Four Years of Breakfast, a.k.a. 69 Diner Love Songs

by James Boo on January 10, 2016 · 0 comments

Tales of our favorite meal, stretching from the streets of Moscow to every diner counter in these United States.

The Audacity of Breakfast – Jan 7, 2009

By James Boo

On the eve of November 4, 2008, I found myself outside the Obama campaign’s northern California headquarters, straddling the border between Berkeley and Oakland as crowds of Americans thronged to the street corners of history. When the junior senator from Illinois first announced his candidacy for the office of president of the United States, the political scientist in me was quick to fortify the barricades of skepticism. By 8PM on election night, the American in me decided that no reasoned analysis can restrain the joys of being part of a drunken mob. Yes, I did!

Such a historic evening, of course, called for a historic hangover cure. With the glee of a new president shining down upon the East Bay, I made my way to my favorite counter to celebrate with a man named Jodie.

Jodie's - Albany, CA
Jodie's - Albany, CA Jodie's - Albany, CA
Many tales could be told about the sixty-nine year old, five-foot-three answer to the chicken and the egg that is Jodie Royston. What you really need to know is that this is a man who never said, “Goodbye,” always had a bag of dry dog food behind the counter for his customers’ best friends and greased his griddle with generous amounts of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He built a twenty year legacy of home cooked hospitality in a hole in the wall under the BART track in Albany, a paramount of neighborhoodism that managed to outdo the model neighborhood in which it was tucked away. He never had a use for more than six diners at his counter and proudly displayed an eight by ten close up of himself, sucking the last morsels of flavor off of a fried chicken leg that he had just taken out of the fryer, behind the customers who had become a part of his family.

Fried Chicken Breakfast - Jodie's - Albany, CA
The food at Jodie’s was as much a labor of love as the restaurant itself. Jodie’s ingredients were always bought fresh and local, even when “fresh” and “local” mean “Minute Maid.” Never one to pander, Jodie cooked for his customers the way he cooked for his grandchildren (one of whom is a regular cook behind the counter). Homemade grits and fried chicken were served on weekends. His country scramble, a ribbon of medium-cooked yolk swirled over scrambled white, was the non-negotiable style of eggs cooked to order. His English muffins, crisped on the griddle, redefined the meaning of “nook and cranny.” The mango cheesecake was baked at home by Jodie’s wife.

Jody With a Y - Jodie's - Albany, CA Something Different - Jodie's - Albany, CA Grits - Jodie's - Albany, CA
The Torta - Jodie's - Albany, CA Nothing - Jodie's - Albany, CA Charles' Grilled Cheese - Jodie's - Albany, CA
Jodie’s specials, all 40+ of them, weren’t so much bold new directions or trussed up classics as they were startling visitations of the expected. Eggs Royston and Something Different turned Eggs Benedict on their yolks, amassing all kinds of flavor and texture (i.e. English muffins, grilled tomatoes, onions and peppers, hash browns, and chopped bacon) beneath a blanket of flash-poached eggs and homemade hollandaise. The Torta sent the concept of corned beef hash through Jodie’s filter of flavor, mixing fresh corned beef with country hash browns and grilled vegetables to a delightfully crisp end. Nothing, the cook’s own breakfast omakase, would yield a different concoction every time, sometimes involving ingredients as far-reaching as fresh cactus. Jody’s With a Y, which crowned a plate of grits with a country scramble and chopped or ground hot link, was so stupidly tasty that it called into question the value of every food not named after a customer and presented on a tackily decorated sheet of laminated printer paper.

The Oakland Tribune - A New Era The Obama Special - Jodie's - Albany, CA
With this knowledge in our stomachs, my comrades and I walked into Jodie’s for a taste of his latest special: the Obama. It started with a layer of hash browns. Jodie topped the browned potatoes with three strips of beef brisket and anointed the combination with his homemade Arkansas BBQ sauce, a tomato-free dressing of molasses, vinegar and other heavenly sources of tang. The entire platter was just small enough to be enjoyed as seconds on top of any other of Jodie’s specials- which is fortunate, because on the morning after the greatest election of my short lifetime, I was hungry enough for eight years of BBQ.

The bundle was laid next to a flapjack and served with an expression of relief. Newspapers were flocking from their shelves. Echoes of the words, “Yes, we did!” sounded throughout the city. Under the BART track in Albany, though, this historic outpouring of pride and community was little more than a twinkle in Jodie’s eye. After all, pride and community were nothing new to a man who had spent twenty years in a hole in the wall. It’s just a shame that it took the rest of the country this long to catch up with him for breakfast.

