Hunger games: What’s for breakfast?

San Martin Cafe owner Galo Biondi, left, brings syrup to a familes table that includes Morgan Hill locals from left, Veronica Niebla, daughter Isabella, 6, daughter Vanessa, 8, and husband Alberto, as they enjoy breakfast there for the first time.

One could argue that breakfast joints are the meat-and-potatoes of a city’s culinary profile. Local greasy spoons are where we fuel up in the morning, reunite with old friends or pacify that nagging hangover with heaven-sent hash browns and a plate of everything smothered in gravy.

The Dispatch visited a trio of South County canteens specializing in “the most important meal of the day.”

We ordered. We ate. We conquered – then took catnaps before attempting to chronicle the experience.

In the words of John Gunther, 20th century American journalist and author, “all happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”

We’ll drink to that.

Coffee and orange juice, that is.

THE COMFORT FOOD OF GILROY: OD’S KITCHEN

Our breakfast bonanza begins at OD’s Kitchen, a cozy lair tucked away in the downtown pocket of tree-lined Martin Street. Inside this homey hashery – where the smell of bacon tantalizes hungry customers waiting to be seated on busy Saturday mornings – a wooden sign above the kitchen smugly declares, “Whatever hits the fan will not be distributed evenly.”

It’s 8:15 on a Tuesday morning, and the place is buzzing as sunlight floods the carpeted interior through floor-to-ceiling windows.

We wander through the main dining room, chatting with a handful of patrons who unanimously identify “The Kitchen Sink” as a popular menu item. This hearty bowl of breakfast divinity comes piled high with golden potatoes, diced ham, shredded cheddar cheese, bell peppers, onions and two fried eggs. Feeling ambitious? The “Rosebud” variation heaps on biscuits and gravy.

A popular OD’s staple, The Kitchen Sink will induce a food coma unless you are the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, opt for the half order or split the full order with another person.

“We share one every time,” suggested customer Alex Maya, pointing to an empty plate sitting between he and his wife, Blanca.

OD’s pancakes, on that note, are something worth waking up for. The fantastic flapjacks are so fluffy you could literally use them as pillows.

“We hear that very frequently… it’s all in the stirring,” laughed Diana O’Donoghue, whose late husband Don O’Donoghue founded the restaurant 23 years ago.

Their son, Bryan O’Donoghue, has been running the show since his father passed away at the age of 58 from kidney cancer in 2007. Bryan is a permanent fixture at OD’s, working long shifts between the front and back of the house.

Peering over a divider between the kitchen and dining room, Bryan makes small talk with one of his regulars, Rodney Mason, who is digging into a Biscuit Breakfast (flaky biscuits, gravy, hash browns/home fries, two eggs and bacon/sausage).

On a shelf just above Mason’s head, a jar of Mississippi Mud and a ceramic pig in a chef’s hat enliven the wall space.

“I think you can’t beat the prices for what you get,” said Mason, a retired butcher of 45 years and Gilroy resident since 1978.

OD’s opens a half-hour early at 6:30 a.m. every Thursday to accommodate his Bible study group, Mason, 72, noted.

It’s this kind of personalized service one can expect from the humble-but-hopping eatery, where snapshots of smiling locals create a growing collage on one wall. Many Gilroy old-timers revere OD’s as their go-to haunt for “talking about the past, gossiping and telling jokes,” said Avis Kelley, 78.

Referred to as “Coach” by close friends, the former Gilroy High School football and track coach of 26 years appreciates the “pampering” he gets from his favorite waitress, Esmerelda.

She always has a newspaper and cup of hot coffee waiting for him, said Kelley.

If you’re a devoted regular like John Heppner, there might be a seat saved for you by the time you stroll through the glass door.

Finishing up his meal at a small table near the entrance, the personable Heppner admits “I get mad, if I can’t sit here.”

“It’s just as much about reading the paper and coffee as much as it is breakfast,” he explains, of his morning ritual. “If I can’t start my day off like that, I’m out of wack.”

Heppner dines at OD’s for breakfast and lunch just about every day – beginning with a California or Spinach Omelet and a side of burnt toast (he likes the charred taste – a preference all the wait staff are familiar with).

