Monday, July 28, 2008

In search of a good breakfast

If I want Italian food, the
only places I can really eat it without throwing up are New Jersey, New York and San Francisco. If I want good barbecue, I'm headed for Kansas City or Houston. If I want the best damned fried grouper on the planet, I head to redneck Florida.

And if I want a good breakfast? It really doesn't matter where I go.

It's our nation's most homogeneous meal.

Every fry pit from the Gulf Stream waters to the Redwood Forest can slog out a decent plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns and bacon. Every hotel can manage a buffet that's got those same staples, plus an assortment of melons, pineapple and dried cereals. This is all well and good.

But good is the enemy of great. And across the nation, breakfast is suffering from a lack of imagination. It gets no respect. Someone call Rodney Dangerfield.

This shouldn't be the case. Nutritionists tell us breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that it provides the necessary fuel to make us somewhat coherent, that it revs up our metabolisms. It deserves study in culinary schools, and creative approaches. In theory, we should be focused on it more than any other meal. In practice, we largely ignore it.

Instead, we specialize in lunch and dinner, which have entire conglomerates of restaurants dedicated to their preparation. At its best, breakfast is weakly served at jack-of-all-trade establishments which crank it out with assembly-line monotony.

That's why it is a rare treat to find a restaurant that specializes in this underappreciated meal. Mrs. VFR and I found one such place this weekend, which is what got my mind whirring on the topic, and also thinking about the best breakfasts I've ever had.

One of those has come at a bed and breakfast, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'm limiting my choices to restaurants that any Joe Blogger can walk into off the street. Here are the places I've eaten my top five breakfasts:

1. The Jail House Cafe. Moab, Utah.

This place is exclusively geared toward breakfast, open only from about 7 a.m. until noon. It is located in, you guessed it, a couple of ramshackle old huts that once served as the jail and courthouse in Moab. People were noosed there.

We discovered this gem while camping near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Maybe it was because I'd nearly starved to death after Mrs. VFR and I got lost in the desert the night before, but their ginger pancakes were a thing of art.

The next day we returned, and I loaded up on a scintillating chorizo omelet before hitting that sweet highway. It was magnificent. Since then, we have returned to the Jail House on every trip to Moab. My personal favorite.

2. Orange. Chicago, Illinois.

This outfit is a bit more trendy than the Jail House. (I don't think you can get away with wearing four-day-old clothes with no shower here like you can in Moab).

The first thing you notice about Orange is the juice. You can have whatever kind of juice you want. You can have whatever combination you want. Mango-strawberry? You got it. Papaya-lemon? Comin' right up. And it's all freshly squeezed right out in the open -- no sugary, phony syrups are used for flavor.

The menu? It's excellent. Chai-infused french toast. French toast kabobs. Green eggs and ham, colored with pesto. Fruit sushi. Chicken scrambled eggs. Like a good ski resort, you really need three days there to sample everything they've got to offer.

3. The Five Spot. Seattle, Washington.

A couple of starving beat writers stumbled into this joint on a Saturday before a Donkeys-Seahawks game back in the day. The line was an-hour-and-a-half long, but someone told us we wouldn't regret the wait. They were right.

The menu is a bit more standard than some of the others on my list, but damn, they just do everything so well. I don't know what they put in their omelets that makes them stand out, but their Black Bean Chili Omelet is hands-down the best omelet I've ever eaten.

It also sat like a brick in my stomach. Swear to God, it was the only meal I needed to eat all day.
4. Some little roadside hut, Guatemala.

I can't tell you exactly where this is, but here are some rough directions: Cross the Belize border into Guatemala, go about 25 km down a frightful dirt road, park on the side of the road and look for a gazebo hidden behind a thicket of shrubs.

Suspicion is natural, but there you will find perhaps the best damned breakfast of your life. It deserves a higher ranking here, but since I'm straying off U.S. turf to include it, I've got to keep it here.

We arrived to find all sort of tremendous delicacies, farm fresh and hand-made by these little old Guatemalan women. They may earn the equivalent of a nickel a day, but I don't think the richest chef in America could produce piping hot corn tortillas the way these ladies did.

Homemade cheese, eggs and salsa were stuffed into the tortillas. It was so good, I could cry just thinking about it. Same goes for the pineapple juice that accompanied it. I don't know if it was a different strain of pineapple than we're accustomed to here in America or what, but it was the most pure, delicious drink to ever pass my lips.

I don't drink coffee. Never have. But when they brought it around at the end of the meal, I grabbed some. I figured that if it was half as good as the rest of the meal, I couldn't possibly dislike it. And I was right.

