At this 74-year-old L.A. diner, ham and eggs are the go-to order

Interior of Nick's Cafe in Chinatown.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

I’m sitting at Nick’s Cafe, a diner that has operated on the corner of North Spring Street and West Elmyra Street in Chinatown since 1948. It’s a quiet, open junction across the street from Los Angeles State Historic Park, and it shares the block with a restaurant supply store. Most of the customers are sitting outside under red and white tents in front of the building, but I am perched inside, at the crook of the counter near the restaurant’s open red door, to get a feel for the place. It’s my first time here.

My phone tells me it’s 68 degrees at 8:30 a.m. A server told me to sit wherever I wanted and that she’d wipe down my place when I chose it. Staff and customers speak a mix of Spanish and English. On the other side of the room, a father feeds his young daughter scrambled eggs. A man down from me is drinking both coffee and a Coke while waiting for his breakfast. My server hands me a menu, and when I order she calls me “darlin’” and “baby” in a fast, unaffected way. It’s how she addresses all the customers. I call her “ma’am” in return.

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For this week’s review I wrote about Clark Street Diner, the Hollywood Hills restaurant that has revived the 101 Coffee Shop space, which closed in early 2021. Clark Street Bread owner Zack Hall took over the space and installed chef Juan Pablo Garcia; the kitchen team is bringing extra finesse to buttermilk pancakes, spotless lemon-colored omelets and cheesy, oniony patty melts. Soaking up its scene during breakfasts and lunches over the last few weeks had me thinking about L.A.’s intrinsic diner culture.

“We’re here for the food and the atmosphere, but as much as anything for the loose ritual of it all. Each place has a certain sameness that somehow defines its individuality; collectively they offer a glimpse of L.A. and its tidal rhythms that few other institutions can,” Patric Kuh wrote in a 2017 essay on diners for Los Angeles Magazine. It’s a great read, a reminder of how some of these icons attract customers via their swooping Googie architecture, some for their late-night vibes and others for the strong coffee and thick, well-griddled French toast to jumpstart the day.

And of course, these designed-to-be-affordable restaurants continue to disappear amid the brutal, ever-rising cost of rent. Two beloved diners — the 101 and Swingers on Beverly Boulevard — were brought back to life after closing during the pandemic.

A plate with ham, eggs, toast and a squeeze bottle of sauce on a diner table
Ham and eggs (and don’t forget the salsa) at Nick’s Cafe in Chinatown.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

I hadn’t done enough eating in diners in L.A. before COVID-19 expelled us from dining indoors. I was talking about all this with Laurie Ochoa and she suggested I check out Nick’s. “Order the ham and eggs,” she said. “I always liked it with the salsa on the side that comes with everything.”

The menu is enormous, with the usual diner gamut of eggs in so many permutations, waffles, pancakes, hot melts of all sorts and chili cheese fries with the option of adding pastrami. But ham has been a specialty at Nick’s for decades.

I ask for the ham and eggs. A second server keeps whizzing by and refilling my coffee cup when it’s still three-quarters full. I look at the walls lined with pictures of the downtown skyline in former, less-congested geometries. One sign says, “In memory of Lois Fuentes, a friend to all at Nick’s Cafe.” A guy walks in and has a seat and my server says, “Your usual?” and he smiles without looking up from his phone and replies, “Please.”

My breakfast arrives. The ham is indeed the star. A slice covers most of the plate, flopping over the hash browns and half of the over-easy eggs. It’s lacquered with a brown sugar glaze and thrown on the griddle to caramelize and bronze along the edges. It turns out the salsa served in a squeeze bottle is earthy and very mild, but the counter is lined with caddies holding many brands of hot sauces. Between generous squirts of salsa and equal jots of Tapatío and chipotle Tabasco, I find the right flavor balance. The ham is taut and chewy and pleasantly stringy in places. It reminds me of the South. I’m calm for a moment before the day really starts.

I intend to return to Nick’s for the Sonora breakfast — a variation on chilaquiles with scrambled eggs, nopales, a bunch of vegetables and both queso fresco and cotija — but I might end up ordering the ham again.


My server eyes me taking too many pictures of my food and asks, “You having fun over there, baby?”

Yes, ma’am, I am.

Nick’s Cafe: 1300 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (323) 222-1450,

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(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)