Emma Jean's in Victorville and Exploring the Mission Inn
09/02/2010 103 °F
The question I am asked the most by those visiting the United States for the first time is, “What is the best example of American food?” This is a very tough question to answer. All Americans, even Native Americans (who immigrated long before anyone else) are immigrants from another country. When people came over to settle, they brought recipes and cooking styles from the old country. In every state, there are ethnic pockets from one country or another, the descendants of the original immigrants. In these areas, you’ll find ethnic dishes as the signature food, and often they are the best choice for authentic food. However, is that American food? It is, in the fact that America is a medley of tastes and people. That to sample dishes from here or there is like eating a piece of American pie. Thing of it is, every piece of that pie will have a different taste, flavor, ingredient and cooking style that went into making it.
Another way to look answer the question is that American food is what Native American’s ate, and continue to eat. After all, they were here first. Where they live in the country, decided what food staples they ate. On the plains, they ate buffalo, and used every part of the animal for food, clothing, tools, and shelter. In the Pacific Northwest, they ate salmon. In the north woods of the upper Midwest, they ate deer, trout, and gathered seasonal berries. An interesting culinary vacation could focus strictly on traditional Native American foods.
I know when I’m eating at an all-American restaurant. It has a certain feel to it; often it serves simple foods, but well prepared, and offers that extra bit of love that makes good food great. Ambiance, décor, a good staff, and regulars (diners who show up everyday) are all important as well. If you can find this rare combination of good food, and good ambiance, you will probably consider the restaurant one of the better places you’ve eaten. The Otis Café has it (Otis, Oregon). The Trail Center Lodge has it (Gunflint Trail, MN). Emma Jean’s in Victorville, California definitely has it.
I want to describe the best (and possibly last) example of a classic American greasy spoon that I have ever had the pleasure of dining. They don’t make restaurants like this anymore, and visitors to Southern California would do well to dine at this timeless diner.
Emma Jean’s is located on historic Route 66, that quintessential American road that “winds from Chicago to L.A.” Route 66 brings with it visions of a simpler time with classic cars, family vacations, drive-ins, quaint motor lodges, and the feeling that the ’America’ dream has been achieved. This roadside diner looks like it came from another era. The dining area is roughly thirty feet, by thirty feet holding four tables, and a long “L” shaped counter with room for about 20 people max. The wall and ceiling are painted white, and lit by long fluorescent tubes. The counter was made of Formica, and worn away in grayish circles from a lifetime of plates sliding on its surface. A clock hung on the wall with the numbers set opposite of normal, and indeed, the hands of it also rotated counterclockwise. It hung next to a large CASH ONLY! Sign. There were some original posters still hanging on the wall where they have been hanging for decades. The place was charming.
Two server’s ran the place, one friendly (it was her first day), and one was the boss, carrying a good-natured no nonsense demeanor, demanding “Whatcha want?” as she took your order. If you go, let her know it’s your first time eating there, and she’ll give you a smile.
We watched the short order cook ply his craft, and he was good. He grabbed orders, and then efficiently slapped down the hash on the hot metal griddle that has decades of flavor soaked into its surface. He split eggs, flipped the bacon, grilled onions, and dropped perfect circles of pancakes, set the toast going, while the order cooked. Then he plated, quickly scraped the griddle and ready again for the next order. He was a whirlwind of activity, and he was amazing to watch. He was surly looking, portly, and did his best to look annoyed, but I caught him smirking several times, as regulars would give him a hard time about him being “slow.” His name was Brian, and he made the famous house burger known appropriately as the “Brian Burger.” He told us, “If you can think it up, I’ll make it.” and the burgers he was making people for breakfast, looked damn good to me, and I’m a burger connoisseur. The next time I go, I’m getting a burger.
More regulars showed up and each greeted the staff with a nod to Brian, and a “good morning” to the servers. They didn’t need menus, and the waitress didn’t even ask what they wanted, a good sign a regular has entered the building. The clientele of Emma Jeans were all overweight. This was another good sign that this was a good place to eat. I was the skinniest person there, but if I lived in the area, I might just put on a few pounds of classic American fat. I had a delicious bacon and egg sandwich with fresh squeezed orange juice. I was stuffed. I asked my friend Mike how his chicken fried steak was, he had a glazed look on his face, and his mumbled response was, “It wounded me.” If he died from his food, I believe Mike would’ve died happy. We drove the hour back to Mike’s house, and both of us settled in for a long nap. This was another good sign that the food was good.
Emma Jean’s is an American Icon.
Mike took me on another one of his unofficial tours, this time of the Mission Inn located in downtown Riverside, California. The Spanish Mission style hotel has been in business since 1876. The Mission Inn offers luxury lodging in a unique setting. As part of California’s state historical sites, it offers daily tours to tourists who want to explore this sprawling slice of opulent history. Not only does the Mission Inn cater to lodging, but it also can accommodate weddings, reunions, and other get together meetings in its many halls.
Since we missed the daily tour, Mike and I went in, and went on a tour of our own. We gawked at all the amazing artwork, carvings, statues, paintings, architecture, stained glass windows, and fountains found throughout the grounds. We pretended that we were guests out to see the Mission Inn. I decided to put on an air of affluent, arrogant, boredom that I imagined the rich might wear when out in public in a classy place such as the Mission Inn. I know this is stereotyping rich people, and not fair at all. The truth is, all of the rich people I know are very down to earth, and approachable. I’m sure I wasn’t fooling anyone anyway, as I was wearing my stained Hanes white tee shirt, and taking pictures like my life depended on it. It was fun though, to pretend I was one of the Bostonian Cabots or Lowells, though I don’t think I acted the part very well.
I really liked the center courtyard. Upon entering, a feeling of peace and serenity seemed to emanate from the courtyard bricks. The courtyard soothed guests like a cool oasis in the desert heat, accomplishing this with comfortable seating, a perfect choice of soft classical music played in surround sound, views of the upper levels swathed in flowers, statues, and interesting architecture. Birds seem to like this area as well, and songbirds would chime in from time to time from their perch in the trees. Tranquil comes to mind, a great place to lounge away the afternoon, forgetting that on the other side of the building was hot asphalt of traffic, deadlines, and hurry.
Supposedly, there are catacombs that run underneath the mission. I’m fascinated by catacombs, even though I’ve never been in any before. We weren’t allowed to enter them however, as they were no longer open to the public. The Fire Marshall closed down that part of the tour, as they weren’t up to code. Bah! Mike told me a few stories about sneaking into them as a kid, which only fueled my curiosity, but it wasn’t to be.
I enjoyed the “tour”, and someday if I find myself with actual currency to my name, I might just stay the night at the old Mission Inn.