5. The Aut Bar. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the place Mrs. VFR and I ate last week. It's a bit of a wacky joint -- it's pronounced the Out Bar, and it functions as a homosexual haven at night.

In the morning, they serve a fantastic breakfast.

I ordered a bastardized version of huevos rancheros, and I got this huge stack of eggs, covered in tortillas, black beans, cheese, peas and ham. It was fantastic. The combination produced a flavor I had never tasted before.

On the side, they brought Portland Potatoes. Again, a taste combination I've never encountered. Sweet potato hash browns mixed with garlic and sweet onion and a few other spices. Again fantastic. I had to restrain myself from eating too much.

Overall, it was an impressive, ambitious menu that I would never have expected to find in this particular town.

Honorable mentions: When in Denver, you can't go wrong eating the biscuits and rhubarb jam at Lucille's. ... The Millbrae Pancake House in Millbrae, Calif., makes a mean pancake. It's a solid, straight-up breakfast joint near SFO, so if you've ever got time to kill or a flight delay, it's recommended.

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At 7:56 AM, Blogger Keith Orr said...

Thanks for the kudos!

Before opening the "homosexual haven" 13 years ago we had a Mexican restaurant, La Casita de Lupe. My partner, Martin Contreras, is our food and menu planner, and has been cooking Sunday Brunch for 22 years.

The dish in question is, indeed, a variation of Huevos Rancheros called Huevos Motulenos (eggs from the town of Motul). Motul is a small town in the Yucatan peninsula. Martin got the recipe shortly before we opened in 1986 from a fellow who split his time between Washington DC and the Yucatan. It has become a signature dish for us.

I hope next time you are in town we have the "Pleasure Island Eggs" on the specials menu. We always do Eggs Benedict Variations, and this one is my favorite: English Muffin, Smoked Salmon, Sake-infused Hollandaisse Sauce, and topped with caviar.

Thanks again.........

Keith Orr

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Smokey Robinson (aka Matt) said...

I have a handful of issues with this piece:

First, Rodney Dangerfield's number is unlisted ever since he died.

Second, I have very little recollection of ever seeing you eat breakfast, but that might just be because we rarely got up before 2 in the PM in our long tenure as roommates.

Third, the glaring omission of Brower Commons at Rutgers, whose breakfast buffets most certainly got the metabolism working, and without whose culinary delights, it's entirely possible you wouldn't have survived college. Then again, I'm reasonably sure I was still digesting freshman year meals from that place when I graduated... SEVEN YEARS LATER.

Still, I remember a particular breakfast there on a Saturday morning in October 1994. Maybe not the best breakfast I've ever had, but certainly one of the most memorable, since we both managed, incredibly, not to vomit any of it back up.

Fourth, I think you're sensationalizing that place in Guatemala just a little bit. I thought those women were total bitches.

At 6:19 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Another honorable mention and would definitely make my top five is Patiserrie Amie in Traverse City, Michigan.

Are you kidding me with those crepes? Seriously good stuff. If you ever find yourself in northern Michigan, check it out. Order crepes, an omelet and take a chocolate croissant to go. Oh, and make sure to sign up for your annual physical the day before you go because your cholesterol level is bound to skyrocket.

I'm going to Aut bar this Sunday for brunch and plant to get aforementioned delicious dish. Keith, tell Martin that I'm looking forward to it!

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Pete said...


Tremendous first post here at VFR. Welcome.

Yes, the Motulenos dish is the one that I enjoyed so immensely, as well as the Portland Potatoes. I will definitely try the Pleasure Island Eggs next visit.

Thank you for taking breakfast so seriously.

Matt, I don't think the problem was that I didn't eat breakfast, just that we never woke up in time to eat breakfast at Brower under their absurdly opressive "breakfast hours," which I believe were something like 6 to 9 a.m.

What college student can wake up in time to eat in those hours?

I believe it was part of Brower's plot to raise profit margins by not actually serving students the meals they paid for under their plan.

As for the Guatemalan women, they may have been bitches for all I know. But those bitches can sure make a mean breakfast.

At 6:55 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

I feel like I just read an upscale post on The Happy Eater! I also enjoy a good breakfast. My favorite would be at a NJ diner. I really enjoy the scrambled egg, hash browns, bacon, and toast meal. Every once in a while I'll have something requiring syrup and I'm never dissappointed. I do remember going to Orange in Chicago with you. I did enjoy it however the waitress did tell me I was boring for ordering such a plain meal...but it was a very tasty, plain meal!

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Nathan Fenno said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Nathan Fenno said...

You're making me hungry. Very hungry.

I probably shouldn't mention the Five Spot is a 10-minute walk from my place.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

Fucking IHop, cat. What's up?


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