On this particular Tuesday morning, however, Heppner is kicking off his 73rd year of existence with something special.

“It happens to be my birthday,” he informs us, settling back in his chair and grinning contentedly. “So I ordered a Chicken-Fried Steak.”   

Be it birthdays or meeting up with old school chums between trips back home, Gilroyans clearly put their loyalty where their appetites are.  

“It’s like Mom’s cooking… except you don’t have to wait for your mom to cook it,” said Erin Sterner, 22, who enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal alongside a fellow GHS alumna, 22-year-old Jamie Silva. “It’s the comfort food of Gilroy.”

HOME, HOME ON THE RANGE: THE SAN MARTIN CAFÉ

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, and locals are flocking to a bucolic, stucco building on Monterey Highway in search of home-style, country cooking.

Despite being short two waitresses who called in sick, 46-year-old Galo Biondi is handling the rush like a champ. Today, he’s the host, buser, waiter and cashier, running around in a pair of black Converse and dictating food orders to the cook.

“If you don’t like it, I don’t charge you. How ’bout that?” he says cheerfully through a heavy Italian/Spanish accent, dropping an entrée off at one table while gripping a pot of fresh coffee with his free hand.  

Galo’s 65-year-old mother Olga Zarela Biondi – a sweet Peruvian lady whose pretty smile stands out against her blue scarf and pearl earrings – is also working. Olga purchased the cafe at 13475 Monterey Road 13 years ago, although Galo notes the rustic structure has functioned as a working restaurant for 65 years.

Situated on the outskirts of open farmland between Gilroy and Morgan Hill, the San Martin Café is a cowboy diner in every sense of the phrase. Local ranchers in Carhartt jackets, leather boots and wide-brimmed hats are a common sight inside this recently remodeled hole-in-the-wall, where a dozen cowboy portraits drawn in colored pencil line the upper wall.

“She had a horse, but no trailer,” quips a tall customer in Wranglers and a black cowboy hat, chatting with Galo while squaring up for his meal. “She bought a horse, but couldn’t go anywhere!”

Should the need arise to check your email in-between bites of the Super Omelet (bacon, sausage, ham, pineapple, bell pepper, onion and cheese), miniature signs taped to each booth ensure “free Wi-Fi!” for paying customers. The ambiance here is familiar and amenable, with occasional views of a train rushing by just across the highway.

“It’s a good place to have a little coffee and shoot a little bull,” says Wayne Bergstrom, a 69-year-old retired school bus driver who moved to Morgan Hill 10 years ago from Milledgeville, Ill.

“I’m from a small farm town, and I was looking for a coffee shop, and I stumbled on to this,” he says, indicating to the casual dining area marked by wood-paneled walls and black, cushy booths.

Galo recommends ordering the “best” Chili Verde (tender pork in a zesty green sauce) or Steak Picado (chopped steak with bell pepper, tomato, onion, jalapeno and mushroom in a savory sauce), while Bergstrom swears by the Menudo (a broth-based dish made with lime, onions, cilantro, tripe, corn and chili).

For those who haven’t savored this traditional Mexican soup, Bergstrom likens it to a spicy Cioppino.

Cow stomach first thing in the morning (especially after a night of drinking) might sound unappetizing to some, although Bergstrom swears Menudo “is great for hangovers.”

As for the rest of the cafe’s cuisine, the pickings are decidedly varied with a noticeable dash of Latino flair.

Sambale, Mexican and Spanish Omelets promise bolder flavors, as do BYO breakfast burritos made with fresh tortillas, pico de gallo, your choice of meat and eggs purchased from a local farm just down the road.

Ready to dominate the day? Ask for a can of Budweiser to wash it all down.

Galo raves about his flavorfully rich Corned Beef Hash; a recipe inspired by Western cooking tips he picked up during a vacation to Texas. Paired with a syrup-drizzled Belgian waffle and mug of coffee that never went cold thanks to vigilant refills, our visit to the San Martin Café was as leisurely and relaxed as a breakfast run gets.