Friendship Over Easy – Oct 16, 2009

By Zach Mann

I’ve never made friends by campaigning on the good eats platform; most of my friendships were wrought by geographical circumstance and a love for all things geeky. James is no different: We originally began correspondence as I blogged from Moscow and eventually found friendship in science-fiction television, but I’ll never forget the first time we discussed pizza, on the eve of James’s Daily Californian column on the subject. We shared our angst toward the favorite slices of the Berkeley student majority and exchanged our own favorites lists of Berkeley pies, lists that matched far too well. One day we discussed the merits of barbecue – the point of no return – and, well, now I’m writing this.

My friendship with David is another matter. Born out of fourth grade art hour, when the new kid drew a better chimpanzee than I drew an iguana, our friendship grew over the ensuing four years (as I cheated off of David in every math class), until he moved to the other side of Los Angeles (and I failed geometry). When we finally reunited in a college dorm triple, we’d become different people, and our friendship changed into something new, born out of The Sopranos and Iron Chef marathons. Eight years later, David is my oldest friend and the person with whom I’m most likely to spend an hour arguing the merits of good eats.

Benice - Venice, CA
Ostensibly, my food-founded relationship with David began while I envied his drawing abilities in fourth grade. His mother was a restaurateur, and that was always some background detail I knew about David, even though I went to his restaurant only a couple times between fourth grade and college. The restaurant, a greasy spoon in Venice Beach called House of Teriyaki – which later moved down the street and became H.O.T., Too, then changed to Benice – was not a visible factor in my life until after college, when David and I both returned to Los Angeles and David became Benice’s head cook, co-owner and everyday fixture. My long-time friend became my chef friend.

Our relationship goes beyond the culinary, of course, but food will always be a big part of the friendship. When David’s passion for good eats evolved into a passion for the art of cookery, that aspect of our relationship changed. It’s different, dining with someone who works in a restaurant. David approaches his food like a chemist, breaking down the tastes and smells into ingredients, inferring from a bite how his order was made, and measuring out his respect for the establishment in plain terms. He spies into the kitchens of wherever we are eating, muses on what kind of restaurant he would like to open one day, and always tips the staff far too much.

Menu - Benice - Venice, CA
However, the word chef didn’t really apply to David when it came to Benice. His cooking there was of the short order variety, and his creativity was limited to the versatility of eggs on a griddle. David did what he could, scraping together omelets out of sub-par ingredients and serving up an uninteresting-yet-never-disappointing menu of the usual diner options. He added his flare where he could, with quaintly painted tables and a charmingly sketched menu, and Benice evolved into a cool place for locals in the Venice area, or anyone on the west side that hungers for diner food without the ten-dollar price tag – including me.

Going to Benice became a ritual. I said hellos to a staff that often included my friends and stared down David as he slaved away in the kitchen, letting him know I was there, telling him not to screw up my order and challenging him to impress me. Afterwards, I joined him in the parking lot during a smoke break and chatted up the meal, other meals and life in general. It was a good breakfast experience, and truthfully, I would have been a regular at Benice even if David hadn’t been there, because I appreciated rice as a side dish that much, and I really did love their veggie rancheros.

Veggie Rancheros - Benice - Venice, CA
Truthfully, at the time, David was not a chef. He was just a guy who looked up to Iron Chef Sakai, like toddlers looked up to firemen and astronauts. At Benice, he was king of his short order castle, wearing a smock and chef’s pants like George Costanza wore velvet (if it were socially acceptable). Outside of Benice, David led an underachieving existence of simple creature comforts and recreational sleeping habits, talking trash on Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and other celebrity chefs without ever having gone to culinary school himself.

But David was still my chef friend. He had a chef’s potential and a chef’s mindset, as evidenced by the MAC knife he carried around in the trunk of his car, and there was a strain of real passion for the craft lurking somewhere on his person. After trying Bouchon’s scrambled eggs, David became obsessed with learning how to recreate what he still considers to be the holy grail of breakfast. After I told David about Jocko’s and the best sunny-side egg of my life, he charged himself with repeating it. I’m sure that for the rest of his life he will continue to chase perfection in the kitchen, even if it isn’t Kitchen Stadium.

Chef David - Benice - Venice, CA
One day, David moved to Pittsburgh. Just like that, the Benice era of David’s career and the Los Angeles phase of our friendship ended. Where David and his MAC knife would end up was now up to him – as he continued on a career path that promised to skate the razor’s edge between cook and chef for some time (a vocational hazard) – but I kept expectations high. We both stood in the eye of the quarter-life-crisis hurricane, unsure where we’d be next year, but he reminded me that I was the one who cheated off of him in math class.

An appreciation of food culture will always be a reoccurring theme with us, but in Los Angeles David and I found more to talk about than good eats. We’ll always have Benice and Los Angeles, but I mostly look forward to the day I visit him wherever he ends up cooking, when we burn hours at coffee shops, check out a local restaurant and talk about how life has been between then and now, because as it stands, things are looking sunny side up.

