The greasy spoon diner is an icon of mid-century American culture, but it’s most prolific form is really a slice of Southern California. With home-style meals, cozy-booth settings and snappy service, freestanding kitchens slinging pancakes and burgers become important community spaces – where working-class folk from across the community could sit side by side at a formica counter and order a cup of joe.
Chains like Denny’s, Norms and IHOP all emerged during this post-war era, transporting SoCal’s white suburban dreams to international audiences. These days, though, the menus and ownership of the region’s classic American diners are more often reflective of SoCal’s working-class Latino communities than the mid-century whiteness of yore.
Often, this shift is subtle — a ranchero-sauce-slathered egg dish here, an expanded “South of the Border” menu there. Other times, like at Long Beach’s Loaded Cafe, it’s a natural move that resides at the very core of its being.
In six years, Loaded Cafe has grown from a new diner concept tucked into a former IHOP A-frame on PCH into a rapidly expanding breakfast chain that’s now found in Latino-majority cities like Bellflower and Santa Ana. It’s what happens when we finally admit that Mexican families buying up greasy spoons was the best thing to happen to the genre since its proliferation began almost a century ago.
Where else would you be able to get a fresh honey-infused jugo verde instead of orange juice with your coffee? Or load up on 99-cent jalapeños toreados, which are heavily suggested throughout the menu as a side option like fries or toast once were? Loaded Cafe also packages three chunky house salsas — green habanero, red habanero and yellow peron — that are permanently stocked on each table, while more traditional condiments like ketchup, Tabasco and maple syrup get dropped with the food.
Many of the dishes are familiar diner fare: strawberry banana pancakes; veggie omelettes; breakfast combos with bacon, sausage or country fried steak and eggs. But then there are diner curveballs that reflect the ethos of Loaded Cafe: savory and sweet crepes swirled on site and filled with chicken, Nutella and even Swedish-style lingonberries; spicy chilaquiles with thick hunks of carne asada on the side; an original creation called Surprise! Surprise! that’s almost an eggs Benedict but with some more vegetables piled on a piece of sourdough toast.
For fans of Denny’s Moons Over My Hammy sandwich, there’s also the ham and egg melt with all the thick buttery toast, fluffy yellow eggs and melty orange cheese of the original. Lunch and dinner — with its thick-stacked burgers, oversized chicken salads and honey habanero chicken wings — are secondary to breakfast but aren’t afterthoughts either. Menudo is made on site every day.
One thing that hasn’t changed at all from the nostalgic diner culture is the portions. As its name suggests, Loaded Cafe piles hefty amounts of enchilada omelettes, fruity waffles and biscuits and gravy on its ceramic plates. Every trip inevitably ends up with a box of leftovers in the fridge.
Over a soundtrack of classic rock and oldies, Loaded Cafe’s bilingual waitresses continue the great diner tradition for a new generation of Americans. Home-style meals, cozy booths and snappy service remain the norm at Loaded Cafe, a place that’s as iconic a slice of Southern California culture today as the original diners were in the 1950s.
1101 E Pacific Coast Hwy, Long Beach; (562)591-1050; loadedcafe.com
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.