If Special Agent Dale Cooper had planned a Yakima stop on the way to his investigation in Twin Peaks, I’d like to think he’d have eaten at Mel’s Diner.
Like the set details in the eponymous fictional Pacific Northwest town, everything in the North First Street eatery screams mid-20th century Americana.
From the vibrant vinyl seat covers — shades of purple, blue and pink — to the chrome backsplashes along the tiled walls, the decorations are the kind I imagine when I read about soda fountains and drugstores from the 1950s and ’60s.
The walls are sprinkled with glowing neon signs, and the sounds of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles are drifting through the air.
In fact, I’m half expecting to see Big Ed Hurley tending the nearby gas pumps, Norma pouring a damn fine cup of coffee at the counter and Audrey Horne dressed in a plaid skirt and a pair of saddle shoes while she sways to the music.
Mel’s Diner is one of those unexpected spots in downtown Yakima where I feel just as welcomed by the decor as I am by the promise of a can’t-miss dish recommended by one of my colleagues: the steak tips and eggs.
“It’s one of the things we’re known for,” says Misty Carter.
Misty tells me she’s been working at Mel’s for the past 61/2 years. When I have a question about items on the menu, she’s able to answer with the ease of someone who’s not only been doing it for a while but also someone who really loves her job and customers.
Monday through Friday, Misty tells me, the 10 items on the Mel’s Classics menu list come with free pancakes. I’ve also got a choice between hash browns and toast or biscuits and gravy.
In spite of the already substantial portion my order promises — “top sirloin steak tips sauteed in a garlic butter blend, served with two fresh eggs” — I opt for the biscuits and gravy and ask Misty to bring me one of the pancakes she’s telling me I definitely need to try.
“Our pancakes are the best in Yakima,” says owner Fred Gomez Jr. “Everybody says they’re the best pancakes this side of the Mississippi.”
Mel’s first opened in 1982 at a location on South First Street. Less than a year later, it grew exponentially and moved to its current location. In 1989, Gomez came on as manager. He bought the place from John Puccinelli, its original owner, in 2001.
He’s just as proud of the place and its menu as he is of the steady, loyal customer base that keeps his business high in repeats and recommendations. When Gomez finds out why I’ve stopped by, a broad smile spreads across his face.
Although I can order the steak tips cooked any way I want, he and Misty suggest I get them medium. So that’s exactly what I do. In fact, I even splurge an extra 75 cents to add sauteed mushrooms.
Misty’s back after a relatively short wait to lay an assortment of plates in front of me.
There’s a cloud of steam rising from the overflowing river of gravy on my biscuits. The pancake’s big enough to completely cover its own plate, and a mound of whipped butter at its center shows tiny streams melting toward the rim.
But the pièce de résistance is the main plate, which holds my order of scrambled eggs beside a heaping mound of the best cuts of beef I’ve ever seen at breakfast.
As the savory scent of buttery garlic rises to tease my olfactory sense and the pancake seduces me with its beauty, I barely know where to begin.
And what I find is that it really doesn’t matter. Because absolutely everything Misty brought me was above reproach.
I may not be a trained critic, but I grew up in a state that teaches its natives to know good food. And one thing this Louisiana boy can write with certainty: Mel’s has it.
As if the gravy on the biscuit wasn’t good enough — it was — and the steak tips weren’t everything I’d been told — in fact, they were better — every single bite of pancake slid into my mouth like a perfect piece of heaven on Earth.
I don’t know what they do to make their batter or to prepare their version of the morning breakfast staple, but Mel’s pancakes may in fact be the best on this side of the Mississippi River. Maybe even the best from either side.
If there were a complaint to lodge against this ingenious spot in the heart of Yakima, it would be that there’s not enough room in my stomach to fill it with the incredible portions I was served there.
But that’s not really a complaint. And it’s not like I wasn’t going to ask for a box to bring home everything I couldn’t finish.
So I did.
And as I paid for my lunch and strolled from the counter, I couldn’t wait to get back to the newsroom to write about it.
The place: Mel’s Diner, 314 N. First St.
The dish: Steak tips and eggs
The price: $12.49 plus 75 cents for sauteed mushrooms
Website: www.melsdiner yakima.com, 509-248-5382