Here I am again, at a counter seat inside my favorite family-owned breakfast joint, watching spicy Tex-Mex omelets, chicken-fried steaks, peanut-butter pancakes and buttered-up waffles whiz past, my bottomless coffee cup refilled with a flick of the wrist.
To my left is David, a UNLV geology professor; to my right is Tammy, a local gal turned Texan who’s writing a book about her nasty divorce. At the register, settling his tab, is Walter, 80, a former New Jersey gas station owner.
We all have this in common: We return again and again to the Coffee Cup, the social spoon that stirs the morning cup of java in this Las Vegas bedroom community.
Around Sin City, a place known for its blatant copying of others, the Coffee Cup is a true original: For 20 years, the Stevens family has served breakfasts and cheerily poured diner coffee that keep customers coming back.
There’s Al and Carri, two Southern California transplants drawn to the desert. On this day, 31-year-old son Terry mans the register, and daughter Lindsay, 30, a fetching sometimes-model with tattoos, nose ring and ever-changing hair color, works the kitchen.
Open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, this is a breakfast-all-day sort of place where an Elvis impersonator has swung by for a few songs on Carri’s birthday, where local conservative politicians stump for votes come election season, where the morning coffee klatch calls itself the Circle of Knowledge.
It’s the kind of diner where your dad took you as a kid, where you heard your first swear words, watched your first real colorful characters do their thing. The waitresses don’t call you “hon,” and there isn’t a bouffant in the house. But there is often a collection jar for Afghanistan war veterans near the cash register.
Pure and simple, the Coffee Cup is a tiny piece of western Americana.
“How’s business?” retiree Walter Johnson asks as he pays his bill.
Great, Terry says.
“That’s what I want to hear,” Walter says. He pauses. “I love this place. It’s nostalgia.”
I stumbled upon the Coffee Cup while researching a piece on Boulder City, a place apart from the dazzle, hustle (and sometimes violence) of nearby Las Vegas. I wanted to interview bona fide locals.
A friend suggested the Coffee Cup. Everybody goes there, she said. Not only residents, but tourists in their RVs and SUVs en route to the nearby Hoover Dam or Grand Canyon.
I talked up Carri at the counter, taking note of such kitschy wall mementos as surfboards, water skis and vanity license plates that proclaim things like “skierup,” suggesting a tropical Jimmy Buffett feel right here in the middle of the desert.
Then I did the thing that keeps me coming back: I ordered the pork chili verde omelet.
Oh. My. God.
Have you ever had a dish that inspired you to think: “That’s it. I will never order anything else here or else I might miss out on this mouth-watering experience”? Those big chunks of pork, green chiles and all that gooey, greasy goodness, along with home fries and a wedge of bread.
I was hooked. And so was Guy Fieri, who in 2008 featured the dish and the restaurant on his Food Network series, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Fieri called the pork chili verde omelet “the bomb,” an accolade now noted on the Coffee Cup menu.
Al had never heard of Fieri or his show. When Fieri called about visiting, he immediately said, “I don’t want any,” and almost hung up. But the two talked. They got along. Fieri came in the very next day.
Al grew up in Whittier and surfed off Newport Beach. But the California dream curdled. One day he had a fight with some dude while catching a wave. That’s when he traded in the Golden State for the Silver State. Around that time, Carri, a Norwalk native, also fled the OC.
They met while working at the same Las Vegas supermarket. Al was a meat cutter when he dreamed up the recipe for his signature omelet. In 1995, the couple opened the first Coffee Cup down the street from its present location on Boulder City’s antique-store drag.
Now 64, Al retired this year, and the children are taking over the business, but Carri, 53, still craves the place and puts in regular hours there helping out her kids. “It’s family,” she said. “My customers are family.”
Tammy Asher, the divorcee turned writer, says Boulder City is like Mayberry, television’s perfect town. She remembers how her boys rode their skateboards down to the Coffee Cup for lunch.
“My mother just passed away, and of course they already knew when I got here,” she said. “They had a seat open for me. Where else can you find such a family attitude?”
The Coffee Cup has remained popular by word of mouth. Many customers are referred by bellmen at hotels on The Strip.
But success brings stress. Weekend waits for a table can be an hour or more. Some people complain.
But not me.
I take visitors to the Coffee Cup — knowing good things are worth the wait. I always recommend the omelet, of course. But there’s another siren’s call that draws me here: the Bloody Mary, with its thick 2-by-4 slab of bacon as garnish.
“My mom’s recipe,” Terry says. “One day a girl came in really hungry. So we shoved some bacon in her drink. And it stuck.”
I have stuck here too. The other day, I warned a visiting friend: “Careful of the diner coffee — you’ll get a case of stomach acid before you ever get any buzz.”
The waitress didn’t flinch. She laughed at my material.
My kind of place, the Coffee Cup.