If you’re traveling south on U.S. Highway 101 and you take a left at the bottom of the hill in Nehalem on Oregon Route 53, you’ll quickly find yourself apart from the coastal signifiers, surrounded by grazing cattle and working farms.
Nehalem is a crossroads where the coast meets the country. At that junction you’ll find Wanda’s Cafe & Bakery, which channels that spirit into one the best breakfast joints around.
Dressed in kitschy, whimsical mid-century digs — with collections of vintage toasters, radios and picture plates — Wanda’s opens and closes early, serving breakfast (8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and lunch (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
Along with fresh pastries to nibble on, there’s coffee you can pump yourself, which comes in handy because waits at Wanda’s are regular and sometimes substantial, especially on weekends and after church.
The demand is warranted. For more than a decade, Wanda’s has delivered robust classics with grace and aplomb. From the front of the house to the back, precision abounds. Theirs is a dependability and efficiency you could set your watch to.
It’s found everywhere, from the perfectly toasted bread to the impossible puffiness of the poached eggs. From the crumbling scones to coffee refills that keep coming. From the daily specials to the homemade sauces.
Not only are there no holes in Wanda’s game, they make the exceptional look effortless.
While you can’t go wrong with anything — anything — I’m most drawn to Wanda’s breakfast fare. (Folks waking at the rooster’s call, however, may have wholly different needs around noon than this late riser.)
Going forward I’ll be hard-pressed to order anything but the Huevos Rancheros ($13). The dish is lusciously smooth — the runny yolk, the melted jack cheese, the ranchero sauce, swirling together in velvety bliss. If the sauce were sold by the jar, I’d keep stocked year-round.
However you like your eggs — poached, fried, scrambled or in a fluffy omelette — they’re going to turn out flawless. To that end, the Eggs Benedict ($14) is superb. Silky, rich and salty with a slab of grilled ham, it’s irresistible.
Most breakfasts come with a choice of fruit or potatoes, and the potatoes are impeccably, evenly cooked.
The same rigor extends to the lunch menu: The cheeses are always melted just right, the sauces evenly spread, the sandwiches carefully assembled. Nothing is overlooked.
The Homemade Meatloaf Sandwich ($14), with a slightly sweet “secret” sauce, was comfy, eggy and supple. The French Dip ($14.50) included caramelized onions and an exciting, indispensable au jus.
With the lunch fare you can add $2 for a salad, and it’s worth every penny. I was wowed not only by the vivid rainbow of purples, reds, oranges and greens — cabbage, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, carrots and cucumbers — but the portion. A mountain on my plate, the side salad was a meal in itself.
I watched as a nearby diner received a similar plate. The sight of the salad knocked him out.
“Wow,” he said, pausing. “Wow … Wow … Now that’s a salad. Wow.”
Indeed, where other establishments gloss over, Wanda’s excels.
That goes for the pastries, too. The scones, bars and cakes are baked in-house with the same exacting standards. While the tangy, sweet raspberries were more than enough to flavor the scone, a drizzle of creamy frosting made it downright divine. And with the lemon poppy seed cake, lemon was infused throughout, not just along the glazed edge.
So, if one were in a hurry, without time or desire to dine, but rather in search of a quick caffeine boost and perhaps something to nibble on in the car, Wanda’s is every bit as essential.
Whether it’s coffee and a pastry, or a full-on brunch complete with Bloody Marys and mimosas, you really can’t go wrong. Again: It’s everything. Care and consistency abound. If you can’t find your breakfast/lunch bliss here, check your pulse.
Wanda’s nails the trifecta: service, execution and value.
Part of their success, I think, is thanks to the spirit of farmhouse country, which prizes cooking that’s hearty, humble and honest.