Breakfast is Not a Stage – Dec 15, 2009

By James Boo

Diner Coffee - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY
I wake up for breakfast. If done right, an American breakfast is cheap, satisfying and timeless. Two eggs over easy have nowhere to hide and everything to prove, especially when they’re on short order.

Some people wake up for brunch. Brunch lovers, wafting through restaurant doors for a beautifully arrayed spread of poached eggs, afternoon greens, brioche, grapefruit, gourmet bacon and the hair of the dog, cross a gradient of dining that I cannot. I get into debates when I try to preserve the line between American breakfast and American brunch, as if I were drawing it in sand. I’m not; yet, with every new brunch menu that hits the table, the empirical distance between the two semantic cousins becomes more and more palpable in ways that make me think that I hate brunch.

Breakfast Plate With Sausage - Ann's Kitchen - Berkeley, CA
This turn was a long time coming. As a newcomer to the world of comestible obsessions in Berkeley, I discovered the joy of breakfast at Ann’s Kitchen, an understated, high turnover corner joint with sticky tables, plenty of Bruce Louisiana hot sauce and an owner who could memorize the name and face of a customer after two visits. Ann’s breakfast plate, consisting of two eggs any style, two slices of toast with apple butter, and a molehill of the most impeccably crisped home fries in three dimensions, hit the counter five minutes after order for $3.45. It was food at its peak: brutally simple, yet impossible to replace.

As years passed and I found myself sharing more and more morning meals with friends, I discovered that my enthusiasm for the off-the-cuff familiarity of Ann’s was burnt crust compared to white collar lust for the brunch experience. Each time I joined a weekend excursion for the same old overdressed basics, I felt a more disillusioned – by the long waits, the $12+tip price tags, and the over-seasoned, hyper-relaxed, late morning banter. What struck me most, though, was the feeling that the simplicity of breakfast was being slyly replaced. Before long, no one wanted to go to Ann’s with me. Sure, the food was good, the price was right, and Amoeba and Moe’s were right around the corner, but it just didn’t scratch that lazy, luxuriant itch that only a mimosa could pacify.

I went on with my life, avoiding brunch outings when possible and not quite knowing how to explain my aversion to the meal in certain terms. Then, on the suggestion of a good friend (ironically, also a brunch lover), I had breakfast at Stage Restaurant in the East Village.

Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY
If Manhattan was born with greasy spoon in its mouth, Stage would be that spoon: a short order holdover from a world in which entire meals were cooked on a griddle no bigger than the cook’s torso, and no one had ever asked for granola. Unaffected by nostalgia, the Stage was simply one long counter of history. Elbow room was the only room in this alleyway of a diner, and the diners whose elbows rubbed against mine ranged from a scruffy student annotating texts over pancakes to a barely comprehensible IEBW member who used firm, stubby fingers to drive home his claim that Keith Richards was rock and roll’s greatest guitar player. “But you know who looked the best? Mick Jagger. He looked goood, man.”

At the far end of the counter, as if by cue, sat an old man whose newspaper was more important than humanity itself. A bulky, wall-mounted payphone just behind him would ring for minutes at a time before Stage’s senior waitress decided to oblige the occasional telephone order. As she repeated the words coming across the wire, cooks in the back room slid hot plates of food through a service window, from which they found their way to patrons at the counter. On the opposite side of the diner, blue collar workers and cooks from the neighborhood stopped by on break, sweeping huge bags of food for their staffs from the counter and pushing off just as quickly as they had stepped in.

Five Dollar Breakfast - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY
Fried Eggs Over Corned Beef Hash - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY Home Fries - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY
Breakfast, prepared to order on the griddle just behind the counter, was a winner here. For $4.65, you could have two eggs any style, a molehill of home fries, two slices of toast, breakfast meat of your choice, and a bottomless cup of diner coffee. The gourmet choice was corned beef hash, prepared in house and served under eggs. Thoroughly crisp on the edges, fluffy and pink on the inside, and seasoned with just the right about of black pepper, Stage’s corned beef hash, like a great burger, was a patty of victory for Americana.

Fried Eggs With Kielbasa and Kasha - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY
Stage’s immigrant personality only enriched that victory. Despite the presence of a Russian language calendar and at least one Russian speaking staff member – I never figured out which one it was, but I placed a bet on the behemoth short order cook, whose speech was indecipherable in any language that doesn’t involve the words “eggs over easy,” anyway – Stage was a solidly Polish-American establishment. Substitution of kielbasa for breakfast sausage and buckwheat kasha for potatoes (doused, by request, with mushroom gravy and grilled onions) was just a few words away. Where a brunch menu would attempt to surpass the essential with gourmet flair, Stage was much more content with the natural beauty of cultural assimilation, connecting comfort food dots across international borders and serving up the result in a melting pot of grease.