The same goes for Dave and Kirsten Krimsley, a married couple who stopped at the cafe on their way back home from Monterey to Sunnyvale. The two ordered a California Omelet and the Corned Beef Hash.

“We’ve never been here before,” Dave observes, between bites. “We wish we had a place like this in our neighborhood.”

COME FLY WITH ME: DING-A-LING CAFÉ

Where can you savor a serving of Huevos Rancheros before jumping 18,000 feet out of an airplane?

Not that we recommend it in that particular order – but dining and flying go hand-in-hand at the Ding-A-Ling Café: A rural dive where your options for getting airborne after breakfast are infinitely higher than your average greasy spoon.

Ensconced in the center of an old Air Force base, Ding-A-Ling is the nucleus of its sequestered universe. Flanked to the west by the Hollister Municipal Airport and Hugh’s Vintage Aircraft Museum (hidden in a nondescript airport hangar), the restaurant sits kitty corner to several commercial outfitters touting scenic airplane rides, flying lessons, hang gliding and skydiving that attract thrill-seekers from the greater Bay Area.

Overly critical out-of-towners may underrate Hollister’s beloved breakfast beehive as a bumpkin diner in the middle of nowhere. But for a plethora of longtime locals, the quaint airport café (originally located on Fourth Street in downtown Hollister more than 20 years ago) is an iconic community mainstay – a slice of small-town Americana with a string of flag banners draped across the front windows. You can order pie for breakfast here, if you feel so inclined.

“It’s our Saturday morning routine,” said Hollister native Cecelia Smiley, 72, sipping coffee alongside her husband Jack Smiley, who has lived in Hollister since he was 10. “You just kind of walk in here and know everybody.”

That’s what Rosa Bueno, 50, likes about her job.

“I love meeting all these nice people,” says the Hollister resident, whose family purchased the restaurant six years ago.

She lifts an arm, pointing to various customers scattered about the powder-blue dining room frilled with black-and-white photographs of P-51 Mustangs (fighter-bomber aircrafts used in WWII).

“That family comes here all the time,” says Bueno. “The couple over there by the window… that man over there…”

Several notice Rosa, smiling or waving in return.

Two of these people are Bill and Carol Bowen, Hollister locals of 16 years who “practically live” at Ding-A-Lings.

To them, the owners are “wonderful,” the food is good and the prices are right – a trifecta of selling points that draws the Bowens back to Ding-A-Lings sometimes twice a day. In the morning, Bill, 77, enjoys his bowl of oatmeal with sliced bananas, cinnamon and raisins; Carol, 61, prefers a single pancake with sugar free syrup.

“It’s like family,” insists Bill, who relishes running into friends and neighbors each time he visits. “(The staff) always has our coffee and tea sitting on the table, waiting for us.”

Enjoying a hearty Breakfast Quesadilla (eggs, cheese, bacon, tomato, onion, jalapeno, sour cream, avocado, refried beans and salsa) in the front dining room at his own table, Hollister local Jerardo Macias, 34, agrees: The hospitality is what keeps him coming back.

His only suggestion?

“I wish they had a hitching post,” says Macias, who has been known to ride his quarter horse into town on occasion.

Macias points out the window toward a parking lot filled with cars. “I’d park him right over there.”

On our visit, we acted on a suggestion from our waitress, Carmen Bueno, who called for a Chicken-Fried Steak. Generous in portion, this indulgent classic rose to the expectations of everything it should be: Crispy, greasy, flavorful and topped with a generous pool of seasoned gravy, the excess of which we sopped up with a side order of biscuits.

With summer just around the corner, a trip to Ding-A-Lings makes for a scenic drive and casual morning meal – which you can enjoy while soaking up the sun in one of the restaurant’s two outdoor patios.

Just be sure to let your food digest before you go skydiving.

Located: 28 Martin St., Gilroy
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays
Breakfast all day? Yes
Located: 13475 Monterey Highway, San Martin
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Monday – Sunday
Breakfast all day? Yes
Located: 155 Skylane Drive, Hollister
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Tuesday;
7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday – Sunday
Breakfast all day? Yes

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