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Morning at Mama's Cafe is all business. Eggs and more eggs, pancakes and waffles, toast and toast and toast. The kitchen is tiny, a steel box full of line cooks and fire, with room for one guy to work comfortably, two if they're close as ballet partners. Put three in there and it starts to look like Thunderdome time: a constant battle, no victors, only victims. They put plates out a half-dozen at a clip — not just fast, but fast fast, filling the pass rail quicker than the waitresses can empty it. The place smells of onions and peppers, char, sweet wafts of hot sugar, powerful industrial cleaners, the thick meatiness of eggs scrambling on the flat top. But the ham-and-cheese omelet is awful — a three-egg envelope fold that's a flavorless mille-feuille of dry, gray egg, clotted cheese and scant ham — and I wash it down with dishwater coffee that's sour and thin.
2001 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
Lunch at Mama's Cafe, on the offside of the rush, is almost sedate, the room relaxed and half committed. I order more weak coffee and decent cherry pie — my own private Twin Peaks special — and watch as the two waitresses work the floor in a near-pantomime of small-town-diner charm, breezing quickly down the narrow aisles between the tables with plates stacked up their arms, picking up and putting down with veteran speed. They call you sweetie, they call you hon. But like catching the flash of a gun beneath someone's sport coat, like suddenly noticing the bob of an Adam's apple on the girl you've been chatting up all evening, you know there's something more to the waitresses at Mama's — iron beneath the polyester. Sit close enough to the service station at the top of the main dining room, and you can hear their conversations: talk about tables, about checks, about kids — and every now and then, "Are you ready for tonight?"
No one is. At night, almost any night, Mama's Cafe is jumping, full of sound and fury and the very specific strangeness native only to this particular stretch of Colfax Avenue. There are hipsters and geeks with bad ink, facial piercings and twitchy fingers; street people having hissed discussions with their silverware about sprawling government conspiracies; blasted night creatures hanging desperately on to their plates of pancakes, walleyed with drink and that queer, tunnel-vision focus that comes from concentrating all your scattered energies on just not barfing on the table.
A few blocks east, a few blocks west, the crowd is different — weighted by the environment, the magnetic pull of certain corners, certain neighborhoods, certain tastes. Taxi drivers, prostitutes, cops, cowboys, frat boys, skip tracers, strippers, ambulance drivers and ambulance chasers, and dealers in powerful chemicals — everyone in Denver's vampire community has his own hangout on the other side of midnight, a regular haunt, a favorite plate of steak and eggs. But Mama's is a rare gathering place, the watering hole in the jungle where jaguars and monkeys and elephants and the rest of the Lion King cast all call a temporary truce from the predator-and-prey game so they can eat, drink and chill for an hour.
I come late on a Thursday looking for tamales — middle-of-the-night tamales, the best kind — but after my breakfast and lunch at Mama's, I decide my stomach can't take the tamales and order pancakes instead. Mama's does pancakes well. Big, fluffy, golden-brown, with just the right amount of sweet in the batter, a huge gob of lardy butter on top and a plastic cup of warm maple syrup on the side. And then I order some pie, because I'm a black-coffee-and-pie kind of guy when I've got a few drinks in me. But the coffee is still bad, and this time the pie is, too. The blueberry tastes of tin; the huge, quarter-pan slice of lattice-topped apple is gooey where it isn't tough and has no flavor save for mealy apple and a sour wisp of cinnamon.
From my lonelyheart's booth against the center wall, I have a good view of the waitresses who operate like commandoes now, an elite night-shift unit accustomed to the fragile, freaked-up peace of the place, burning through tables fast and paying special attention to their regulars. There's a pissed-off paraplegic in the back parking lot, bumping his motorized wheelchair over the shattered pavement, demanding change from passersby while he chain-smokes cigarette butts, and every minute or so, a fire truck, an ambulance or a prowl car blows past outside the big front windows, lights and sirens blaring. At night, Mama's looks battered — rough not just around the edges, but straight through: cheap paneling, floral wallpaper, fake tile, booths patched with black electrical tape, walls patched with whatever was on hand the morning after the night the holes were punched, kicked or burned into them. The fake potted plants hanging from the ceiling and lacy curtains tied back around some of the windows do not help. It's less like putting lipstick on a pig than it is pancake makeup to cover the bruises on a corpse.
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