Greasy Spoons They're Not 

Hole-in-the-wall brunch quest leads to El Sobrante and Lake Merritt.

There really is a creek behind Tina's Creekside Cafe, on San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante. We go and peer at it over the rusty railing while we wait for a table one sunny winter Saturday. It takes a good ten minutes until we're able to sit down. Though the crowds aren't milling around the door of this unprepossessing little cafe, there's barely an empty seat during our entire visit. Parents and kids, groups of friends, and couples generate a steady thrum of conversation. The waiters never stop moving.

There really is a Tina, too. Seven years ago Tina Holtzclaw, who had no restaurant experience, took over the longstanding diner. Now she's behind the stove seven mornings a week cooking up breakfast and lunch. "This is Berkeley meets country cooking," claimed the tipster who wrote in to recommend Tina's for Hole-in-the-Wall Month. "From biscuits and gravy to sautéed spinach salad with tofu, it does it all."

And it does it all simply and attractively, with no fussiness but lots of bright color. Thick triangles of French toast soaked in a cinnamon-vanilla batter come arranged with bananas and strawberries in a rhythmic Art Deco pattern. A two-inch-thick Belgian waffle, airy and crusty, could have modeled for a cookbook photo -- no extraneous ornamentation needed. We measure out precise spirals of syrup from the pour spout on a molded-glass bottle. The soft curds of scrambled eggs next to the waffle are soft and loose, and we fight over the thick-cut, crunchy strips of bacon alongside.

Tina's biscuits and gravy don't quite make the grade, but I'm not surprised -- after ten years of trying my childhood favorite in dozens of breakfast restaurants, I'm convinced that Californians just can't do them right. The dense, crumbly "biscuits" look like squares of yellow cake, and the cream gravy ladled over top, though savory, has broken and gotten lumpy. It also omits the sausage, which in the Midwest would occasion pursed lips and sour whispers. We pass on the overly heavy biscuits in favor of the spot-on sunny-side-up eggs, crisp-edged roasted potatoes, and sausage links.

On the only-in-California end of the spectrum, a chicken club wrap could use a little of the biscuits' solidity. A spinach tortilla holds together a light mix of tomatoes, shredded green leaf lettuce, avocado, bacon, and moist chicken breast. It's salad in a pocket, fresh and crunchy, but I could have used salt and some mayonnaise or at least something sharp, like a fresh salsa, to give the flavors some heft. The spunky vinaigrette on the actual salad next to the wrap would have done the trick, too.

Our portobello omelet has achieved the right Californian mix of light and flavorful. I get a little nervous when I see that it's made with egg whites, so translucent that you can see the baby spinach leaves embedded in them on the inside. But the mound of sautéed portobello mushrooms, sweet roasted red bell peppers, and punchy blue cheese the eggs enclose is meaty and rich.

A crew of twentysomething servers works the floor, as casual and sunny as the cafe's yellow walls. Like the food, the room itself is simply decorated and cared for, without the fussiness of some of its "gourmet" competitors.

The following Saturday, I drive to Oakland's Grand Lake neighborhood to try out the Lakeshore Cafe, nominated by a second informant. One look at the facade and I know I can't go in. Just who thinks that a newly remodeled, spotless, well-lit cafe is a hole-in-the-wall? She's never getting a dinner invitation to my house.

So my friends and I walk up and down Lakeshore, by no means deserted at the height of brunchtime, and formulate plan B: Find the diner with the fewest customers. There's no surer way to find a place that you can confidently call a hole-in-the-wall. A ten-minute survey lands us at Imperial Restaurant. The long, narrow diner looks like it hasn't changed much since the 1940s, but it's kept clean. (Raymond Wong, the current owner, took over two years ago.) We sprawl across a booth in back and look over the menu. Its contents couldn't be more familiar -- eggs, pancakes, burgers. We order a Belgian waffle, eggs Benedict, and a standard egg-and-sausage combo.

Our high-school-age waiter is bashful but competent. He arrives at the table within seconds and keeps coming back just when we need him. However, the weekend rush, which fills half the tables and a couple of stools at the counter, seems to overwhelm the kitchen -- we wait half an hour for our order. In the interim, the waiter stops back regularly to fill our coffee mugs and apologize.

In almost every respect, our meal does a serviceable job of brunching us. A small mountain of blueberries (probably frozen, but not at all mushy) with a high whitecap of powdered sugar rise up from the fat Belgian waffle. There are enough berries to sweeten the entire waffle, so of course we add enough syrup to make our teeth hurt. The eggs Benedict don't make quite the same impression. Poached eggs with solid yolks are smothered in a thin, fluorescent-yellow hollandaise straight from a packet, which no Dutchman would claim as his own. The scrambled eggs on the combo plate are moist and fresh, but the linguiça next to them has been awaiting its day of glory in some far-off corner of the fridge for too long. It tastes a little off -- sour and stale.

One of Imperial Restaurant's side dishes is worth a pilgrimage: the hash browns. I haven't tasted hash browns like this since I reviewed Dean's Cafe in Pleasanton during last year's Hole-in-the-Wall Month. The cooks loosely mash cooked potatoes together with sautéed onions and spread them thinly across a well-buttered griddle. Patiently, they wait until the sheet of potatoes gets a uniformly crisp, brown crust, and then flip it over to work on the other side. We all moon over our hash brown squares, which resemble folded pocket handkerchiefs.

The best thing about both Tina's Creekside Cafe and Imperial Restaurant is that none of their food is weighed down with grease. There's nothing better than a heap of fatty bacon and eggs when you're recovering from the night before, but too many greasy hole-in-the-wall brunches lead straight to two-hour naps -- or worse.


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