Cabbage Soup - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY Lentil Soup - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY Zurek - Stage Restaurant - East Village - New York, NY
The best representation of the diner’s Polish-Ukranian heritage was its soup – after all, any cook bred from Eastern European stock must benchmark their skill by the ladle. Stage never shied from the challenge, offering as many as four different types soups with a hunk of challah bread on any given day.

Cabbage soup here was a bright, tender and tart mix of kraut-like cabbage, potato and other vegetables. Highest praise, though, goes to Stage’s zurek, a diner-grade bowl of the rich, savory fermented rye classic that came with boiled potato and egg if you were lucky. It wasn’t my favorite bowl, but it tasted exactly like the zurek I would eat on the daily in random cafeterias when I was traveling through Poland. And, like fried eggs, it was served all day, every day.

Two Fried Eggs With Home Fries - Stage Restaurant - East Village, New York City
With places like Stage still making good on the promise of breakfast, I have little interest in the next iteration of eggs benedict. If I’m going to turn my weekend morning into a culinary experience, I’d much rather make a trip to Flushing to indulge in Taiwanese breakfast or play shortstop on an extended dim sum session. I could parlay my lazy hours into a wonderful, home cooked breakfast in the apartment with friends, channeling emptied hours into a richer form of relaxation. Better yet, I could head down to Shopsin’s and put my wages and wait time to their best possible use.

I suppose what Stage taught me is that I really don’t hate brunch. I love American breakfast, as food and as experience, and when I sat at the counter at Stage, no aspect of brunch could match that experience. Well spaced tables, cloth napkins, pristine presentation, individualized wait service and the mantra of leisure are all imports of fine dining that don’t add any value of mine when they latch themselves to a meal I love for its straightforward dishes, its workman’s character and its ubiquity. American breakfast is a meal that requires no special context, no special menu and no special timing to be relevant. It simply has to satisfy. For a five dollar meal, that’s the role of a lifetime.

Deconstructing my Doughnut Diploma at Peter Pan Bakery – May 4, 2009

By James Boo

Boykji Gazes at the Bounty of Kingpin Donuts in Berkeley, CA
I earned my doughnut degree on Durant Avenue in Berkeley. Class was held between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. every weeknight at King Pin University. Professor Kingpin, unbending scholar of fried dough, would deliver his nightly lecture without the burden of words, instead teaching his craft through deft and disciplined hands. Moving deliberately within an enclosure of three square yards, he would roll out the dough, form the rings, shepherd them through a vat of boiling oil and push them through a waterfall of white icing without as much as a smirk at the sheer power he was unleashing upon his sugar-starved students. He would hand a fresh specimen over to one of his lab assistants, who, in exchange for 85 cents, would relinquish it to me for deeper study.

The magical glazed raised. The iconic old fashioned. The behemoth bear claw and appetite absorbing apple fritter. The rich, heavenly buttermilk. I’ve rarely felt as rapt as when King Pin’s doughnut of the night would melt away with each bite, begging my lactose intolerance for just five minutes of mercy.

The more sobering side of my fryer education would surface on weekday afternoons, when I would stop by King Pin to discover that the professor’s late night charms had withered into stale dictations of dry, brittle and bland. I henceforth took my lessons to read:

1. Never buy a raised doughnut unless it’s fresh.
2. Never buy a cake doughnut unless it’s free.
3. Nothing is better than buttermilk.

Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City
Years later, my first visit to Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop, a venerable institution in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, marked the start of my re-education. Nary a gruff doughnut master in t-shirt and apron was found at Peter Pan’s counter, a historic W-shaped beaut lined with ’70s stools and waited on by a team of Polish girls in starched pastel uniforms. Racks of doughnuts, running the gamut from French cruller to sour cream glazed, lined the front window and front counter in a configuration unaltered for at least thirty years. In the far corner of the shop hung a sign that proudly declared Peter Pan’s use of 100% vegetable shortening. My heart missed a beat every time I saw those bolded words, enamored with the standing shelf life of the unapologetically old fashioned.

White Cream Chocolate Sprinkle Donut Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City Apple Crumb Donut - Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City
Chocolate Cake Donut - Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City Old Fashioned Cruller - Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City
Partly due to their high shortening quotient, Peter Pan’s doughnuts would be good at any time of day. What really brought things around was the amount of care that went into defining each doughnut’s distinct style. Having gone through life knowing that a raised doughnut was only good for ten minutes after being fried, I was forced to abjure before a display case of soft, fluffy raised variants that could crush me with their pillowy blows. I had a tough time in particular turning away the white cream raised with chocolate sprinkles, a deceptively light affair that was meant to be inhaled.

