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On the Roadhouse

The Hidden Springs Café has been lost to The Angeles National Forest fire. We dubbed the family-run homestead the “ultimate rest stop” in this 2001 review

Photograph courtesy hiddenspringscafe.homestead.com

Prohibition is long gone, but the term roadhouse still evokes images of a ramshackle wooden structure nestled under pines. The porch spreads wide, and the dirt parking lot is packed with autos known deliciously as coupes: raffish vehicles whose tumescent fenders gleam in the twilight. A roadhouse, in other words, is not to be confused with a fast-food joint by a freeway off-ramp.

What triggered these thoughts was a miniature marshmallow--a whole flotilla of them, to be exact, which arrived in my hot chocolate on a brisk fall afternoon. True, lots of packaged cocoa mixes offer marshmallows inside, but to be served a cup and then to have the cook return with a pitcher of cold milk because he thought the chocolate might be too hot to drink; to have this solicitude occur in a red-painted establishment with rattlesnake skins mounted above the wood stove; and to sip said cocoa while discussing weird electrical phenomena with a transplanted German in an OUTLAW RIFLEMAN T-shirt was to know that I had landed in roadhouse heaven. The real surprise, however, was that I hadn't left L.A.

Hidden Springs Cafe is located on the Angeles Forest Highway. This route, otherwise known as the high road to Palmdale, crosses the San Gabriels northwest of Pasadena. On a dry day the drive from La Canada takes about 15 minutes, but by the time the cafe comes into view, a couple of curves north of the Big Tujunga tunnel, civilization seems to have been left behind. But then, commercial establishments of any sort are rarer than rattlesnake bites within national forest boundaries. Occupying one of the few homesteaders' sections that were never acquired by the government, Hidden Springs counts among its appreciative patrons nearly everyone who travels the western portion of the forest. It's a clientele whose preoccupations are reflected in the stock.

SpaghettiOs, Coleman fuel, and pancake mix crowd a shelf at the rear of the cafe. (Monte Cristo campground is just down the road.) Rolling papers and Kit Kat bars are displayed behind the counter, out of temptation's reach. History is everywhere—in arrangements of barbed wire mounted on wooden plaques, in vintage Smokey the Bear badges and posters. There's even a hint of Prohibition in the rule that beer purchased from the cooler can only be drunk outside.

Another plaque, this from the Montrose Search and Rescue Team, gratefully commends Deputy Amos Lewis for “aid to those lost, injured, or stranded." Amos, who patrolled the canyon for 25 years as a sheriff's deputy, purchased the cafe in 1971. He died a few years ago, and now the day-to-day operations rotate between his widow, Elva, their youngest son, Jim (the cook who cooled my cocoa), Jim's twin sister, Janice, and an older brother, Otis. On weekends Janice's daughter, Ashley, helps, too, taking orders between bouts of middle school homework. Amos bought the place, which was built in the mid '50s, with the thought of keeping his boys out of trouble—a plan, Jim says, that had mixed results. (The urge to lock the door and go hunting was sometimes too much for the brothers.) Even today, Janice says, some family members close promptly at four, while others keep the place open until supper time.

The cafe has developed a coterie of regulars—bikers, prospectors, neighbors—who hold forth with equal vigor on the presidency, Second Amendment rights, and absent spouses. Thanks to the U-shaped counter, strangers are inevitably drawn into these discussions. Business, Elva and her children agree, has fallen off noticeably since the closing of the shooting ranges a couple of years ago. (There must be something about target practice that fuels the need for camaraderie.) But the curving roads continue to lure film and video crews as well as carmakers and their test drivers. As surely, too, as the cottonwoods turn yellow in the creek beds, November brings the annual British Bike Run, when hundreds of Nortons, Triumphs, and Enfields flood the parking lot and test the coping skills of as many Lewises as can be mustered for the day.

What may be the cafe's longest-running tradition starts the day after Thanksgiving, when everyone who stops in is given a piece of foil to make a link for the friendship chain. Elva and Amos first had the idea to take the chain and wrap it around a pine tree in the forest on Christmas Eve. But when they did, it was stolen; now the chain stays up in the roadhouse until New Year's. After that, if the storms come on schedule, it's only a matter of weeks until traffic picks up and things get green again.

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