In article in last month's Gourmet announced that brunch had arrived in Italy. The country that thinks of American food as Big Macs and Cokes now finds bacon and scrambled eggs chic. Though I'm curious to see what the Italians will make of hash browns, I suspect that even with their innate gastronomic brilliance, they'll never really get American breakfast. Can you see Nino and Giuseppa spreading plastic pots of grape jelly on white bread toast dipped in melted margarine? Do you think they'll inundate their full stacks of flapjacks with maple-flavored corn syrup? I'm afraid the land of espresso will never be seduced by the bottomless pot of coffee.
In the spirit of patriotism -- and for this first installment of the reader-suggested Holes in the Wall I'll be reviewing during February -- I decided to try that most quintessential hole-in-the-wall meal: the greasy-spoon breakfast.
At 11 o'clock one recent Sunday, two of my friends and I found ourselves waiting for a table at Dean's Café on Main Street in Pleasanton. "I feel like I'm back in my grandmother's hometown in Ohio," said Leigh Anna, looking around at the caramel-colored leatherette booths, the dark wood paneling, and the hanging garden of green plastic fronds draping from the plate ledge high along the walls. Children darted around our legs like skittish minnows. Pleasanton's Main Street, with its rows of one-story brick storefronts, feels like a well-scrubbed Hollywood set for a three-stoplight Midwestern town.
Though we whispered crossly about the 45-minute wait, the grumbling stopped once we sat down and had to concentrate on the menu. Fully one-half of Dean's huge tri-fold menu is devoted to omelets. Hundreds of varieties (more than 265, the restaurant's Web site claims) are indexed by primary ingredient: pastrami omelets, avocado omelets, salami omelets. Under each category are ten or so choices. I was tempted to ask if I could make up my own combination, but Jennifer had her heart set on a linguiça and spinach omelet.
All the four-egg omelets come with hash browns and toast or biscuits, and all are splayed out on fourteen-inch round white plates. "All that white space makes you feel like you've ordered less food," speculated Jennifer, tucking into a soft, golden cylinder filled with spicy, dense sausage and bright-green spinach. Both the omelet and the hash browns -- chopped cooked potatoes with crispy brown bits folded in, not grated raw potatoes griddled until oily and half-raw -- tasted timeless, the Platonic ideal of diner breakfasts.
So were the other dishes. My "international" waffle, high, light, and crusty, sopped up a quarter-cup of Aunt Jemima's without becoming soggy. Leigh Anna, who is from Kentucky, gave her biscuits and gravy a thumb's-up. The two-inch-tall biscuits, made in-house, broke into loose, soft clumps. Though the cream gravy didn't contain sausage, drippings made it meaty and light brown. All that was missing from our meal was cigarette smoke, country music, and a gum-cracking waitress (ours sported a Dean's T-shirt, jeans, and an indefatigable smile).
Though Piedmont Avenue's J's Hamburgers & Such isn't your quintessential greasy spoon, and its food doesn't rival Dean's, the restaurant does manage to seamlessly incorporate Mexican cuisine into the diner breakfast. "I can't believe I'm taking you to J's," my friend Eric kept saying on the way, even though one recent lubricated evening he had raved nonstop about its breakfasts. In soberer moments, he confessed he couldn't picture a restaurant critic eating at J's.
I thought I was dressed appropriately. J's is located in an old Key line station, a deco checkerboard of blue and gray tiles with a clock tower. The funky hodgepodge decor attracts longtime Piedmontians and indie-rock hipsters. Inside, dark wood paneling sets the tone, and the burgundy carpet clashes with octagonal gold rec room lamps reading "J's Hamburgers & Such" in Old West letters. Pictures of the old Key line trains decorate the walls, and on some Saturday mornings the television set in back shows cartoons.
Four of us crowded around a table printed with advertisements from the turn of the century (I remember them from '70s-era Wendy's restaurants). J's has no waiters, so while we waited for our number to be called, we sipped diner coffee, thin and bitter but not burnt, from brown ceramic mugs. We then picked up our food, table settings, bowls of salsa, and pickled jalapeños at the counter.
J's serves hamburgers and tacos until the early evening, but we had come for breakfast. They may not offer eggs Benedict, but they do griddle up chilaquiles, a mass of crispy fried tortilla strips sautéed with scrambled eggs and then covered with a loose, mild tomato sauce containing onions and red and green peppers. The tortillas kept most of their crunchiness as we ate, contrasting nicely with the eggs and stewed vegetables. The same tomato-onion-pepper sauce had been drizzled across bland huevos rancheros, two fried eggs laid across a half-stack of corn tortillas. Both came with packets of tortillas wrapped in aluminum foil, Mexican rice, and a puddle of refried beans speckled with melted cheese. The two dishes improved with a pinch of salt and a spoonful of piquant red salsa.
Actually, the red and green salsas, both hot, improved everything they coated. They had more gumption than anything else on our plates. Like your saucy Aunt Margaret, who'd show up at family reunions wearing cherry red lipstick and vodka on her breath, they only pointed out how drab the rest of the party was. Our guide had figured this out long ago. He dumped spoonful after spoonful of salsa on top of his farmer's breakfast -- scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, and hash browns -- with a big side of refried beans.
At the counter, I observed one cook using a spatula to spread beaten eggs on the griddle into eighteen-inch rounds as thin as crepes. He then folded and neatly wrapped the omelet around its fillings before the eggs could get brown around the edges. Tucked inside ours were chunks of flavorful but dry linguiça, fried until all the grease had melted away. The hash browns that accompanied it had crispy edges but slightly underdone centers.
We're living in an age when brunch has come to mean mimosas, smoked salmon hash, and roasted root vegetable medleys. Even IHOP and Denny's are adding "gourmet" touches to keep up. Not J's and Dean's. Since the mid-'50s, both have stayed true to their vision, serving real American breakfasts to real American diners. Mangia bene!