A similar revelation lied within the chocolate cake: Rich but not dense, crumbly but not dry and glazed without a slight of sugar shock, it was the only cake doughnut I’d ever eaten that actually felt like, well, a slice of cake. Along the same lines was the marble cruller, a denser doughnut that blended chocolate, glaze and old fashioned flavors. Taking up prime real estate on the dessert platter was the apple crumb, dusted with sugar and cinnamon and topped with the crumbled carcasses of lesser doughnuts.

On the more mundane side were perfect renditions of the old fashioned doughnut. Showcases of refinement, the old fashioned ring and cruller had perfectly crunchy outer crusts, which crumbled softly into rich centers with subtle notes of butter meant for Peter Pan’s everycoffee. French crullers, their lightweight counterparts, were porous and spongy, offering the benefits of a raised doughnut without commitment to a mouthful of dough.

Ham and Egg Sandwich - Peter Pan Donuts and Pastry Shop - Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York
Of course, no breakfast counter would be complete without the presence of eggs, and at Peter Pan regulars would order off-the-menu breakfast sandwiches every day. As long as there were rolls or bialy in stock, a polite $3.30 would buy your choice of egg, bacon, ham and cheese offered with salt, pepper, ketchup and Tabasco. While you could never go wrong with bacon, my taste buds were given an extra credit lesson in flavor by Peter Pan’s grilled deli ham, which was dark, lean and savory without the hyper-cured flavor I was used to in my least favorite part of the pig. I never decided if the breakfast sandwich was wasting valuable cruller space, but it was comforting to know that I could spit at will in the faces of brunch gardens everywhere, resigned to the best $5 breakfast that didn’t involve grits.

While I still consider myself a King Pin graduate, Greenpoint showed me that in the department of breakfast pastries, no measure is too high. No price is too low. No style is doomed when it comes to fried dough. All you need is 100 points of vegetable shortening, an unbeatable recipe and an aesthetic descended from beehives.

Yet, at the end of it all, the old man on Durant was still right about one thing: nothing is better than buttermilk.

The Blini Generation – Jun 26, 2009

By Zach Mann and Natalia Melikova

Teremok - Moscow
Teremok is a popular chain of blini restaurants and a favorite snack source for anyone with a starchy sweet tooth (Natasha the photographer not excluded). The blin – or blintz – is Eastern Europe’s answer to France’s crepe, a permanent culinary prisoner of the Napoleonic War and a Russian staple. While blini are easy to make at home, Teremok has managed to successfully market the fast food blin to Russians everywhere.

Teremok’s success was no surprise to me. During my stay in Moscow, I quickly learned what it meant to be a full-time pedestrian. Central Moscow was a continuous street fair; metro stations and high traffic streets were knewton123 infested by kiosks like barnacles during low tide. Wherever I happened to be heading, beverages, snacks, newspapers and cigarettes were always a few steps and a few rubles away. This meant I always had a Baltika beer in my hand, but it also meant that half of my meals were street food, and while my favorite was Moscow-style shawarma and I made too many drunken, homebound stops at Stardog!s, Teremok was the breakfast treat that never failed to interrupt my brisk morning stride.

The orange-dominant Teremok kiosks and restaurants are visually similar to Sixties architecture and Soviet cartoons. I remember peering up into the caged boxes on Tverskaya, making eye contact with the scowling blond women who are sometimes 16 and sometimes 90, and nervously trying to pronounce “with smoked salmon” correctly to avoid the rolling of their pretty blue eyes. Then, once my order was finally translated, I would count out exact change (to avoid further eye rolling), pay and watch my blin cook on the non-stick helicopter pad.

I remember those mornings well. After stopping at Teremok by the Belorusskaya metro station, I still had a long way to class, so I often walked those next few blocks holding the blin, wrapped in foil and wax paper, with one corner exposed, waiting for it to cool down enough to eat while dodging stern, quick-stepping Muscovites. It was not unlike returning to my seat after visiting the concession stands at a ballgame, if the ballgame was a soccer match on the verge of a riot in zero degree weather.

Blin with Forest Berries - Teremok - Moscow
Blin with Forest Berries - Teremok - Moscow Blin with Dried Apricots - Teremok - Moscow
They wee delicious. Thinner than pancakes and thicker than most blintzes, one Teremok blin would fill me up but didn’t overwhelm with starchiness. The menu offered sweet and savory choices, from chocolate or jam to ham and cheese or mushroom, such sides as kasha or salad, and such beverages as coffee or kvass. My favorite order at Teremok was a sour cream blin and a plastic bottle of Medovukha, Russian mead with 5% alcohol content.

