I'd been having such a good day.
A full night's sleep and then some — rare for me, insomniac that I am. Waking late, bumming around the house in sweatpants, in a rush to get precisely nowhere. First cigarette of the day and a mug of green tea on the porch with a good book (Augusten Burroughs, Possible Side Effects). I was feeling fine. Grabbed a shower, brushed my teeth, picked up a clean T-shirt off the stack on the floor. (We've been in this house for almost three years and still haven't bought a dresser.) I had breakfast plans: work, but only of the most low-impact variety. A final meal at Mona's to collect the last few details. I already knew what I would be eating: the house corned beef hash, eggs over, a couple more cups of tea.
One of the reasons I like Mona's — both Mona's, the original on 15th Street and the new one, which owners Garren and Linda Austin opened on Broadway late last year — is that it's a pure, simple and unabashed breakfast bar. It opens early (7 a.m.) and closes early (two or three or four in the afternoon, depending on the location and the day), serving breakfast straight through, a few simple lunch sandwiches. There's no complication, no ostentation. And though both Mona's outposts have, at one time or another, made a run at doing dinner (homemade meatloaf with a Californian squiggle of ketchup, steaks from Maverick Ranch), they've wisely backed off. For one thing, they weren't doing enough business to make a third service viable. For another, their early-morning offerings — banged out and honed by four years of practice at the first address, six months at the second — are just better.
On this, my good day, I was visiting the new location. I'd already made two turns through — once when this Mona's was just a baby, a few weeks old at most, the second just the day before. And I was looking forward to my third meal there, because while Mona's may not be sleek or overtly sexy, while it doesn't challenge me or get all freaky with the foie gras or galangal root, neither does it disappoint with its BLTs with avocado and basil aioli, crocks of really good French onion soup double-stacked with bread rounds and gooey with melted Gruyère, brioche French toast with a hint of sweet, warm oranges. And then there's the corned beef hash...
I'd ordered the hash at my first breakfast at Mona's because I'm a Mick, because I'm a Mick who grew up blue-collar, lower-middle-class in a neighborhood full of blue-collar Murphys, Dougals and McDonoughs, because I'm a lower-middle-class, blue-collar Mick who's always had a weakness for girls whose families spent their Sunday afternoons complaining about the price of lox and brisket at the local deli. Because of all this, I am culturally, genetically and hopelessly incapable of not ordering corned beef hash at any restaurant that offers it.
I love the hash that comes in a can — the greasy, mushy, horrible stuff that smells like cat food and would, if the can were left unopened, survive a thousand years beneath its slick white cap of fat. I love restaurants that serve hash right out of the can, slorking it out onto the flat-top, mashing it with a spatula and letting it fry in its own grease. I love the places in Manhattan and on Long Island that make their own — taking corned beef brisket, potatoes, onions and beef tallow and running them through a buffalo chopper until the texture is like a slightly chunky paste — and the places here in Denver that make their own the way Minnesota Methodists make pot-luck casseroles, heaping up a pan with leftovers (fatty brisket ends, unused home fries, onions from the bottom of the bag) and then turning on the heat and praying fervently for a latter-day miracle of transsubstantiation. I thought I loved them all.
But what my server delivered after I ordered the hash at Mona's was nothing like what I'd expected, nothing like I'd ever seen. It was a whole plate of deep-fried potatoes, crisp on the surface and soft within like perfect pommes frites, big chunks of green bell pepper, sautéed onions and sliced corned beef brisket, cut the size of bathroom tiles and given a fast sear in the pan. For a moment, I was horrified. It wasn't what I'd asked for. Where was the grease? The mush? The cat food smell? I was tempted to send it back and order an omelet, or maybe just walk out of this place that dared fuck with the vital corned beef/potato/fat ratio that had kept generations of my dirt-poor and criminal forebears fed.
