastatingly large plates both on the premises and at home, and none missed a beat. For a simple, classic breakfast, try the JoAnn's Special: two eggs cooked your way; a choice of meat (in this case, six strips of smoky, thick-cut bacon); a bowl of fruit salad; a side of hulking, knobby home fries; and either toast, a bagel, a scone, or one of the muffins of the day (carrot, amaretto, or apple-walnut, to name a few). Those looking for more creative fare can opt for the French toast -- three spongy slices of house-made bread dipped in a delicate orange batter, topped with refreshingly juicy slices of fresh orange. Or the pancakes (which should not be missed). Or the spicy migas.

If you're looking for a truly cosmic start to your day, the mad-scientist concoction I glossed over at the beginning of this review goes by the name Don Pasqual. A pair of corn tortillas bore a heap of perfectly al dente black beans topped with poached eggs, topped in turn with a zesty green salsa and crumbled feta, which added a groovy savor to the eggs, beans, and tortillas and played surprisingly well off the natural sweetness of a side of sautéed bananas.

Many dishes (particularly the pancakes) must be ordered before 11 a.m. After that, the breakfast selections narrow as JoAnn's tackles another California tradition -- lunch. If you're a post-noon riser with an appetite, the Andy's Hearty Breakfast should do the trick. A half-pound patty of fresh-ground, house-spiced chuck came smothered with sautéed mushrooms and green onions, accompanied by home fries, two eggs, a choice of bread, and -- an interesting touch -- lightly vinegared tomato slices flecked with black pepper and herbs. If you'd prefer to get creative on your own, JoAnn's serves three-egg omelets all day with a filler list of more than two dozen ingredients.

More traditional lunches run the gamut from a mountain of crisp, juicy romaine lettuce tossed with subtly sugared pecans, pungent blue cheese, and a delicate, oil-rich vinaigrette to sandwiches (the BLT, the BLAT, and the traditional club among them) and a half-dozen pastas. I choose the penne Christiana, which combined toothsome pasta tubes with tremendous shreds of low-fat chicken-basil sausage, juicy tomato, red onions, capers, a hearty dose of olive oil, and enough red chili flakes to produce a mild, pleasant burn.

Sometimes hamburgers are nothing more than sandwiches (a thin patty of dry meat on bread), but when properly executed they're a fusion of sandwich, salad, and ground steak that sets the stage for all manner of culinary experimentation. At JoAnn's, you get the properly executed kind, which can mean the X burger (the patty from the Andy's Hearty Breakfast on a toasted onion bun), or the avocado/Thousand Island/cheddar/alfalfa sprout California burger, or my choice, the blue cheese and bacon version. If you order that last option, be sure you like both ingredients, because you'll have to start by nibbling off the protruding bacon ends before sinking your teeth into the cheese-smothered burger, a deeply flavorful patty covered with as many red onions, pickles, tomatoes, and lettuce leaves as you'd care to pile on.

Then, if you simply must make a pig of yourself, throw a shake into the equation (banana, mocha, espresso, buttermilk, vanilla, or chocolate). Be warned, though: Chances are you won't feel like heading back to work after such a meal. Instead, walk out the door, feel the sun on your face, and perhaps engage in one of the many fine California traditions I grew up with -- have a toke, catch some rays, take a drive in the hills, or choose a nice secluded spot and bang on your drum all day.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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