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Feeling Lucky

Safety first: Jim Ilg's got a lock on the coffeehouse crowd at Java Moon.
Mark Manger

When Jim Ilg and his crew were renovating the space that would become Java Moon, they found a safe sealed up inside one of the walls. It's big -- all black iron and tarnished silver with a swollen head mounted over a heavy, footed pedestal that makes it look like one of those antique, bubble-headed Esso gas pumps. With its smooth curves and weight, it has the kind of gravity that some things take on simply by virtue of having lasted long past their appointed time. Very old cars, even ones junked and left to rust, have it. Historic buildings. Forgotten stretches of road dwarfed by superhighways, which take on new significance only after the pavement begins to crack and weeds grow tall along the shoulders.

Like those roads, the safe has an almost magnetic power. People come into Java Moon just to see it, to hug it, to lie across it and pick up its century-old vibe, to fiddle with its single-dial combination lock while they wait for lunch. "We get all kinds," says Ilg. "We've had hundreds of people come in and try the combination."

Ilg himself has tried it hundreds of times.

But the safe has yet to be cracked. No one knows the right numbers to coax open the heavy door and make the thing spill whatever secrets it might be keeping. Could be anything. Could be nothing at all. There's only one guarantee: If you can pop the safe using only your bare hands (no tools, no blowtorches, no dynamite allowed), Ilg is ready to pony up $100 -- even if the old beast swings open and chuffs out only hundred-year-old air. But until someone comes up with the digits, the safe is a Schroedinger's Box -- a point of infinite possibility, incalculable probability and neat, self-contained mystery.

That safe is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Java Moon. There's something comforting about its mystical weirdness. Once in a while, I even give the dial a spin.

I like Java Moon for other reasons, too. I don't see 7 a.m. very often (noon, I think, is the best hour for waking), but if I must get up and out early, breakfast at Java Moon is some consolation -- although it's almost impossible to stomach all the rise-and-shine people who frequent coffeehouses at an hour when I feel nothing but vile. And while Java Moon's warm yellow walls don't make me feel any sunnier, the food often does.

So early one unusually busy Monday morning, I fortify myself with the sort of meal a lumberjack would eat if, rather than a sloppy chow line and a one-toothed hash-slinger called Cooky, the lumber camp had a restaurant like Java Moon attached, with Ilg working the clattering, steaming coffee machinery and a small kitchen doing the best it can with limited space but lots of ambition. In front of me are biscuits and gravy and a tall coffee -- plain and black. I'm sure it's some kind of fresh-ground, shade-grown South American dark roast something-or-other, probably harvested by well-meaning and eco-conscious college sophomores who spend their midterm breaks toiling beside the natives to demonstrate their bogus solidarity with the oppressed farmers of the Yucat´n. At 7 a.m., I don't give a damn about the agrarian revolution, but I can tell you this: Java Moon makes a good cup of joe. It's strong and fragrant when left alone, and even takes well to being sissied up into lattes, macchiatos and Americanos.

The biscuits and gravy? They're nice, too. The biscuits are fresh and fluffy, with just a little crust to them so that they don't turn to mush under the weight of the smooth, heavy sausage gravy. They come picnic-style on a black plastic plate. I eat them with plastic silverware, wipe my chin with paper napkins, and watch all the morning regulars do all those before-noon things that (presumably) make the world go round. There are people tapping on laptops, reading sections of the paper that don't have anything to do with sports or comics, staring out at the decayed urbanism of Broadway as though it might turn around any second, drinking half-caf white-chocolate mochas and chattering on cell phones -- which just makes me think again that there's nothing in the world so important that calling me up to tell me about it couldn't wait until noon. The earth could go spiraling off its axis toward the sun and I'd be perfectly fine with sleeping late and hearing about it on the midday news.

So while all those other people do something useful, I do something pointless. I try the safe. For reasons entirely beyond me, the combination to my high school locker pops into my head, and I give it a spin: 18-24-36. I yank the lever.

Nothing.

"The safe dates back to 1890," Ilg says. "And no one has gotten it open yet. We've had several professional safecrackers -- well, professed professionals, anyway, because how would you check something like that? None of them have been able to open it. We had one guy who said he got the combination, but then he wasn't able to open it. He said the numbers were right, but the door wouldn't open. What do you say to something like that?"