The sour cream blin had a distinctly Russian taste (as do all things covered in sour cream that don’t involve tortillas or beans). Other menu items like caviar and zelyonie (dill mixed with other herbs) drove home the point that Teremok was a Russian institution. In a country where the three largest fast food chains – KFC, McDonalds and Sbarro – aren’t local, Teremok was Russia’s corporate champion. The product of Russia’s Pepsi Generation was racing to catch up with the rest of the capitalist world, slapping a singular logo to an everyday breakfast comfort and finding very little competition in the post-Soviet market vacuum. In the coming years, who knows: Maybe the Teremok logo will find its way to America. I hope so; after all, I am a fan.

Teremok

Fish out of Water – Nov 10, 2009

By James Boo

One of the more memorable outings I’d made for food since moving to New York involved a short train ride to Russ and Daughters, an angel of an appetizing store on the Lower East Side that houses a dizzying array of cured, pickled and smoked fish. Relatively new to noshing, I forked over close to ten dollars for a bagel with cream cheese and belly lox.

Although Russ and Daughters’ bagel was regrettably tough and flavorless – Calvin Trillin was in this case literally ahead of his time in walking elsewhere for his infamously cobbled lox bagels – the rest of the package was one of the richest meals of my life. The cream cheese was luscious on a molecular level, and the lox was a little miracle of texture and taste: plenty salty but nicely balanced by the other flavors of the brine, and falling into a perfect place between firm and creamy in composition.

Acme Smoked Fish Corporation - Greenpoint, Brooklyn
A few months after that trip, I heard that the bulk of Russ and Daughters’ fish was sourced from the Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, located about a mile away from my apartment. With this discovery also came news that the Acme factory would open its doors to the public every Friday morning to sell the very same fish it ships throughout the country, directly to consumers at rates much lower than $10 per breakfast.

After nursing on-and-off fantasies of clearing aside a whole refrigerator rack for smoked fish for half a year, I finally made my way upstream, to the factory bloc of Greenpoint and Williamsburg to check out Fish Friday.

Acme Smoked Fish Corporation retail store - Greenpoint, Brooklyn Acme Smoked Fish Corporation retail store - Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Acme Smoked Fish Corporation’s retail store, an unadorned lineup of fishy wares quickly assembled on metal and plastic tables in a cold factory antechamber, unapologetically lacked the charms of a Jewish appetizing counter. Factory workers wrapped in long coats and hairnets shuffled between adjoining rooms, many returning from a smoke break on Gem Street. Service was rendered with a smile, the friendliness of the Polish woman slicing my nova as direct as the way she asked me to show her, with my thumb and index finger, how much of the enormous salmon fillet I want to take home with me in butcher paper.

Entirely undressed, the fish was impressive. Beside a full selection of prepackaged fish and salads stood cardboard boxes, stacked to the brim with whole smoked whitefish. Further down the line was a spread of salmon, whiting and bluefish – cured, pickled, cold smoked and hot smoked varieties were all represented, and the lineup was bookended by the aforementioned strips of nova. Chunks and strips of every fish dotted the edge of the cutting board, free to sample.

Nova lox - Acme Smoked Fish Corporation - Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Acme’s nova must be the standard of American cured fish. In the hand, it was quite firm and substantially weighted. What felt rubbery to the touch became something far more enjoyable when placed in mouth: a stern kind of creamy that doesn’t melt in your mouth as much as it soaks into your taste buds. The taste of said soaking was primarily salty, but a complex kind of salty that shined with all the subtle flavors of the briny rainbow.

Nova lox - Acme Smoked Fish Corporation - Greenpoint, Brooklyn Gravlax Smoked Salmon - Acme Smoked Fish Corporation - Greenpoint, Brooklyn
As generations of noshers have demonstrated, slices of smoked salmon are happiest when married to cream cheese and spread over a freshly made bagel. My own construction was notably lighter than the meal I had at Russ and Daughters, but therein lied the advantage of being your own appetizer. Acme’s gravlax – light, cured salmon sprinkled with dill and other herbs and dispensed in very thin slices – served as a nice one-up in flavor to the standard nova, its savory notes more pronounced than those of regular smoked salmon.

Pastrami Smoked Salmon - Acme Smoked Fish Corporation - Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Salty, greasy, smoky and enveloped in the black-and-brown rub normally reserved for a stubborn brisket, Acme’s pastrami-smoked salmon could give the best beef pastrami a run for its money.

Its vehicle, however, wouldn’t involve rye and mustard. The first memory that popped into mind with my first slice of pastrami salmon was a particularly unsavory yet improbably compelling raw salmon blin I once ate for lunch in Petersburg. That meal, like my belly lox bagel at Russ and Daughters, was a mismatch of components, and it, too, hinted at something great that I was now ready to try.

