If you're whipping along Hartnell Avenue, perhaps heading west toward Four Corners and planning your congested intersection strategy (You think it's bad now? You should have tried navigating it before traffic lights were installed), or traveling east to pick up some eggs at the Hen House, you might well never notice the long cinder-block building just to the right of the gigantic Cash and Carry parking lot.
Maybe the '50s-style space-age-retro sign atop the laundromat caught your eye, but other than that, it was just part of the landscape. Femme de Joie used to get her flivver repaired at the old Chevron station nearby and remembers that building was once home to a diner called Watson's; it also housed Indognito and a Jiffy Burger, but she never set foot inside any of those places, feeling that she was probably spending enough to get the engine's hamster wheel greased (she has since upgraded to a better line of hamsters).
Rita's Kitchen has occupied the diner end of that building for 10 years now, the front door with the red canopy facing Hartnell. If you're expecting the polished chrome, snappy black-and-white checkerboard tile, red Naugahyde booths, and flashing neon of a faux-retro luncheonette with American Graffiti waitresses, you will be expecting a long time. This ain't no Streamline Moderne railway car restaurant: white enameled cinder blocks line the wall with reproduction Coca-Cola ephemera scattered about. The ceiling heat vent sports a fresh coat of duct tape and there are a few random dings and marks here and there. Four smallish tables, three or four seats at the counter: it seats no more than 20.
Owner Rita Fore cooks while her niece Ashley Hazelwood waits tables. They've got a smooth system to get your food out fast.
Corned beef hash and eggs, $10.50
Canned corned beef hash is what you get in the vast majority of breakfast cafes; its resemblance to Alpo is hard to ignore. Rita's makes theirs from actual corned beef and it's absolutely worth eating, with shredded corned beef mixed with hash brown potatoes and fried crisp, along with a serving of hash browns (likewise crisp) and eggs.
This is what Rita's calls mini-cakes (an option to go with breakfast main courses instead of toast). It was more like a short stack of regular-sized pancakes, light, fluffy, and tender.
Chicken fried steak, $11.50
A schmear of house-made sausage gravy was all this crisp-outside-medium-inside steak needed. Sometimes chicken fried steak is tough with a lot of gristle but the one served at Rita's was gristle-free and not overcooked.
Pastrami Reuben with potato salad, $8.50
M. de Joie loved the creamy homemade potato salad with tiny crunchy bits. She was much less crazy about the pastrami Reuben - a good grilled sandwich was spoiled with unpleasantly salty pastrami. Femme de Joie enjoys salty food but this was too, too salty even for her.
Joe's Special, $9.95
The story goes that Joe's Special was developed by a San Francisco restaurant in the 1920s - it may have been Joe's or Original Joe's or New Joe's. Anyone who knows the real story is long gone and it probably doesn't matter any more, but the recipe survives: eggs scrambled with spinach and hamburger. Rita's version was heavy on spinach and short on eggs - fine for M. de Joie, who is a spinach fiend, but it was more like a mass of spinach and hamburger with a teeny bit of egg thrown in rather than a scramble per se. The thin-sliced country potatoes made up for it with their crunchy edges and fall-apart interiors.
Creamy, peppery sausage gravy deserved better company than the refrigerator-cold, slightly gummy biscuit it came with. M. de Joie did appreciate that jam was served in a little plastic bowl rather than the inevitable peel-back-top tubs of Smucker's.
There were a couple of glitches but overall, Femme de Joie likes Rita's Kitchen. Too far from Hotel Row and Interstate 5 to be of interest to tourists, this is a locals' place. Simple, tasty food in a very unpretentious diner atmosphere at fair prices - while not a place to linger for a long lunch and too tiny to bring your entire tribe, it's worth a stop, especially for breakfast.
But watch that step in and out the door - Rita says the City of Redding won't let her make it safer since the surrounding sidewalk belongs to them. Anyone at City Hall want to explain how that's business-friendly?
Rita's Kitchen & Catering, 1154 Hartnell Avenue, Redding CA 96002. 530-223-4214. Open Monday through Friday, 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM, Saturday 7:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Closed Sundays. Cards and cash, no checks. No alcohol. Vegan and vegetarian options. Parking lot. Follow them on Facebook.