Okay, we admit it. We are sticklers -- purists, even -- when it comes to our breakfast potatoes. And since we moved up here from the real South Bay (that's the one in Los Angeles) we just haven't been able to find what was, down there, an absolute standby: diners and such that don't virtually turn your pockets inside out as soon as you walk, hungry after a long night, through the door. No $5.95 two-egg breakfasts in that much-maligned town, thank you very much. In the East Bay, it seems as if you can't throw a crepe without hitting yet another overpriced, overly pretentious breakfast cafe. And here's a secret about those places: They love to ruin their home fries.
Those who spurn breakfast altogether or get by on last night's leftovers or simply don't get out much might not know that not all breakfast potatoes are alike. There are hash browns ... and then there are home fries. Hash browns are grated raw potatoes, first mushed together with spices and then fried to within an inch of their lives on an oily grill. Home fries, on the other hand, are chunks of potato, lightly seasoned and then tossed about on an oily skillet. For our purposes, forget the hash browns. We're talking home fries.
Now, one thing we've noticed is that overpriced cafes in these parts love herbs. And the operating principle seems to be: If a little herbage is good, a bouquet is better. Especially when it comes to rosemary. Even neophytes know that rosemary can be very nearly fatal in large doses, yet why is it that so very many restaurants insist on half-cooked red potato virtually cloaked in an entire rosemary vine, roots and all? There are other spices than rosemary, you know. Other cardinal sins afoot include undercooking, too-large wedges, and not enough spice (that isn't rosemary), although you generally find the latter at the cheaper places. Anyhow, after six years of searching for the East Bay's best breakfast potatoes, we've come to an uneasy truce. We're never going to find perfection, but who ever said life was fair?
All breakfast potatoes described here were sampled as part of the standard two-egg breakfast.
Autumn Moon Café (3909 Grand, Oakland; 510-595-3200): We happened to see Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente on our way to the Autumn Moon, which, in hindsight, might have been an omen: The local economy's revitalization is, after all, largely dependent on the expenditure of disposable income on overpriced food. To cut to the chase, the potatoes were large, brown, bland wedges, their outsides too crispy and their insides too mushy, a perfect complement to the little frightwig of watery scrambled eggs that oozed beside them. From a breakfast that costs $20 for two, you'd expect more.
Merritt Restaurant and Bakery (203 E. 18th, Oakland; 510-444-8680) ties with The Merritt's home fries had the consistency of diced potatoes boiled too long, then dumped on a plate. Next.
The potatoes at Bette's Oceanview Diner (1807 4th, Berkeley; 510-644-3230) come with little chunks of bell pepper, which is a nice touch. But we waited a full half-hour for our order, and when it came, we knew where these fries had spent their time. Every single chunk and granule was rimmed in black soot.
That said, you gotta give the folks at Doyle Street Café (5512 Doyle, Emeryville; 510-547-3552) some credit. If you order a single plate of home fries, they give you a massive pile. And aside from the chloriney taste of not-quite-rinsed-off dish detergent, that pile is good enough as home fries go.
But great things come to those who wait. The grand prize for home fries goes to the Hide A Way (6430 Telegraph, Oakland; 510-654-0129). The home fries here are light brown and crispy, with melting, golden centers. Little bits of scallion and carrot decorate the dish, and it's a generous dish at that. The prices here went up a bit recently, but not stratospherically -- so when morning comes and the cravings start, head here. After one visit, you'll hurry back, and your mouth will water all the way.
-- Jennifer Barrios