Homemade blini - Russian pancakes
I raided the fridge and began mixing a bowl of batter for blini. The standards of a Russian blin depends on what you plan on putting inside it, but when it comes to homemade blini, I think thin, small and simple. Easy on the flour, liberal with butter and conservative with how much batter hit the pan, I fried and flipped until I had a suitable stack of crisp-edged rounds.

Pastrami Smoked Salmon Blin - Acme Smoked Fish Corporation - Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Dill-inflected gravlax would have made a better pairing for this kind of delivery, but it was long gone. After a gulp of honey rye vodka, I folded a blin over a slice of pastrami smoked salmon and sandwiched the layers with a dollop of European sour cream. The stack of blini disappeared with haste, each serving delivering just enough satisfaction to keep our eating momentum going.

Homemade blini with berries and sour cream
With just a handful of blini left, I thawed some frozen berries in simple syrup and a dash of maraschino liqueur, then rolled the fruit with a smidge of the same sour cream to finish off the batch. If I ever go back to Russ and Daughters, it’ll be mostly to marvel at the candy counter. I can’t say Calvin Trillin would approve, but I’d hope that after eating a stack of gravlax blini, he would understand.

Over the Counter – Dec 15, 2010

By Zach Mann

Picture a classic Thanksgiving dinner, when an extended family gathers around a mythically long table. Each seat is filled, and each person can look ahead to see a feast atop tablecloth and a close relative or friend. It’s a scene of domesticity and community, something reserved for sit-coms and too-perfect households, rife with interpersonal drama, love, hate and all kinds of intimate details.

Then cut that table in half length-wise, and on the side where nobody is sitting, add a kitchen. Now it’s a diner counter.

Even if everyone at that counter is a stranger eating alone, they are sharing a meal at the same table, with each other, and with the restaurant’s employees working in front of them. In a weird way, for the span of one meal, each is part of the others’ lives just as if they were relatives at Thanksgiving dinner.

Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA
My favorite breakfast spot during my years in Berkeley was little more than a breakfast counter. Makris Cafe on University Ave isn’t the most popular place around campus, but as someone who enjoys dining alone, I visited frequently – with notepad or newspaper in hand – for some eggs, coffee and uninterested company.

Makris had a staff of two and a half. Han, the husband, manned the griddle, too busy to ever turn around. His wife, who dealt with the customers, spoke each order in his ear as their ‘tween daughter, on the busiest days, helped out by refilling coffees and learning how to use the outdated cash register. As husband, wife and daughter work hard to keep the business afloat, the financial needs of a family working two feet from their patrons are part of the process as well.

On one hand, it’s a bit unnerving, like standing outside of their home window as a cloaked voyeur. On the other hand, I believe that meals have more value when there’s a connection between chef, server and customer, even if that relationship is based only on proximity. It cuts out the middleman and becomes a barter between a hungry stranger and a family business that needs patronage. The awareness of that exchange adds a certain honesty to each bite, and it’s that stripped-down style of dining that made Makris my go-to fried egg dispenser in college.

Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA
Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA
In other words, I love breakfast counters. That’s why, upon stepping inside Art’s Cafe, a restaurant consisting of only one long breakfast counter, I instantly liked what I saw.

A tiny storefront sandwiched between bigger buildings on the pedestrian-thick Irving Blvd, Art’s Cafe was easily passed by unnoticed. During weekdays, the long counter would wait, mostly empty for the occasional walk-in. On weekends, a line gathered out front, waiting for the rare vacant stool. Each patron was greeted by the woman, offered coffee and left to examine the myriad postcards beneath the counter glass – gifts from Art’s many fans and a testament to the value of a friendly place to eat. The meal was accompanied by the smell of hot bacon grease, heat from the kitchen, and the percussion of spatulas and frying pans.

Corned Beef Hash - Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA
The main difference between Makris Cafe and Art’s Cafe was that the latter was more successful, and the primary reason for that was its food. While Han knew how to fry an egg, the menu at Art’s had more to offer, and an efficient kitchen kept customer turnover high. Despite the tiny space, success allowed Art’s to hire additional kitchen help and buy better equipment. More rice cookers. Bigger toasters. Cleaner griddles. A website. Makris may have beaten Art’s on the Dickensian scoreboard, but when comparing quality, my five dollars were better spent on Art’s corned beef hash.

Hash Brown Sandwich - Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA
The black sheep of Art’s menu were the hash brown sandwiches, basically quesadillas made with hash browns instead of tortillas. Like the corned beef hash, Art’s hash browns were an ultra-thin and surprisingly uniform version of what I would normally expect, which worked perfectly as the casing to your choice of filling. Even if these novelties didn’t add up to anything more than the sums of their parts, they wee priced to move.

Beef with Kimchi Salad - Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA
Asian influences on the breakfast menu came in the form of white rice and teriyaki – the latter of which featured in one of Art’s more popular dishes, the Samurai Omelet. On the lunch menu, next to burgers and melts, folks could choose from some griddle-Korean food as well.