I say better luck next time.

Along with the safe, Ilg found several matchbook covers tucked inside the walls. They advertised the Del Rio, a dance hall that used to occupy this building until sometime in the 1930s. The Winter Gardens Bar and Grill took over the space in the late '40s and lasted almost fifty years, Ilg thinks. After that, the place was used as storage. "My father, Larry, has owned the building since the 1980s," Ilg says. "Java Moon has been here seventeen months."

Seventeen months as of February 8, and Ilg's been behind the counter every day. He runs the joint for his folks, who'd originally wanted to put in a deli until a visit to some nameless jazz coffeehouse in New Orleans changed their minds. You can see the French Quarter's influence in Java Moon's color scheme, the local art on the walls, the way the front of the restaurant can open onto the street on warm afternoons (thanks to a double set of garage-door-style front windows). You can hear it in the sexy trumpet and sax-heavy tunes blowing through the sound system. You can taste it in the gumbo -- a Friday special -- that's served out of the big soup crocks lining the wall opposite the counter.

Another morning -- not quite so early, but still well before the 11 a.m. breakfast cutoff -- I stop in for a lighter breakfast. While the kitchen puts my meal together, I go to the safe and dial my birthday. Nope. I dial my wife's birthday. No joy.

I take a seat in one of the funky armchairs in front of the electric fireplace, spy an Elmore Leonard paperback on the bookshelf, grab it and catch up with Chilly Palmer over my breakfast burrito.

Sometimes simple pleasures are best. Sometimes they're all you get; sometimes they're all that matters. Most of the time, they're all you can hope for. And that simple pleasure -- the Ramones on the radio on your way in to work, a five-spot in your pocket that you forgot was there, a smile from the pretty girl in the ragtop Fairlane stopped next to you at the light -- can turn your whole day around.

For me, it's a breakfast burrito on a cold morning -- one of mankind's greatest creations to temper the chill of Mother Nature at her grouchiest. I put down the book so I can attack Java Moon's version with my plastic knife and fork. The burrito is as big as my forearm, stuffed with bacon, egg and potato and rolled loose; it's served in a pool of Colorado verde that's hot without being punishing, thick with chile's smoky sweetness and punctuated with fatty chunks of pork. I eat every bit while I stare out through the garage-door windows at the sky as it changes from ash to iron, listening to the kind of jazz that really isn't -- just high, bright horns over a syncopated snare and kick-bass.

I like this warm, soft-around-the-edges, Broadway-cum-Bourbon-Street cafe so much that to say anything bad about it seems sort of like walking up to Santa Claus and punching him square in the mouth. Still, Java Moon's asking for it with a few ham-handed attempts to class up a simple cinnamon roll. The orange zest-Grand Marnier version I tried one morning was a horror: sickly sweet, dry and acidic, bitter with burnt cinnamon and served lukewarm. The caramel-apple variation was a little better because the apples were soft and warm from the pan, like a very fresh tarte tatin, but they'd been poured over the hump of a dry roll so stiff it tasted three days stale. And the whole thing was set swimming in a powdered-sugar-caramel sauce so intensely, repulsively sweet that one bite was almost enough to send me into an eight-hour diabetic coma.

In fact, most of Java Moon's problems involve its baked goods. The muffins are good one day, mealy the next. Once I picked up a raspberry cream-cheese bar so astringent with the acetone flavor of plastic wrap and refrigeration that ten steps outside the front door, I threw it away. And while I'd like to be able to blame some faceless, distant supplier for these failings, Ilg insists that Java Moon makes everything it serves.

"We don't serve recycled food," he says. And that's an admirable practice for a small business in this day and age. But it also means that he gets the blame for the half-baked baked goods.

Java Moon does pull through with good Rice Krispies Treats, though. They may not be the pinnacle of the pâtissière's art, but they come close enough.

And right here and now, on a mean and nagging morning, with a breakfast burrito in front of me and nothing in my immediate future but Elmore and maybe another caffè latte, it's easy to forget that this kitchen ever stumbles. It's easy to be happy with the simple pleasures and the hope -- however unlikely -- that maybe today will be the day that one of life's big pleasures, and the answer to a mystery, comes my way in the form of three magic numbers.


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