Eric Tovar-Plummer reinvents Cathy’s Deli, one Horchata French Toast at a timeSean Malin March 1, 2019 0 COMMENTS
Eric Tovar-Plummer, the owner and one of the cooks at Cathy’s Deli in Newhall, cuts a striking figure. Between his trademark slick pompadour, decorative short-sleeve button-ups, coiffed mustache and arms full of tattoos, he is every bit the picture of a 21st-century restaurant proprietor. His restaurant, however, is a retro dream calibrated perfectly to tap into old-timey diner nostalgia while imbuing it with a homemade, family-owned ethos.
Best known for its elaborately flavored coffee creamers and toothsome seasonal jams, this beloved delicatessen has grown under Tovar-Plummer’s stewardship into one of the Santa Clarita Valley’s most distinctive eateries. Over breakfast earlier this month, the restaurateur spoke about how his vision for the future of Cathy’s continues (and differs) from the 30-year legacy established by its previous owners, and what it means to serve food in Newhall in 2019. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Proclaimer: We’re in Cathy’s, which is your restaurant.
Eric Tovar-Plummer: Yes, sir.
You founded it?
I inherited it.
I bought it, but it is a 30-year legacy. It started off as Danny’s Deli like 30 years ago; and then through sales and bankruptcies, it became Cathy’s. Then my wife and I bought it 3-and-a-half years ago. Without the money to change the signs, it just stayed Cathy’s.
My orthodontist is right around the corner from Cathy’s. I remember that it was always the kind of place where people from this neighborhood in Newhall would come to pick up a cookie after going to getting Thai food or going to their dentist.
The black-and-whites! Yeah. How many of those traditions were you interested in when you started the restaurant?
I think every owner up until us ran old traditions into the ground. They bought a concept and then just scaled back on the quality, but kept executing that same concept. When we bought it, we changed everything: the menu, the ingredients, the way that it felt when you came in. Everything – but the name.
Do you find after 3-and-a-half years that people are still surprised that this isn’t the old Cathy’s that did matzo ball soup?
We still do the matzo ball soup. *Laughs* But not the traditional Jewish deli sandwich stuff that you might expect. People come in that say, “I haven’t been to Cathy’s in X amount of years,” because “some of the old ownership wasn’t good” or “we didn’t like the food.” When they come in, they expect it to still be a deli.
Like a Brent’s or a Canter’s.
Totally. But once they try the food [here], they’ll be like, “Oh, it’s cool, we don’t care about the deli! We enjoy the homemade food and the ambiance and the way that people treat us when we walk in.”
Why did you start a restaurant in Santa Clarita?
Honestly, I wasn’t a huge fan of the options for breakfast out here. I did like The Way Station, and I did like Saugus Café, but it’s the same feel. Breakfast is always easy from a business stand-point.
Eggs are cheap.
Exactly. Just throw together an omelet and sell it. I like breakfast – it’s my favorite meal of the day – so I didn’t feel like there was a restaurant in the area that paid a lot of attention to breakfast. There were a lot of places coming up around the same time that were paying a lot of attention to dinner, though, because dinner’s a sexy meal. You get dressed up, you go out, you buy alcohol, you spend money. So people were putting a lot of effort into dinner. We put as much effort into a breakfast meal as anybody in town puts into a dinner meal. The difference is it doesn’t come out as art. It comes out plated in hollandaise: sloppy and delicious. You have to understand that you’re not going to get the notoriety for the amount of work put into it in the world of breakfast.
As long as you’re aware of that…
That’s fine! You really don’t cook for notoriety. You cook to feed your neighborhood. That’s it.
What term would you use to describe the kind of food that you do now?
It is good old-fashioned comfort food for breakfast and lunch. That’s really the only way to explain it. It evolves with the specials, so every time we reprint a menu, we kick stuff off and put stuff on. But it’s always that core of family-style comfort food. We cook from our backgrounds – none of us are chefs in special.
Are you the lead chef here?
Nah, I’m just a cook. Look, chefs earn their titles. They go to school, or they sous chef under an abusive chef. I was a restaurant manager with somewhat of an ability to cook, and every chef I ever worked with would teach me things. But I didn’t go through that process.
So are there no head chefs?
There is more of a co-op feel. We cook together. I’ll make something at home or my wife will make something that we love, and we’ll bring it in to show the guys. They’ll either love it and roll with it, or, “Hey, it would be great if we did this to it.” Then we get together and make it better.
When you mention that people are bringing their own personal backgrounds to the menu, are we talking recipes and spices?
Absolutely. A prime example is the eggs benedict section on the menu. There are four different eggs benedicts. One of them is a pork belly eggs benedict that has teriyaki and sriracha. One of the guys that used to work here is Japanese, and that was a dish that he made with the flavors he was used to. We do a loco moco; his Japanese family was from Hawaii, so we got some of the recipe from his family. My family was Hispanic, so the horchata French toast was my idea. That was taking the cinnamon bread and the horchata that I grew up with as a kid and making French toast out of it.
Cathy’s kind of occupies these two worlds: one is the traditional American diner-style breakfast and lunch, where people come in wanting their coffee, their two eggs, their bacon and their toast. But then there are also these multicultural additions to the menu.
That’s the way food should always be, in my opinion. You’re supposed to work together. There’s that old saying that America is supposed to be “the melting pot of the world.” I hate that saying. I connect it with food: you take a melting pot and you put everything together, it’s going to taste horrible. But if you set a beautiful table where every culture can present their favorite flavor, then you have a feast. Culturally, it’s kind of the same thing.
I think that comfort, especially in food, is really desirable to people. As a result, people are afraid to experiment sometimes. Since your restaurant has been in Santa Clarita, I wonder if you’ve encountered that with people who come here looking for something like The Way Station or Crazy Otto’s, and then have to be forced to try the loco moco or a rice bowl?
Sometimes we get those people looking for just your standard breakfast fare, and then we’ll talk them into something, and they love it. Or I’m honest with people. If they say, “hey, I want something a little bit more traditional,” I say, “We have the same traditional breakfasts, but if you want that greasy spoon feel, then yeah, go to the Way Station.” But if you want a breakfast crepe with a fresh-made hollandaise and some duck in the middle, that’s us. Independently-owned restaurants shouldn’t be in competition with one another in neighborhoods. We all feed a different itch, so we should be sending people to each other.
Cathy’s Breakfast Café and Deli is open M-Sun., 7a – 3p.
23120 Lyons Ave., Ste. 24, Newhall, CA 91321