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Hungry Truckers Downshift in Castaic, Refuel at Cafe Mike

December 12, 1985|MIKE WYMA | Mike Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer

"The Trucker's Place to Stop," reads the cover of the menu at Cafe Mike, and stop they do.

Every few minutes another tractor-trailer rolls off the Golden State Freeway at the wind-swept whistle-stop of Castaic, and another stiff-legged man in a checkered shirt pushes through the door of the diner. Huge trucks crowd the back parking lot and the road in front, dwarfing the occasional sedan that stops while a family has a meal.

In a time when fast-food outlets and coffee shop chains have taken over the feeding of travelers, Cafe Mike is a throwback to another era. The squat, sand-colored, Art Deco building houses a mom-and-pop operation that caters to truckers 24 hours a day. The menu offers Mexican specialties in addition to the usual burgers and breakfasts.

Trucking Boom Helps

The diner is thriving in part because of its location and a boom in trucking. Always heavy, the flow of commercial truck traffic in and out of greater Los Angeles is at an all-time high. The big rigs aren't likely to find parking space outside most urban restaurants. But Castaic, on the Golden State Freeway about 15 miles north of Sylmar, has ample parking. Sometimes confused with Castaic Junction a few miles to the south, Castaic is an old community within sight of Castaic Reservoir.

1 More important, however, is the way the diner treats its specialized clientele. Truckers like to eat, and Cafe Mike makes certain that no one leaves hungry. The bacon and egg breakfast, for example, consists of six pieces of thick-sliced bacon, three large eggs, a stack of hash browns as big as a size-eight shoe, bread, jam and coffee. Price, including tax: $3.83. Enchiladas come Paul Bunyan size. Pancakes cover the entire plate. A square deal on a square meal.

"Truckers come to a place that gives you a lot of food," cashier Shirley Warner said. "This place gives you all you can eat and more. The other thing they want is a relaxed atmosphere. They get attached to a place and they keep coming to it."

A jovial woman with a pink complexion and high-coiffed red hair, Warner makes it a point to welcome many of the customers by name. She has worked at Cafe Mike and its predecessor, Jose's, for 17 years.

Many Familiar Faces

"I've known some of the truckers since I started here," she said. "Now their sons are coming in and that's what's bad. It makes you realize how old you are."

Slim Mahurin of Bakersfield is one of the restaurant's steadiest customers. He first ate there when the place opened as the Royal in 1947. Mahurin fits the image of the trucker as modern cowboy. He has a relaxed manner, alert blue eyes, a weathered face and graying hair which he keeps clipped short and neatly combed.

His prized possession is a sterling silver belt buckle decorated with two rubies and white gold lettering that says "K. V. Slim." The buckle was a gift from his employer, Kern Valley Packing. Mahurin, 62, started driving for the company when he was 20.

Despite the quantities of Mexican food he puts away at Cafe Mike, he has not outgrown his nickname.

'I Just Stay Slim'

"I just stay slim automatically," he said, shrugging. Mahurin added that the diner has become an institution among truck drivers.

"Between here and San Diego just about everyone I know waits to eat until they get to this place. You let your stomach growl a little while longer because it's worth the wait. The food's good, the people who run it are good, and there isn't a time you won't run into someone you know."

One of Cafe Mike's selling points is that truckers may stay overnight in the lot without charge. Other businesses offering parking, such as the diesel stations owned by national corporations, often charge $5.

"Those big major truck stops are pricing themselves out of customers," Mahurin said. "We've felt, if you go in there and buy $150 worth of fuel, they ought to let you sleep overnight."

There are times that travelers stay at Cafe Mike a good deal longer than overnight, and not by design. When snow or strong winds force Interstate 5 to close, the California Highway Patrol stops northbound traffic at Castaic's Parker Road off-ramp.

Stuck 23 Hours

"Last year we were snowed in and I was stuck here 23 hours," Mahurin recalled. "It hurt their business, but the owners didn't ask anyone to leave. You kept your seat as long as you wanted it. They brought in boxes so people would have a place to sit inside. If someone ran out of money, Chris or Mike signed the check whether they knew them or not."

Christine and Mayis Artonians bought the diner in 1976, a few months after immigrating to the United States from Iran. Mayis was born in Russia of Armenian parents. In this country he adopted the American first name "Mike" and gave it to the restaurant. Artonians has soft features and thin gray hair. He speaks quietly and uses many hand gestures.

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