By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was the crack of dawn. I had just exited my vehicle in the immense parking lot of Perry’s Cafe when a 20-something guy emerged from the cab of a U-Haul truck a few yards away. Unshaven and wearing sandals over soiled white socks, he asked if I’d eaten here before.
“Yes, several times,” I replied as we concurrently moseyed into the 34-year-old diner.
“I’ve been on the road all night from Arizona and I heard they have great coffee and omelets,” he said in eager need of both.
Moments before he seized a stool at the 13-seat lunch counter, and as I settled into a nearby booth alongside a partition of glass blocks, I advised him to try a frittata instead of an omelet. Seemingly unfamiliar with the dish, he nodded amicably and took up conversation with a folksy waitress, telling her about the moving business he runs for “Zonies” who relocate to California.
I ordered the Mexican frittata — a departure from my usual Italian sausage frittata. Minutes later, a ruggedly handsome man donning a ball cap with the name of some labor union on it sat in the booth in front of mine. He knew a few surrounding customers and ordered ham steak with eggs. Through eavesdropping, I learned he drives produce to Midwest cities and sleeps on a cot inside his 12-wheeler during the trips. He routinely kicks off his journeys with breakfast here.
Perry’s has been something of an urban truck stop and blue-collar haven ever since the late Constantine Georgakopoulos founded the two-room restaurant in 1985. Located at the lip of Old Town, it has also become a haunt for office workers and hipsters seeking anti-trendy food served in brisk, generous fashion, which is precisely what you’ll find here from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.
The three-egg frittatas are about as elaborate as things get. The menu refers to them as “fancy omelets.” Technically, they are open-face omelets that don’t get folded over. With nearly a dozen types to choose from, you end up with mouthfuls of meats and/or veggies entrapped in the eggs.
My Mexican frittata contained an abundance of shredded beef and was covered with a blotchy mix of jack and cheddar cheeses. Its puffy mass and craggy exterior caught the eye of the U-Haul driver, who jokingly blurted, “That looks like a brain with melted cheese on it.” He was right, although I suspected this was the first frittata he ever laid eyes on.
Despite his unsavory comment, the dish was appealing. But not as stimulating as the sausage frittata.
From a choice of sides that include home fries or hash browns, I chose a generous serving of refried beans made with lard. They come with flour or corn tortillas, a ramekin of mediocre salsa, and a scoop of whipped butter, which pairs as swimmingly to frijoles and tortillas as it does to pancakes.
In past early-afternoon visits, when families, professionals and younger folk start appearing, I’ve forked through a range of dishes — all tasty fare that hardly fits into today’s “elevated” category.
Though the Reuben sandwiches are made with lean and thickly cut corned beef, which isn’t roasted in-house, the corned beef hash originates from industrial cans. And I don’t mind.
Various berries served atop pancakes and French toast start out frozen. Only the bananas are fresh. No big deal.
As for those coins of sausage loaded into my go-to frittata — or the chorizo I enjoyed previously in an omelet served with a preformed tablet of hash browns — a waitress once indicated to me those foods also hail from big distribution companies.
But the cooking at Perry’s is gut-warming for the most part. Prices are still reasonable for the ample portions you get, and service is fast and chummy.
In addition to all-American breakfast and lunch fare, the menu embodies an assortment of pedestrian Mexican dishes such as tacos, enchiladas and burritos that I’ve yet to try.
“Our menu is almost exactly the same as when we first opened,” said the founder’s grandson as I was paying my bill at the front register.
In an age when restaurants come and go at the drop of a crumb, and when consumers have grown increasingly restless for the latest and greatest kitchens, it’s nice to step into a place that knows when to leave good-enough alone. As shown by its bustling atmosphere, resistance to change doesn’t always chase people away.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.