Toro Place Cafe
Thursday, January 13, 2000
Pulling off the highway at Toro Place Cafe is a lot like stepping back in time, a sensation that helps create much of its appeal. It's been a while since you could fill up your tank, but the pumps outside still stand as a reminder that the place was also a gas station for many years, added on to what was originally a family home and country store. A roadside landmark since 1945, the homemade soup and rib-sticking chili burgers that came to be part of the package are still dished up today.
Inside, the line of bar stools sends out an invitation to seat yourself at the counter where conversation is as plentiful as the bottomless cups of coffee they pour. Everyone appears to know everyone else--it's the kind of place where nobody's a stranger. The orange vinyl chairs and matching tablecloths evoke a 1950s feel, dcor that's probably not going to win any design awards unless they start giving out prizes for unpretentious comfort.
It's an interesting demographic you'll find here: housewives meeting for lunch from one of the outlying subdivisions, construction workers taking a load off during the hottest part of the day. "We had a branding crew in here the other day from one of the ranches, a party of about 17," says Barbara Haynes, cafe owner for the last 14 years. "They got a little loud, so we sat them outside on the patio." With an estimated 90 percent repeat business, Haynes and her staff see many of the same ranch hands, builders and domestic engineers, year after year. And the patio, with round wooden picnic tables shaded by brightly colored umbrellas, is a popular meeting place. "We're an ideal meeting spot," she adds, "right between Monterey and Salinas."
The menu has also stayed in the character of an American roadhouse classic. Burgers, with some 13 variations on the theme, ("Best Hamburgers in the Valley for Over 40 Years", a sign proclaims), shakes, (a root-beer float, even), and a French dip ("au jus," of course), are part of a selection of around 20 hot and cold sandwiches on the lunch menu.
"We had to go with the times a little more," says Barbara, "so we added grilled chicken breast. We even have a veggie sandwich now. It used to be that the guys would get so hot working up in the canyons, they'd come down for lunch and get pitchers of beer with chili burgers and fries. Nowadays they can't have any beer because of Workmen's Comp. But they'll still order a chili burger sometimes when they have to have a fix!"
If you're thinking that this is the kind of place where there'd better be chicken fried steak on the breakfast menu, you won't be disappointed. Mary Chavarria is now taking her turn as the chef, following the long tenure of her brother, Jose. She makes the milk gravy for the chicken fried steak from scratch, country-style, with bacon or sausage. Family members Laura and Hector are also on staff, a filial phenomenon that has, according to their boss, circumvented any need for ever placing an ad in "Help Wanted."
If we're talking breakfast, it's the homemade country fries and biscuits--and however you want your eggs cracked. The veggie scramble with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, chilies and cheese is a crowd pleaser, and so is the eggs Benedict, with homemade Hollandaise.
Even if you're not swinging a hammer, the chili burger is the best splurge at lunch time. And if you're pretty sure your boss won't find out, a frosted mug is the way to go for a timelessly classic experience.