Who Needs Pancakes? 

A glimpse of how the rest of the world wakes up.

Breakfast in America is a serious business. Is there anywhere else in the world where you can order omelettes and French toast 24 hours a day?

And yet there are entire countries where no one knows what a flapjack is. Where eggs, cheese, and processed ham never touch each other. Where the cup of coffee is not bottomless. Here are three places to start your day without granola or bagels and lox.

Breakfast in Beijing traditionally means millet or wheat porridge, rice cakes, dumplings, steamed buns, or hockey-puck-shaped baked breads stuffed with meats and vegetables. One of the best places in the East Bay for these northern specialties is Shan Dong in Oakland's Chinatown, which offers a special breakfast menu all day Saturday and Sunday.

The coffee-and-donuts breakfast of Northern China is, well, donuts with soy milk, as comforting as oatmeal. At Shan Dong you're served a big bowl of warm, lightly frothed fresh soy milk, to which you need to add a couple of tablespoons of sugar before dunking long, unsweetened Chinese crullers into it. Shan Dong's long tiao are thicker and heavier than the crullers I bought off the street in Beijing, but they stay crisp long enough to make it from spoon to mouth, holding milk in each air pocket. Other diners around me were also dipping steamed, twisted breads, as puffy and white as marshmallows, into the hot milk.

Like the crullers, Shan Dong's dumplings and buns are more homey than refined, but they're good nonetheless. Get a plate of boiled Shan Dong dumplings, sold by the dozen. "These look like dirty dishwater," said my friend Tim when the gray, golfball-sized dumplings arrived. But inside the chewy wheat wrappers was a gingery mix of pork, sweetened up with cooked cabbage (you can also buy beef or vegetable). The exterior of Shan Dong's pan-fried beef cakes -- which my friend Lilly calls "Chinese hamburgers" -- came out a little gummy, but the buns were stuffed with robustly seasoned ground beef.

Finer stuff: the leek pancakes, thin rounds of chewy pasta pressed around a filling of sautéed leeks, scallions, and scrambled eggs and then fried to gild and crisp the edges. Our vegetarian tablemate demolished the pancakes, along with honeycombed cubes of fried tofu with a soy-and-rice-wine sauce spooned overtop. But my favorite dumplings were the wontons in spicy sauce. Little pork-and-ginger tortellini are doused in a chile oil whose heat is filled out with five-spice powder.

The flavors of northern Chinese breakfast food are familiar to anyone who grew up on dim sum. Not many people can say the same about Ethiopian breakfasts. Abyssinia on Telegraph Avenue doesn't draw the same crowds as Shan Dong for its morning meal. That's because the tiny restaurant only opens at eleven o'clock and prepares breakfast until noon.

Most of the dishes on Abyssinia's four-item breakfast menu are served on a platter lined with injera, spongy fermented flatbread most often made from the grain teff. The breakfast is sort of a chef's choice -- when we visited, the owners served tibs (a simple sauté of beef and onions in spiced butter), good ol' scrambled eggs, and firfir (sometimes written as fitfit). Firfir seems like the purest breakfast known to humankind: leftovers from the night before. Dried injera is brought back to life in a brick-red, spice-laden beef stew. It was the most deeply flavorful of the four dishes, comfortingly starchy yet not without a burn.

Two other dishes had a more limited appeal. Bulla-firfir is a banana-root porridge, mounds of a ghostly, gelatinous stuff with the texture of cold chow fun or stuck-together tapioca. One of my companions couldn't touch the stuff, but I loved its texture and slightly oily, malty flavor. Using bits of injera to pick up bites of bulla-firfir proved to be a little too much starch-on-starch action.

The server didn't believe that my friends and I would want item number four, chechebera, though the menu description of toasted wheat bread with spiced butter sounded like the most American thing we could order. Then she "forgot" to deliver it. But a little prodding produced the chechebera, which looked less like toast and more like corn flakes. On second glimpse, it was flakes of wheat -- sort of like communion wafers that had been sautéed in highly fragrant Ethiopian spiced butter. Lots of it. It resembled homemade Chex mix. If only it came with beer and salami on toothpicks.

Fruitvale old-timer Otaez Restaurant and Mexicatessen. Mornings, the newly spruced-up restaurant is populated with other old-timers drinking (bad) coffee and scooping salsa onto (good) tortilla chips. Eat breakfast at Otaez, and you can skip your lunch and afternoon snack: All of the early-bird platters come with pork-infused refried beans, Mexican rice, and your choice of fluffy homemade corn tortillas or paper-thin wheat ones.

The tortillas are there for scooping up dishes like huevos con machaca, eggs scrambled with shredded beef, onions, and peppers. The scramble, light and delicately seasoned, took to hot sauce like bratwurst to mustard.

Not all of the breakfast dishes fared so well. I could name a handful of bacon-and-flapjack diners that serve better versions of huevos rancheros than Otaez, which covered its poached eggs and tortillas with a watery salsa of sautéed tomatoes and onions. At least the huevos were low on fat; the restaurant's chilaquiles -- traditionally a savory, piquant scramble of stale or fried tortillas, salsa, eggs, and queso fresco -- turned out to be barely sauced nacho chips that congealed between fork and mouth.

The quintessential Sunday-morning Mexican breakfast is menudo, a stew of hominy, chiles, and tripe that Otaez serves every day. Now, I adore tripe tacos, Korean grilled tripe, and Florentine-style braised tripe, but to my shame I have to admit that I'm not a fan of menudo. Or at least this menudo. There were no corn or chiles in the bowl, just big chunks of spongy meat floating in a clear vermilion broth. No amount of lime, hot sauce, onions, and oregano could erase the funk of the offal.

I chased away the taste with the best version of huevos con chorizo y papas that I've tasted in years. The eggs were scrambled with a loose, spicy sausage with all the oil drained off, and fries. French fries! With sausage, French fries, and refried beans for breakfast, who needs pancakes?

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Restaurant Review

Author Archives

  • The Last Suppers

    Jon Kauffman revisits the sites of his two most influential meals.
    • Jul 5, 2006
  • A Cultural Crossroads

    Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Lue, Mien: It's hard to peg Champa Garden, but its menu is worth exploring.
    • Jun 28, 2006
  • More»

Special Reports

Holiday Guide 2016

A guide to this holiday season's gifts, outings, eats, and more.

Taste, Fall 2016

Everything you need to know about dining in and out in the East Bay.

© 2017 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation