The biggest hams I saw last week? No contest . . . that would be the Three Stooges--er, Tenors--belting " O sole mio " Saturday at a Dodger Stadium redecorated to look like the world's biggest tiki bar. The best ham, though, was at Nick's Cafe downtown, a plateful of thick slices fried to smoky denseness, ribboned with sweet fat, fibrous and chewy in a way that only real ham can be and blackened crisp at the rim. There are ham omelets here, sandwiches made with ham alone and hard-core sandwiches made with ham and a fried egg, but the best way to have the ham may be straight up, doused with the restaurant's fine, searing house-made salsa, and a bland pillow of hash browns on the side. If the world were just, Nick's should be as renowned for ham 'n' eggs as El Tepeyac is for burritos.
Nick's, on North Spring by the rail yards, is one of those basic breakfast spots that seem to have passed intact from the '40s, a haven of quilted aluminum, dad's-den wood paneling and old railroad signs, owned by a couple of LAPD homicide detectives--who are sometimes shanghaied into pot-washing duty when an employee calls in sick. A clean, masculine funk of fried ham and strong coffee hangs in the air. The shirt-sleeve clientele seems mostly made up of the big-city guys who make factories run. A plush pig hangs upside down from its cloven hooves; oldies radio blares Sam the Sham; an electric train whirs around the small diner on tracks set a foot below the ceiling.
"Try our 100% USDA soft tacos with chopped onion and cilantro," a scrawled sign reads, touting the token item of Mexican food in a restaurant largely frequented and run by Mexican-Americans. "No dog or donkey in these babies."
Outside, through the window, trains couple and decouple on the tracks, and you can look up past Chinatown to Dodger Stadium. Conversation around the U-shaped counter may touch on a big mariachi concert or the news from city hall, but it always, always turns to the Raiders. There may be plenty of meatloaf, and thick-patty hamburgers like Mom used to make, and tuna melts and grilled cheese. The hot tri-tip sandwich with homemade gravy and real mashed potatoes may put anything at those fancy neo-'50s restaurants to shame, but you won't find arugula in the Salad Korner.
French toast, though made with ordinary white bread, is custard-y and rich, crisp at the edges, with an elusive sweetness; pancakes are thick and probably a little more liquid at the center than you might like.
"Pretty much everything is made from scratch here," the waitress says, rolling her eyes as if she thinks roasting turkey for the Friday cold-turkey sandwich special is an affectation. "I think the only things they buy in packages are the condiments, the mustard and catsup."
* Nick's Cafe
1300 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 222-1450. Open Monday-Friday, 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. No alcohol. Cash only. Lot parking. Takeout. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only, $6-$12.