Instead, I broke two yolks over the top of this pretender's hash, dug in with my fork and tasted it. And I was more in love than ever — head over heels. I did have to sort out the green peppers and put them to the side (has there ever been a plate of anything improved by the inclusion of bell peppers?), but aside from that, this was the best corned beef hash I'd had outside of Long Island. And come to think of it, why wouldn't it be? All Mona's had done was take a classic American dish and give it the only classic American fillip of execution it was missing: a quick bath in the deep fryer.
So on my good day, I was heading back for another round of corned beef hash and a last look at the new Mona's — a bustling and bright space, with a front wall full of windows, comfortable booths and banquettes — before I sat down to write. I was hoping that the staff, both in the kitchen and on the floor, wouldn't mess up the good thing we had going. Even though the service had sometimes been slow, occasionally distracted, I was okay with that. At breakfast, I'm often rather slow and distracted myself, and I tend to find a similar state of mind in my waiters and waitresses comforting. And even though the kitchen had turned out a couple of duds (a grilled cheese sandwich jacked up with caramelized onions and limp roasted red peppers taken straight from the can and laid on my sandwich without even a cursory pass across the grill), they'd also come across with that great hash, as well as a nice, Americanized breakfast burrito, fat and stuffed with those same fried potatoes and ham and eggs, though topped with a forgettable green chile. Also, unlike the original Mona's, this one has a bar that does interesting things with champagne and Ketel One — things that can make a man feel like not so much of a lush for drinking before noon on a workday.
And while on this good day the service was still a bit bungled (my pot of Earl Grey forgotten at least twice, and when it finally arrived only reminding me how much I missed my morning coffee) and the kitchen working at its own leisurely pace, the corned beef hash was, if anything, even better than before: golden potatoes and eggs just right, a massive dose of Irish poverty food sided by a single blueberry flapjack, perfectly turned, laced with a crisp-edged filigree and so fluffy in the center that it drank melted butter and syrup the way I do Harp lagers: fast and with excessive relish. It was such a good breakfast on such a good day that, for a moment, I forgot myself — forgot who I am and what it is that I do for a living. I'd been enjoying myself the way a normal person might who'd slept late and had then had a fine morning meal — not thinking like a critic or a food writer or anyone whose anonymity is, at least partly, his stock in trade.
So when the bill came (cheap for such an excellent breakfast, until I realized they'd comped me the tea that had so resolutely refused to arrive), I reached for my wallet and, thoughtlessly, pulled out my actual credit card. The one with my real name on it. Not one of the three fakes I use most nights. I walked up to the register and handed that card to Garren Austin, the owner of Mona's, who was standing right there.
"That's a good name," he said. And I replied with something clueless like, "Oh, really? Well, thanks."
He flipped the card over. My signature had long since rubbed off. He asked for my ID. And then, all of a sudden, I realized what I'd done.
In my mind, shit shit shit. My good day, right out the window.
Garren said something else but I missed it, desperately trying to back-trace, to come up with a workable lie. Then he said, "I know who you are." And I said something like, "How could that be? I don't even live here."
"Really? Where are you from?"
"New Mexico. Santa Fe, most recently."
Garren looked me in the face. He looked down at my shirt. He looked me in the face again. "That's a good restaurant, too," he said.
I looked him in the face, then looked down at my shirt — the one I'd grabbed from the pile on the floor way back when this had still been my good day. I could read it upside down just as easily as Garren could right side up. It was a Frasca T-shirt. Shit shit shit...
"Yeah," I laughed, breaking the first rule of effective lying, adding pointless details a mile a minute. "That's why I'm in town. To see Lachlan. I knew him back in California when he was still working for..."
No way in hell Garren was buying any of this. Eventually, I just stammered to a halt.
I smiled a defeated smile. Garren gave me a smile back — a knowing one. "Hope you liked your breakfast," he said. I told him that I had, that it had been excellent. And then I left — slinking out the door, leaving my bad lie and my anonymity behind, consoled only by the fact that now I could return to Mona's and eat the corned beef hash whenever I wanted.
And I'd been having such a good day.
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