Rice Plate Journal
is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering
the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price:
The women at the table behind are comparing their morning's hauls. The rustle of plastic becomes the soundtrack to my breakfast, packages being pulled out, packages being put back in. Across the room, a middle-aged man pores over his newspaper, as middle-aged men in diners do from San Francisco to Kennebunkport, absent-mindedly sipping his coffee and spearing bites of scrambled eggs onto his fork.
Pacific Court Cafe is one of Chinatown's few classic diners, decorated like a long-lost Friendly's or Zim's, the color palette that lavender-gray pink that peaked in popularity around 1984. Located at the back of the decaying Meriwa shopping center, behind jewelry shops and herbal dispensaries, the cafe advertises prime rib dinners for $15.95, along with teriyaki salmon and baked pork chop with tomato sauce. The lunchtime prices are a little steep, so I've come for breakfast, when it's just me, newspaper guy, and a handful of 75-year-olds.
Most of us are ordering the same thing: The house special breakfast for $3.65 ($3.95 with tax). Hash browns would cost an extra $2, Hong-Kong-style milk tea another buck, so I'm content with my diner cup of weak black tea and the macaroni soup, flecks of ham and peas floating amid the bloated curls of pasta. The soup is almost more pallid than the tea, and the square of browned ham I'm served has a puzzling, bitter aftertaste, so I pour spreading squiggles of syrup on the coaster-sized pancakes and devour the eggs, which are really quite good.
Diners have their own, unchanging appeal, impervious to criticism or a sense of place. The eggs I eat at the Pacific Court Cafe may be the same eggs I've eaten in Las Vegas or Duluth, Minnesota; the pancakes, in fact, probably come from the same Sysco mix. The ladies finish their shopping reports. I finish my pancakes and then the chapter I'm reading. The waitress gets a five-dollar bill, I get my bag, and then I walk down the street for a bag of pork buns to bring back to work.
Pacific Court Cafe: In the Meriwa shopping center, 728 Pacific (at Grant), Ste 118, 781-8312.