Part I: Breakfast
By Emma Goldman
“MOM! I’m hungryyyyy!”
It was 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning. I was still in my Wonder Woman jammies finishing my coffee.
I looked at my nine year-old who was lounging on our couch watching cartoons, clutching his belly, and said: “Golden Hill Café or Los Reyes?
Eggs, bacon, and hash browns? Or a breakfast burrito? Or donuts and pastries at Panchitas? A Wonchi with bacon at Krakatoa? Or we could wait for lunch and get a slice of pizza at Luigi’s or a falafel wrap at the Kabob House….”
You see, we are surrounded by food places where we live in Golden Hill. And more places have been opening up to keep things interesting. Later on, as my son was devouring his massive egg, bacon, potato, and cheese burrito from one of our taco stands, I decided to do a three part series on eating in Golden Hill with a special focus on 25th Street, as that has the greatest concentration of places to go in this historic neighborhood.
While doing a stint of food reviewing for The Reader, I’d covered several of the restaurants and snack shops in my neighborhood, yet I’d never actually linked all of these establishments together in one comprehensive 24-hour buffet. What is notable about these places is that they are part and parcel of the community. Often they represent a crossroads for the folks who live here and reflect the diversity of Golden Hill.
Thus there is an array of tastes to be had from the tender Mexican cheesecake at Panchita’s to the spicy umami of Counterpoint’s fried brussel sprouts tossed in kimchee. So tie on your tennies and follow me as we wend our way over the next couple of weeks through breakfast, lunch, and dinner down and around 25th Street in Golden Hill.
At the corner of 25th and C Streets sits the Golden Hill Café—a real diner’s diner. As I wrote in The Reader
[A] real diner is precisely what the Golden Hill Cafe is. . . . The waitresses, all of whom are seasoned professionals, greet you cheerily as you come in, and they offer up coffee before you’ve even taken your seat. …the mix of people in the booths [reflect] the diversity of the neighborhood. Families occupied the bigger booths, college-aged bohemians chatted at smaller tables, and older folks sat at the counter and gossiped with the wait staff. Like all real diners, this is a neighborhood gathering spot, not a scene. It was bustling, and the service was friendly and efficient. [If] you’re expecting organic, farm-to-table food, keep driving. The menu here offers standard American and Mexican breakfast and lunch fare, with nary a description or sourcing information. It’s unfussy, hearty, and inexpensive food.
It’s hearty food indeed. To begin with, my son and I dig potatoes. I mean really love them. The Golden Hill Café’s hash browns are a thing of beauty. Shredded, crisped, laced with onions—they are a perfect sop for eggs over easy or for the Café’s creamy Eggs Benedict sauce.
The Mexican specialties at the Café are also quite serviceable—huevos rancheros and chilaquiles, which come doused in a piquant red sauce.
Personally, I prefer the green chilaquiles at Los Reyes on the corner of 25th and Broadway (which I’ll discuss in the Lunch section in the next column), but the Golden Hill Café’s version still fills you up. And best of all, the giant windows give you a great view out to the street for prime people watching.
Three doors past the Golden Hill Café, in the same shopping center along C Street, sits the neighborhood’s outpost of Panchita’s Bakery. Here you can find a mind bogglingly diverse selection of Mexican baked goods displayed chock-a-block in the front window, enticing you to enter.
Once inside the busy shop, the warm smell of baking hits your nose, and as you grab a tray and tongs to snag your goodies, you rub elbows with workers getting a concha to eat before heading to the job, moms shepherding their kids to school with donuts in hand, office ladies picking up some pan dulce to share with their colleagues, and local chefs stocking up on bolillos and teleras.
The pastries and breads are made on the spot, and if your timing is right, you can get a sugary Mexican wedding cookie or empanada crema straight out of the oven. Or, even better, a warm bolillo sprinkled with sesame seeds and stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and jalapenos, a bargain at $1.79.
Panchita’s also serves coffee and hot chocolate, and they make special occasion, hand decorated wedding and birthday cakes (including a drippingly gooey Tres Leches version). Open from 5:30 AM to 9:00 PM, Panchita’s hearkens back to a past of neighborhood bakeries where the folks who work the counter remember who you are.
Continuing on your way, if you don’t mind walking beyond 25th Street, you can go about half a mile past Golden Hill Park, the Golden Hill Recreation Center, and hike a little while alongside Balboa Golf Course, where you’ll happen upon Tobey’s 19th Hole Café. As I noted a while ago in The Reader :
[W]e’d heard from our Golden Hill neighbors that the café serves solid diner food and that you couldn’t beat the location. . . .Both reports were true. From the chorizo-and-egg breakfast burrito ($5.75) that my husband inhaled to the basic cheeseburger on a fluffy, freshly baked bun ($5.50), which my son ordered, the food is designed to fill you up after you’ve trudged around the golf course for 18 holes. Or, we realized, as groups of haggard-looking 20-somethings wandered in, this is the place to go for a little hair of the dog after a hard night drinking beer and hanging out in South Park.
The clientele is an amusing mix of retirees sporting loud Bermuda shorts and perky visors inside, and youngsters in garish, overly large sunglasses outside on the patio. It makes for fun people-watching, if you can tear your eyes away from the view. Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe sits on the edge of a mesa, 100 or so feet above the golf course. A fairway winds down the hill beneath picture windows that line the rear of the café, housed in Balboa Golf Course’s clubhouse.
Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe opened in 1934, 19 years after the Balboa Golf Course, which was built in 1915 to coincide with the first Panama Exposition. Thus, Tobey’s came into being on the eve of the second Exposition, which ran from 1935–’36 and celebrated “modernist” San Diego.
The Tobey family still owns the diner, and there’s definitely an old-school feel to it. The waitresses (the servers are all women) smile upon you kindly and make sure your food is okay, but they don’t hover.
Tobey’s was clearly built to capitalize on the views. But because Balboa Golf Course is public—part of Balboa Park and Torrey Pines’ poor step-sister in the ‘hood—eating there is like having a beggar’s banquet.
The food, as I noted, is diner food. The interior of the Café does not conjure up images of A.R. Valentien. Formica topped tables abound, as do bottles of Heinz Ketchup and Tabasco Sauce. Tobey’s serves crunchy, salty Tater Tots, Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, and meaty entrees.
Sometimes your arms stick to the table if a pancake-eater occupied that space before you. But that’s what’s wonderful about this neighborhood spot. You can eat some toast and sip a cup of coffee and gaze out across a Wordsworthian expanse of green grass at the gleaming towers of downtown in the distance. Which pretty much encapsulates the community of Golden Hill, a place of killer views and regular folks.
Next up: LUNCH.