Cafe Society


French kitchen god Escoffier advised that an omelette is "really scrambled eggs enclosed in a coating of coagulated egg." And in The Way to Cook, one of Escoffier's disciples, Julia Child, writes that "the eggs should be soft and tender inside, enclosed by a cloak of lightly browned coagulated egg."

But Jerry, a guy in his mid-fifties who gets his morning coffee at Crown Burger, doesn't know coagulated from coatamundi and couldn't care less what Julia Child thinks. "That Galloping Gourmet broad," he says. "She talks funny, and I don't think she cooks worth a damn."

I am buying Jerry and his pal Joey breakfast because even I, currently eating for two, can sample only a portion of Crown Burger's massive meals. The locally owned drive-in (Crown Burger Plus across town is owned by a relative who offers much the same menu) looks like an unlikely place for a great morning meal. With its bright-yellow fast-food booths, Styrofoam plates and plastic silverware--not to mention a regular crowd of characters even more colorful than Jerry and Joey--I expect Crown Burger to serve watery coffee and slimy eggs atop soggy English muffins. Instead, what I get is a five-egg (count 'em, five) "royal omelette" brimming with what Jerry calls "stuff"--ripe tomato slices, canned mushrooms, onions and a few snippets of ham--for the low, low price of $3.69. Several slices of American cheese are melted over the omelette; more cheese covers the unbelievably huge helping of hashbrowns on the side. The potatoes are the previously frozen kind, sliced into perfect simulated-grated uniformity, but they have no discernible grease--a plus when you're diving into five eggs at a time. And on top of all this comes two pieces of toast with a packet of sugary strawberry jelly. But apparently this treatment is not royal enough for Joey, who wants a 99-cent side of bacon, too. "Hey, if you're paying," he shrugs.

The four strips of bacon arrive looking like they've been in a car accident, but they're crisp and more lean than fat. The omelettes are no visual masterpieces, either, probably because five eggs is a lot to wrap in a tidy bundle (since the griddle is behind the counter, I'd had a great view of the cook struggling to keep the entire mess inside the saute pan). Looks aren't everything, though, and it tastes great.

"This here is a good omelette," Jerry says thoughtfully. "You got your tomatoes, your cheese. Cheese is good. I wouldn't mind some more cheese." Joey leans back and lights a cigarette, then puts it out without taking a puff. "You gonna print this?" he asks. I smile and nod. They make me promise not to use their last names, because they are supposed to be out looking for work. I tell Joey he should get a shave if that's what they're doing. He tells me that if I'm really a food critic, I should wear a badge so that people know I'm official. "This omelette's all right," he finally acquiesces. "I think it's overcooked."

It's a good thing Joey's not trying to get a job as a food critic (although he wouldn't have to shave for that), because he is wrong. The omelettes are just as Escoffier would have ordered: scrambled consistency encased in coagulated eggs, with a slight exterior browning. Jerry tells me the regular breakfasts, with three eggs to an order, are as good as the omelettes, and I believe him. The breakfast sandwiches--grilled, with cheese, eggs and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage--are an even better deal: $4.95 for four. And you can't beat a bottomless cup of strong coffee for 59 cents or a bottomless soda for 89 cents. In fact, Joey had four Cokes before the food came up, which may explain his sugar-bombed parting comment: "Now this place isn't nothing fancy, it's just a little place for little people but you know it's all right...I'm counting on you."

There's no one who needs me to buy breakfast for him at The Egg Shell and Incredibles Cafe; the LoDo mainstay is already packed with busy power-brokers and yolkers when I drop by one weekday morning. After the rough-and-ready atmosphere of Crown Burger, though, I'm a bit bored by the Egg Shell's sedate business crowd and soothing, print-covered brick walls.

The Denver omelette ($5.25) is also a snooze, and so thin it looks like a crepe. It has the coagulated, browned outer portion that Escoffier valued so highly, but the inside merely serves as a pocket for some diced (although properly cooked and decent-quality) ham, as well as tender green peppers and onions. The omelette comes served with toast (wheat or white), simple, ho-hum hashbrowns and a slice of orange. The Santa Fe version ($5.25) is just as thin but more flavorful with its chunky salsa of red and green bell peppers and a hint of jalapenos.

More flavorful yet are the fabulous fresh-squeezed orange juice and robust coffee--reason enough to get up in the morning. Still, the Egg Shell seems more like a place for a meeting than a meal.

The bursting-with-scenery Lakewood Omelette Parlor, Smokehouse and Pub is long on ambience but short on substance. The Omelette Parlor (reserved for dining, while the Pub is for drinking and the Smokehouse is for country-western dancing) is filled from floor to ceiling with old photos, entertaining bric-a-brac and cleverly painted animals: a pig sitting in a rocking chair a la "Whistler's Mother," some rabbits bounding toward an inviting depiction of Lake Rhoda and Lakeside Amusement Park. Sleighs hang overhead, and even the benches in the booths look and feel like sleigh seats.

Given all the attention lavished on the decor, the Omelette Parlor's food is surprisingly lackluster. The most interesting item on the menu is the Designer's Delight ($6.95), what an Italian might have for breakfast after a hard night of drinking. A solid-tasting sausage is awash in a sea of thick, tomatoey marinara sauce, covered with melted mozzarella cheese and topped by two eggs, which arrive cooked to my husband's specs of "once over." Next to this mess are some incredible potatoes: kind of mashed, kind of fried, with a buttery crust around the edges and studded with translucent onions. Another nice touch is the ramekin of apple butter served with the English muffins: You don't find apple butter much anymore.

You don't find omelettes this disappointing, either--and in a place named after the dish, at that. The ham-and-cheese version ($5.50) has no browned, coagulated outside. In fact, the cook didn't even try to work the thing into some semblance of omelette shape--it's just a mound of eggs. To make matters worse, the cheddar cheese inside the lump is far from melted; big, fatty chunks of boiled ham make every other bite like a trip to a deli's sample bin; and the large pieces of onions and green peppers are raw--not exactly what you want to encounter at 10 a.m.

Fortunately, on our way out, we discover near the door a small machine like the kind used to sell postage stamps. This one is filled with Tylenol and antacids.

Jerry and Joey would approve.