Cat and I walked over to Howard’s Cafe at 9th and Judah for lunch this morning. It was an extremely early lunch, but I just can’t bring myself to call it brunch. Brunch has always been one of those things other people do, kind of like watching football or owning handguns. I know it happens, and it’s popular, even! But something about it bothers me on a level I can’t quite explain, so as far as I’m concerned it was just a premature lunch. Truth be told, I’m not so crazy about diners, either.
But Cat loves going to diners for brunch on the weekends from time to time, so I nod and smile and ask for the lunch menu. She has brunch, I have lunch, and we meet peacefully in the middle.
And I do enjoy the ambiance at Howard’s. It’s relaxed, and it’s built with a huge plate glass view of one of the neighborhood’s most trafficked intersections, so you can people-watch as you eat (and feel your stomach knot in horror as inattentive pedestrians come within inches of being flung beneath the wheels of the N-Judah train). Its employees fall into the “likable and friendly” category rather than the “surly fat guy in a greasy wife-beater” category. You can tell that most of the customers tend to be regulars, and the staff knows their tastes and habits by heart. I can definitely see the appeal; the problem is that most food I associate with diners tends to be stuff I can make on my own, like bacon and eggs. And the way I make that sort of thing is much less deleterious to your cardiovascular health.
Fortunately, Howard’s isn’t all just breakfast food, and they seem pretty good about making everything from scratch. The soup of the day, for instance, is always New England clam chowder on Saturdays, and it’s always their own idiomatic take on the dish: Not as thick or oily as most places serve, but not watery, either. It’s rich and a little buttery, and full of vegetables and herbs. “Flavorful” would be the word. That’s a good word when it comes to food, so I approve.
I love clam chowder, but I also love being able to fit into my jeans, so I was content simply to watch Cat enjoy a cup of soup as a starter.
Since Cat cheerfully endorses the “brunch” thing, she almost always orders a breakfast-style meal at diners. Pancakes, eggs and toast, that sort of thing. Today she went with the house omelette, which is made with spinach and bacon and served with sour cream. It also comes with a toasted English muffin and home fries, although she substituted French fries in place of the latter. She also sprinkled the omelette with jalapeño Tabasco sauce, adding a little heat to complement the sour cream and a hint of sweetness to match the bacon’s saltiness. I haven’t eaten an omelette in about 15 years, but I have to admit it looked compellingly tasty.
As for myself, I accept that it’s impossible to eat healthily at a diner, so I figured I might as well just surrender and go all-out by ordering a portion of fish and chips. I was a little disappointed by the fish; I prefer the smoother style of batter-dipped fish to the rough, crumbly breading Howard’s uses. But they do make their fish and chips in-house from scratch as well, and the cod inside the batter was tasty and fresh. Whatever they use in their breading is delicious with a sprinkle of malt vinegar. I tend to skip the vinegar on my fish and chips, because it often overpowers the flavor of the food, but their cook put together a sufficiently bold batter that the vinegar becomes an accent rather than the main flavor.
On the whole, I prefer eating places where the secret ingredient isn’t year-old grease… but that’s diners for ya. And so far as diners go, Howard’s is pretty respectable fare. Even if they do take cash only.