Cafe Society


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.