Find what you're looking for at DJ's Berkeley Cafe
Laura and I are in bed, sheets pulled from the corners, blankets mussed and tangled. I can feel her, warm beside me, and from the sweet edge of exhausted sleep, I can hear her voice.
"Dammit. Why didn't we order a pizza first..."
A day later, she catches me shuffling around the kitchen, opening and closing the fridge, opening and closing cabinets, poking my nose into the pantry and pawing across our cluttered counters.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
"Looking for something to eat."
"What do you want?"
And I have to think about that for a minute, standing dumbfounded with a box of Apple Jacks in one hand and a frozen tamale in the other, posed like the statue of justice, weighing my options.
"Sushi," I say.
"Or chicken wings. Maybe chicken wings."
"And did you expect to find sushi or chicken wings in that box of cereal?"
"Because that would be weird."
A couple of days after this, Laura needs cookies for a party. She won't bake them herself. Won't just go the grocery store and buy them. She is picky because she knows the best and will not settle for less. So she harries local bakers, working the phone like she's trying to negotiate a nuclear standoff, and with almost every call, there is a commentary — memories of the croissants at this one, the baker's beautiful baby at that one. I am watching TV while she works, and her ambient chatter — the background radiation of our relationship — makes me think only of breakfast.
"Corned beef hash," I say, musing.
"Hey, I know a place..."
Of course she does. For years, food has been the central pivot around which all things in our conjoined life — sex and parties and Tuesdays — rotates. Nothing is complete without food. No memory full without the recollection of a meal attached to it. I remember our first apartment together with the terrible windows and the cockroaches, but can't travel far down that memory's lane without also recalling lying in bed, eating cannoli out of waxed paper bags from the Italian place down the street. I can't see rain without thinking of Laura tracing doodles with her finger on the steamy window of a Chinese restaurant, looking out through the muzzy neon into the downpour on the other side.
She finds her cookies. The next morning, I get my hash at DJ's Berkeley Cafe. I've never been before, and am surprised that a place so popular (a five-page wait list on the morning before our breakfast, crazy-deep lineup at the door) could've slipped so completely beneath my radar.
We get a booth against the wall, where we drink tea and watch the neighborhood turn over on the floor, the clock rolling from breakfast rush into lunch. Almost everyone in the place seems to be a friend, a regular — making the Sunday morning or afternoon pilgrimage for eggs and coffee and slabs of French toast stuffed with peanut butter and jelly and Belgian waffles with blueberry compote and crème fraîche. They wave to each other, gossip with their waitresses, with the owners — brothers Jason and Devin Stallings — who are hunkered down in a back booth, doing their books and business.
The Stallings brothers are veterans, third-generation Coloradans who've spent large portions of their lives moving in and out of the restaurant business. Jason did time at the Paramount and the Skylark before taking a ten-year sabbatical into the tech business. Devin did Pour La France and Sushi Hai, Moda and Blue Ice and the Giggling Grizzly. Neither had ever owned a place of their own, but in 2006 they both decided they wanted to. "I got sick of the tech business," Jason explains over the phone, "and he was sick of working for other people."
So Devin and Jason threw in together, and DJ's was the result. But why a breakfast bar? Why the neighborhood-diner model?
"There's just a whole bunch of bad breakfast out there," Jason replies, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "We thought we could do something better."
The space at 3838 Tennyson Street wasn't much when the brothers got their hands on it. "Spider hotel," Jason remembers. "A mess." So they gutted the place, pulled up the floors down to the dirt, pulled down the ceiling. Everything was done by hand, a lot of it by the Stallings brothers. They built the booths and the prep tables, carried bricks, hauled out the toilet that was sitting where the office was going to be. It took months before they got DJ's open, in August 2006. And then, of course, the place caught fire last February. The damage was ugly, but DJ's soldiered on.
The hard work paid off. The space is excellent — rough brick and stained wood, patio seats surrounded by a house garden and a nice bar/counter that will come in handy when the place gets its liquor license (next year, they hope). It's homey without being kitsch, cool without having to resort to tired retro-diner tropes. It feels comfortable and lived-in and alive — and would feel the same, I imagine, even if it were empty. Except that it's never empty. It's rarely even slow.
My corned beef hash comes quickly — made from scratch, by hand, just this morning. Fat pieces of corned beef, squeaky on the teeth, and fried potatoes and two perfect over-easy eggs on top. Laura gets a club sandwich sans veggies because, just the night before, we were talking about hoagies and dreaming of hoagies — ham and turkey hoagies, in particular, from a place she likes in Philadelphia — and an all-meat club is the closest thing on the menu: soft French bread dusty with flour, stacks of meat, a smear of mayo and some bacon for good measure. There's nothing complicated about our meal, nothing groundbreaking. It's simply good, and since good is what we'd been hoping for, we're both pleased.
Both of the brothers are at DJ's every day, doing whatever needs doing in the classic role of the independent restaurant owner, but Devin spends more time in the kitchen. He's the cook, and he believes everything ought to be made to order, everything ought to be made by hand. "Tough to mess something up that way," Jason explains. So that became their business plan: Make everything in-house, and make it as well as it can be made. In season, the kitchen pulls some ingredients from its own garden. The crew will only cook Benedicts until eleven in the morning because they make every hollandaise sauce from scratch, and it doesn't keep. DJ's is known for its Benedicts, and the hollandaise's complexity and richness give away its scratch roots even before Jason mentions them. The biscuits are the size of hockey pucks, dense and solid, beautifully golden-brown, perfect with jam, better drenched in spicy sausage gravy (made that morning, of course). The chorizo stew is like breakfast soup with poached eggs on top. And the kitchen also does specials every day (frittatas or omelets or what-have-you). "Everything fresh every day," Jason says.
I go back for lunch. I go back for another breakfast. There's just something special about DJ's, something in the frisson between the brick and the bar, the notice board by the door filled with advertisements for pet-sitters and local plays and used Honda Civics for sale and the servers, every one of them a longtimer, most having been there from the start. I walk through the door and it's like a fist of tension lets go in my back. It makes me happy just to slide into a seat, calms me to sit, hunched over a bowl of up-from-produce potato-bacon soup, smelling the play of chives and cream.
The breakfast burrito is massive, short and fat and stuffed to bursting with eggs and cheese and potatoes and bacon and slivered sautéed onions, all drenched in the house green chile that has a little heat, a little char and the deep vegetable sweetness of fresh chiles. (They roast their own Anaheims.) The omelet with bacon and sharp cheddar and tomato is made in the French style and folded as thin as paper. Everything is excellent, served by a kitchen built for speed and volume and smiling, friendly waitresses who seem to see nothing weird in stopping to advise one regular on where to find some work as a truck mechanic and another on where to find a vet in the neighborhood for their cat even as the tables start to back up at the front and the hostess's list grows long. No one complains. No one (except maybe the guys in the kitchen) seems in any rush at all.
Back at home, Laura and I eat the croissants from the bag she picked up at the bakery where she got the cookies. We talk about how we would have never gotten married had either of us been the kind of people who put ketchup on their scrambled eggs, and about what we're going to do now that one of our favorite Chinese restaurants has been turned into a cheesesteak place. We talk about this and that — the normal business of a life — but the conversation always loops back to food: to sushi and chicken wings and pizza and pastries.
I know it won't be too long before I find myself again craving corned beef hash — thinking about it when my mind really ought to be on more important things.
And when that happens, I'll know just where to go.
And when that happens, I'll know where to go.
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