Cafe's Best Bargains: Peaks and Pancakes

Resting at the foot of the Santa Ana Mountains and overlooking a scenic lake in relatively undiscovered Rancho Santa Margarita is Cafe del Lago, opened about a year ago in the Mercado del Lago mini-mall.

The atmosphere here is relaxed. Adobe pink and cactus green walls carry over from the previous business, a Persian restaurant, and the American Indian paintings are on loan from a neighboring store owner who asked to showcase them on the cafe's walls.

The largest wall is glass, and provides a panoramic view of the peaks rising above the community and of the colorful sailboats gliding across Rancho Santa Margarita Lake.

The view is a real bargain when taken during the ideal gazing time--a late-morning, easygoing weekend breakfast on Lago's waterfront terrace. Prices for lounging over the cafe's traditional breakfast fare begin at $2.95 for buttermilk pancakes and stop at $7.95 for a plateful of top sirloin and eggs.

The tastiest and cheapest options are the specialty pancakes prepared with either blueberries or apples and cinnamon. Each is served in threes for $3.25. The apple cinnamon pancakes are particularly worth trying: loaded with pieces of apples chopped into a rich buttermilk batter.

Egg dishes include five varieties of omelettes ($3.50-$5.25), each made with three eggs and paired with a sweet, moist muffin or toast and jam. On the downside, the scrambled eggs here have been known to be a bit dry, and the accompanying hash browns were recently undercooked and bland.

The cafe also serves hearty, but affordable, lunches and dinners. Among the selections are pasta, steak, seafood, chicken and gourmet burgers. Children under 12 may choose other items from a special menu priced from $1.50 to $3.50.

An awareness for health pervades many menu selections. Hot and cold sandwiches ($2.75-$5.75) come packed with lean meats, and salads may be topped with low-calorie dressing.

Health concerns aside, though, there's a good selection of domestic and imported beer and wine, and for dessert, fresh pies, cakes and cheesecake. Just circle the lake a few extra times after dinner to ease the guilt.

Cafe del Lago, 31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Suite P, Rancho Santa Margarita. Open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. (714) 589-1155.

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