The recession has left the San Fernando Valley’s dining blueprint peppered with just as many “FOR LEASE” banners over the names of familiar, reputable eateries as half-hearted frozen yogurt startups.
Henry’s Tacos is gone. Fromin’s is gone. Islands is gone. Even the original Domingo’s that opened in the middle of the 20th century was eked out of business after halving its size.
But right now, I don’t care. A description of today’s economic woes, or, for that matter, anything too logical is not of my concern.
I’m at a Tarzana restaurant called The Little Cafe, a cash-only breakfast and lunch nook that closes midday. Sharing a small space of Ventura Boulevard’s southern side with a liquor store, the easily-passed-by shack boasts three of its own parking spaces.
It’s terribly unassuming, inside and out.
The open kitchen takes up almost as much of its tiny floor plan as the dining area does. Patrons fold in their legs to let others by in the waiting area where, adorably, parties grab a marker to write their names on a waist-high whiteboard.
The walls are covered with a pastiche of movie posters, autographed headshots, newspaper clippings, and various Chamber of Commerce awards. They want you to know they’ve been around since 1982 and famous people know about it.
Tarzana’s midday motorcade buzzes in and out of the sprawling Ross parking lot across the street. Patrons chuckle and bark while an assortment of sharp clanking noises echoes from the kitchen.
I reach for more ketchup.
With the tenacity of a pitbull’s clamped jaw, the urge to continue gorging myself on beer-battered French fries overcomes me. It does not relent.
A waitress storms my way and, in one fell swoop, refills my drink, darts a smile at me, notices my calorie-induced stupor and nods, like this is par for the course, and chugs off.
I’ve found myself the victim of the first item listed in the “Grilled Sandwiches” section of the menu: the humbly titled “Deli Melt.”
Most of the lunch menu items run within a dollar of the Melt’s $9.25 price tag, including the option to halve your sandwich and treat yourself to a cup of soup or salad.
I’m realizing I definitely should have gone this route. About halfway through the behemoth but simple concoction of corned beef, roasted turkey, Swiss cheese, and thousand island on sourdough, I’m feeling more hypnotized than hungry.
I’m not getting up anytime soon, and these heavenly French fries aren’t helping the matter.
As certainly as I am satiated, I’m impressed. Amidst the flurry of a noon rush, I’ve received attentive, conversational service and a meal that was clearly cooked with equal attentiveness.
For such a heavy dish, all of its flavors were balanced well: I could pick out the savory corned beef from the clearer bite of seasoned roasted turkey, complemented by a melted mild Swiss on not-too-hearty sourdough, all with a good drenching of homemade thousand island.
The average patron seemed at least a few decades older than I, but that makes this place no less a gem. It’s just yet to be discovered by a generation of Pierce College students who are fed up with chain eats.
I’m no economist. I’m really not much of anything right now aside from inoculated and content. I just hope whatever happened to Henry’s doesn’t happen to The Little Cafe.