RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cadillac Jack’s Is the Pink Cafe in ‘50s Disguise
This is the story of Cadillac Jack’s. In the beginning, the earth was a flaming ball of lava. Then came the dinosaurs, and then San Fernando Road, which was Los Angeles’ primeval link to Glendale, San Fernando and points north.
From approximately the last Ice Age until the early ‘60s, San Fernando Road looked as if it would always be a major artery. It was Los Angeles’ equivalent of the motel strip found on the outskirts of every Western town, positively jumping with places to spend the night for people who’d just driven over Grapevine Pass. One of those motels was the Pink Motel, designed to stand out from the crowd by being painted a lurid, eye-catching color.
Next to it was the Pink Cafe. Needless to say, it was also a lurid, eye-catching shade of pink, and it must have done pretty well for a while. But then the Golden State Freeway was opened, and San Fernando Road started turning into the struggling backwater it is today.
The Pink Cafe survived, and in fact it had an odd charm, although it was basically just an ordinary lunch counter. The regular clientele liked country and Western music and joshing with the waitresses, who were a first-class team of steel magnolias. Altogether it was faintly surreal, a shocking pink truck stop right across the tracks from the four huge red and white smokestacks of the DWP’s Valley Steam Plant. Then a Hollywood avant-garde crowd “discovered” it, and about that time I lost track of the place.
The Pink Cafe is no more. The building--still garishly pink--is now Cadillac Jack’s Drive-In and Diner, a self-conscious ‘50s revival place such as the ones you can find pretty easily anywhere south of the San Fernando Valley, complete with old movie posters and custom car photos on the walls and hubcaps all around the ceiling. A green Caddy with discreet tail fins and ’56 plates is parked out front. A lot of film and TV crews (“Highway to Heaven,” for one) have used Cadillac Jack’s as a ‘50s period set.
I don’t know how the sophisticated Hollywood fans of the Pink Cafe feel about these changes. I suspect they’d feel the place is ruined now. But as a restaurant it’s doing OK. The diners seem to be pretty much the same old boys who ate here when it was the Pink Cafe, and the new waitresses handle them with the same combination of wisecracking and affectionate abuse.
No question, the food is still plain diner fare. At breakfast: pancakes and egg dishes, corned beef hash in the Hormel’s manner, potatoes O’Brien (which here mean lightly fried potato cubes sprinkled with paprika). At lunch and dinner: sandwiches and burgers, sometimes with quaint names.
In truth, the California Kid burger is pretty good, the thin ordinary hamburger patty being doubled over to fit in a supposedly sourdough roll and topped with lots of melted mozzarella cheese. The Motown Special is a pretty good roast beef sandwich where the beef is sliced fairly thin and apparently fried a little. Like the California Kid, it’s generous with the mayo.
But a patty melt is just a patty melt (fried onions in it, the rye bread also fried). A fried cheese sandwich with ham is still a fried cheese with ham, even if you call it a Batman and Robin. So far as I can tell, the pizzas listed on the menu are not yet available.
And the chili is very strange, not just by diner standards but by the most liberal of chili contest standards. Unless somebody just forgot to put the meat into it, mine was essentially a tomato sauce with hot pepper and some cinnamon and cloves in it. As a sauce, perfectly OK, but entirely bizarre as an entree.
The pies are the usual diner models: apple or cherry in the kind of crust that can spend 100 years in a pie display case. The shakes and malts are the old-fashioned, non-frozen kind, made in a Hamilton Beach mixer. The chocolate malt was not exactly perfect, with one or two lumps of ice cream still unshaken, but it did have a good strong chocolate flavor, and they did bring the whole shaker glass.
Cadillac Jack’s isn’t a restaurant, it’s a phenomenon: a ‘50s diner that has become a ‘50s-imitation/revival place but still seems to hold a place in the local clientele’s heart. Some things in this town are apparently eternal.
Recommended dishes: California Kid burger, $3.45; Motown Special, $2.80; chocolate malt, $1.75.
Cadillac Jack’s Drive-In and Diner, 9475 San Fernando Road, Sun Valley. (818) 767-3877. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to midnight. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. No credit cards accepted. Lunch for one, $3.60 to $7.20.
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