I first met Jesse Gonzalez downtown on jury duty. We broke for lunch and walked up Broadway to his market, where he urged me into the stockroom, down a dark hall and into the kitchen of his mother Teresa’s restaurant next door. Before I knew it I was seated at the counter of the 12th and Broadway Coffee Shop with the house specialty, a plate of cheese enchiladas drenched in sauce, paired with moist rice and beans in front of me, and a steaming mug of coffee being poured.
Jesse could be Al Pacino’s brother, but this story isn’t about him, it’s about where he led me.
The 12th and Broadway is everything a downtown diner should be. Plato says the perfect diner exists only as an ideal, but Plato is dead, and he sure as hell never had Teresa’s homemade salsa.
Once again, I was a good boy and cleaned my plate, leaving only a dribble of coffee and half a piece of buttery white toast, only because I forgot about it.
The north windows open onto Broadway, and the patrons are as diverse as they are seemingly untouched by time. Everything is coffee shop eternal, from the horseshoe-shaped, Formica counter filling the room (built so the luck stays in) to the staple platters on the Mexican-American menu.
When Jesse put that plate of enchiladas in front of me I wasn’t even hungry, but after a languid half-hour watching the world come and go I had licked the plate clean, and downed more than three mugs of coffee. Jesse pressed me into quick service with him on a produce run for aguacates and tomatos around the corner at a wholesaler’s, but not before I got a warm peck on the cheek from Teresa as she cradled my face in her hands and told me she loved me.
That’s customer service.
Teresa is 83 years old, and runs meals and greets customers like she did the first day she worked here, 54 years ago. Jesse’s sister Connie and her husband Larry barely know me, but confide in me across the counter. This is truly a family restaurant, owned by a family, and run by a family, toddlers weaving between legs behind the counter.
You can have breakfast for lunch here, and my second visit I ordered a late trucker’s breakfast, one fork-and-spoon-at-noon, hog-choking, double-slabbed delivery of eggs over-easy, crisp and juicy bacon, hash browns that ached potato, side of buttery toast, and of course coffee from that wonderful drip tasting every bit of what must be tens of thousands of cups poured. Once again, I was a good boy and cleaned my plate, leaving only a dribble of coffee and half a piece of buttery white toast, only because I forgot about it.
Days later I tried the chile rellenos, and found them sweet inside so I trucked some salsa over and stung ‘em. There’s a mushroom-jack omelet for vegetarians, and the chilequiles are crisp, not soggy and dead. Tall burgers abound, and the fries are planks, golden and salty.
Father Rasura from Logan Heights sat next to me for lunch on St. Patrick’s Day. He’s been eating here 40 years, so you know it’s blessed. He and Teresa were born the same year, and both still read the morning papers at the end of that coffee shop lunch counter where the luck stays in.
12th and Broadway is cash only, but you can eat like a constable here for the price of a side of onion rings at Denny’s.
This story first appeared in San Diego City Beat in 2007.