The Pines: A Dream of a Diner : Mammoth burgers and biscuits in 30-weight gravy, everything a cowpoke could want

The Pines, 4343 Pearblossom Highway, Palmdale, (805) 947-7455. Open daily, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. No alcohol. No credit cards accepted. Breakfast for two, $8-15.

To get to The Pines, you speed down the Pearblossom Highway from Palmdale, through a landscape of dirt, Joshua trees and squeaky-new housing tracts, past dozens of billboards advertising master-planned communities, toward low, red buttes that thrust into the teal sky. It used to be in the middle of nowhere; now The Pines is in the middle of nowhere special.

You'll probably cruise right past the tiny pine grove that's just about the only thing of the restaurant you can see from a distance on the road, that and one of those dim bent-arrow things you sometimes see by desert gas stations. (Look for the Narcissa Estates billboard-- that sign you can see--then quick, The Pines is across the street.) If you pass the local swap meet, you've gone too far; if you pass the Hungarian sausage place incongruously set among 20,000 acres of scrub, you've gone way too far.

The Pines is the kind of place where the waitresses joke about being picketed by Weight Watchers; where biscuits automatically come blanketed with luscious cream gravy that must be the stuff of every cowboy's dream. Inside, The Pines is tidy, a couple of picnic tables covered with oilcloth, and a worn lunch counter eight stools long. There's a funk of coffee and fried onions and cigarettes in the air: It smells like breakfast in those parts of the country where green vegetables are still thought of as a communist plot. A cook wears a button that reads "Eat and Go Home," though the second time you come in she'll turn around and yell "We've gotya hooked." The walls are trimmed with shellacked Dad's-den paneling and hung with old Antelope Valley rodeo posters. It's a family restaurant, but mostly to the sort of families where Mom wears faded Led Zeppelin T-shirts and Junior's known how to ride shotgun on a Harley since he was three.

Outside, The Pines is a weathered shack set in a big, gravelly desert lot with a few house trailers, a half-dozen dozing cats, and an ancient Chrysler up on blocks in back near the outhouse. It looks almost too good to be true.

Visualize an enormous oval restaurant plate, then imagine that plate blanketed with a golden, oval pancake half an inch thick. Sliding across the surface of the pancake, a robin's egg of melting butter leaves a salty trail. Next to the plate is a little bowl of fresh tomato salsa, juicy in the Central California manner rather than spicy, and another of chopped jalapeno peppers. The pancake, an occasional Pines special called a tortilla cake--the batter is enriched with masa, cornmeal and ground hominy--tastes the way you've always wanted a tortilla to taste, warm and soft and sweet as corn, fragrant, slightly burnt around the edges. It's a full pound of pancake.

Or picture the same plate striped like the flag of some obscure African republic: yellow of a three-egg omelet, white of biscuits 'n' gravy; sandy brown of a half-pound or so of well-done fried potatoes, a weighty analog to the nouvelle presentation of a Michael's or a Le Dome but no less carefully done. The Pines also specializes in something they call a "Quiki," whole yellow hominy scrambled with eggs and things like jack cheese, country ham and Ortega chiles, the whole meltingly good. (A quiki might be a frontier interpretation of a traditional Indian dish; then again, it might not.) The Loco Quiki, an incredible 1,500-calorie grease bomb screaming with peppery chorizo, is the one you should try.

I'd first heard about the place from two guys who ran a rock 'n' roll diner in Hollywood, an expatriate Brit and a Western-swing crooner whose obsession with post-Dust Bowl Americana included frequent road trips here. Their own restaurant, an eight-stool lunch counter, was littered with such Pines touches as battered chalkboard menus and chipped coffee cups, as well as gallons of 30-weight cream gravy. Behind the counter, the guys would pour coffee and fry bacon and rave about the fantastic, badger-size hamburgers served just an hour's drive north. And sad as I was when their diner changed hands, since the first time I finally made it up to The Pines, I've hardly missed it at all.

The three-quarter-pound Pine Burgers are the hugest things, bigger in diameter than some asteroids, the best conceivable version of a coffee-shop hamburger--the Thousand Island dressing is homemade, but it's still Thousand Island, if you know what I mean--and almost worthy of the computer-printed sign on one wall that says something like "Best Hamburger on Planet Earth: The Pines--Voyager 2." (There's a smaller burger, but you've driven all this way, why bother?) Chicken-fried steak is the piece de resistance of the cowboy cordon bleu. The Pines' is of the no-frills variety, just a thick, batter-fried slab of protein, but the crunchy gold bubbles of crust soften just so under a white blanket of gravy, the meat has the fibrous resistance of a really good steak, and you can actually taste the beef: perfect.

If you've asked for biscuits instead of toast, you'll call the chicken-fried steak plate a real gravy train, even without the three eggs you're entitled to. But save room for the raisin pie.

Recommended dishes: tortilla cake, $2.75; Loco Quiki, $4.50; Pine Burger, $4.50; chicken-fried steak, $6.75; raisin pie, $1.75.

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