I wasn’t born in Santa Cruz, but having breakfast at Paula’s on Portola makes me feel like a local. A decade ago, when I was at UCSC, I would bike here from the Westside on the weekends, praying that the coveted spot in the converted Dodge van parked permanently out front would be open. Years later, when I moved to Pleasure Point, I’d walk over at 7 a.m., luxuriate over a breakfast made by someone else and catch up on local gossip before heading to work. Now I live downtown, and there’s only one cure on the mornings when I wake up craving a no-nonsense breakfast and a “dinky orange juice.”
So what is it about this place? For starters, it’s difficult to spend more than $10; the basic breakfast is two eggs, toast and potatoes for $3.99. That’s actually pricey compared to a few years ago when it was a mind-blowing $1.99, but it’s still unquestionably the best deal in town. It’s not fancy, but it’s satisfying, and it got me through some rough times in my early 20s. Even on the busiest days, when lone cook Roberto is flipping pancakes and pouring gravy like a many-limbed culinary octopus, he always manages to cook my eggs exactly as ordered. Guests have the option to load the basic up with a long list of add-ons, but I always opt for the tasty homemade salsas—corn, tomatillo, mild and picante—which are available in self-serve Mason jars on the coffee station.
In addition to its affordability, this beloved cash-only breakfast spot radiates aloha charm. Historic photos of Santa Cruz and Capitola and vintage surf posters decorate the walls to the ceiling. The only staff are a smiling server and Roberto, both always in cheery Hawaiian shirts. Together, they work together like a well-oiled machine. It’s a first-come, first-served, order-at-the-counter, bus-your-own-table sort of place, and these good-humored “rules” are listed on the door for your benefit. Arguably the most important rule is unspoken—be patient. While it’s not always a fast operation, it’s worth the wait.
3500 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz, 464-0741.
Update 3/23/2017 10:06AM: The converted van was incorrectly said to be a Volkswagon. It’s actually a Dodge van.