With simple good food at modest prices, the dependable Centinela Café remains a classic American roadside restaurant
By Richard Foss
“When we drove across the country when I was a kid, I ate at a lot of places like this,” my wife said as she surveyed the interior of Centinela Café. “My dad had some kind of instinct, and there was always a good one at the bottom of whatever off-ramp he chose.”
My wife’s father liked good plain food and long road trips. Since he had a large family and a small budget, that internal compass for cheap restaurants was a valuable asset.
I didn’t have anything like the same nostalgia for burger stands, and was drawn to this café for a different reason. A reader of this newspaper commented that she liked reading about exotic foods, but I should go somewhere
that real people eat. I like to think of myself as a real person, but I got the point, and so I decided it was time to review the Centinela Café.
Why there? Because this hole-in-the-wall burger joint has been open for a quarter of a century and has been one of my quick bite stops for most of that time. It hadn’t occurred to me to take my wife there because it wasn’t a special trip place — it’s where I went when I happened to be nearby, hungry and pinched for time. We had driven by regularly, but Centinela Café’s location in the corner of a small strip mall doesn’t exactly grab your attention (though every time we passed I mentally edited the spelling and punctuation errors on their banners).
The interior is showing its age but is scrupulously clean, and as you wait in line to order you might be inclined to wonder how many others have done the same. If all the burgers ever served here were stacked in a pile, how tall would it be? Would all the coffee ever poured here fill the nearby branch of Ballona Creek to the brim, and how long would it keep the fish awake when it reached the ocean? The offerings here are substantial and the line sometimes takes a few minutes, so you have time to ponder these important questions.
The menu has every standard item you’d expect at any diner or burger joint in America, breakfast through dinner, and not one of them is over $12. There is also a small menu of Mexican standards, which is where I tend to gravitate. Their steak burrito is my go-to item, and the meat always has a slightly smoky flavor from the grill that goes well with the flavors of cilantro, onions and medium-spicy salsa. The meat is an inexpensive cut and sometimes has a little gristle, but that’s the way they are in little taco stands down by the border, too.
When my wife and I went for the first time it was almost noon but we both decided to declare it breakfast and order accordingly.
She had the classic pancake, egg and sausage breakfast. It touched all the right bases, and she liked that the pancakes were particularly light and fluffy. They make the batter by the gallon daily and have plenty of practice at timing and flipping, so one would expect them to get this kind of thing right.
I had the Centinela Omelette: sautéed peppers, onions, ham, mushrooms and sausage folded inside three eggs, served with hashed browns and toast. This follows a hallowed tradition of the house breakfast special being everything in the refrigerator tossed together with eggs, and it works the way these always do. There are enough flavors to keep you eating until you’re slightly more full than you expected to be and could use a nap. The hashed browns were crisp, the toast was toast, and the only downside was the coffee, which was weak and bitter. That coffee was cheap, of course, but I’d have willingly paid a bit more for better quality.
The burgers at Centinela Café have the same slightly charred flavor that I liked in the steak, and if you order them on toasted rye or wheat bread instead of the regular buns and have them hold the cheese, they’re decent. I like quality breads and cheese on my burger, which is probably why I’m usually ordering something Mexican or breakfast.
To sum up the experience, a meal at the Centinela Café is not a gourmet delight or a place of creative ferment, but nobody sensible would go here expecting that. It’s the kind of roadside fast food place that you wouldn’t take out-of-town guests to (unless they want a slice of American comfort food), but that you might visit yourself when the world is too complicated and you want something simple.
Centinela Café is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with parking in the lot or on the street. No alcohol; OK wheelchair access.
Centinela Café 4800 S. Centinela Ave., Del Rey (310) 391-2585