When I lived close enough to be a regular, everything I tried at Art’s rated at a solid B, decent food made as well as possible with a limited kitchen and cheap ingredients. Art’s deserved every bit of the success displayed in postcard form – if not for the food, than for being an above-average, mom-and-pop breakfast counter.

Those postcards weren’t sent from all over the world to Art’s for the food, after all. They were sent to the people on the other side of the halved Thanksgiving table, because when it comes to breakfast over the counter, “family” might not be a strong enough a word.

Art's Cafe - San Francisco, CA

Single Federal File – Jun 1, 2012

federal-donuts-pennsport-counter-philadelphia-pa
Restaurants crowd-source annoyance. Long waits and stuffy spaces are why I hesitate to have dinner in Manhattan or check out anything that smacks remotely of a new attraction. If I’m going to spend more than half an hour just getting to the meal, I prefer to stretch that time across a more meaningful plane than the restaurant entrance.

My intolerance extends beyond the crowd itself to crowd behavior – and it runs right past than the word “hipster.” In fact, public enemy number one on my roster of New Yorkers waiting on line are the diners who forcibly narrate their meals as arms-length forays into the lusty dens of “hipsters,” “foodies,” and the straw man of the table known as “hipster foodie.”

This isn’t to say my terms are any more endearing. Like a second-year Wiliamsburg transplant complaining about “bridge and tunnel” visitors showing up to the latest dive-style bar, I, too, judge crowds by scent. Through my crowd filter, Ippudo proves that trends can supersede food; Pies and Thighs embodies destination dining as the destruction of local character; every bar on the Lower East Side makes my bones creak; and Shake Shack is a top-tier Malthusian indicator that Manhattan is a pure fuck-up of population density.

I could chalk this up to mortal anxiety. One day, I’ll be (God willing) a scatterplot of ashes in space, where (God willing harder) there is no line for a Shake Shack burger. The crowds of New York will go on without me, fixed points in a muted tide. And if the place mat is a mirror, reminders that our reflections are more or less the same can’t help but taste glum.

federal-donuts-pennsport-philadelphia-pa_01
In the meantime, I’ll just join a different type of crowd. A crowd that isn’t necessarily shaped like a bottleneck, in a place where standing on line is more a shared moment than it is the volunteered cost of being somewhere significant.

That crowd is composed of Philadelphians. That place is Federal Donuts. That moment is the most fun I’ve had waiting for food that doesn’t involve Disneyland’s Little Red Wagon.

My first morning glance at the up-and-coming doughnut concern, carved stylishly into a corner of South 2nd St., gave away none of its cult status. However, an hour of nursing my coffee – and watching the noontime rush slowly fill out this spartan parlour of a shop – illustrated the draw of Federal Donuts with an earned sense of vitality.

federal-donuts-appolonia-spice-hot-doughnuts-pennsport-philadelphia-pa
Damn good cake doughnuts were the foundation of the scene, and Federal Donuts offers two types: “fancy” ($2) and “hot” ($1.25). The fancy selections, wearing eye-catching flavor combinations like “Nutella-Tehina-Pomegrante” and “Halvah Pistachio,” were like less garish cousins to Doughnut Plant’s, catnip for anyone looking to brand their visit as a hipster foodie safari.

The default order on this morning, though, was “hot” – delicate rings of tacky, pudding-like batter plopped into hot oil, floated downstream, plucked from the bath and dusted with sugar and spices before making it into the hands of calmly waiting customers. The freshly fried dough, almost silky in texture, bounced back against the first bite, then was suddenly gone. Its texture was rich but not dense, and the coating of “Appolonia Spice” – cocoa, orange blossom, and some other measure of wonderful things – provided more than a tickle.

federal-donuts-chicken-ticket-pennsport-philadelphia-pa
Fresh, meticulously prepared doughnuts on a Sunday morning are good reason enough for an extended wait, but they didn’t explain why Federal Donuts had turned into a fire hazard. While turnover for hot doughnuts was admirably brisk, most customers lingered to nurse their coffees long after nipping crumbs from their fingers.

The tickets they held marked spots in a commingled line for fried chicken. By the time the numbers were handed out, an urban mass had packed the place to the seams of comfort; still, the door continued to creak open and shut every few minutes. In the East Village I would have made my exit without a second thought, but on this quiet corner of Philadelphia, where a plain-clothed crowd filtered into a demure doughnut shop to clutch humbly at “chicken tickets,” each body only added to the excitement.

federal-donuts-zatar-fried-chicken-pennsport-philadelphia-pa_02
Federal Donuts’ fried chicken, thoroughly crackling on the outside and consistently moist inside, came in a basket and went with little more than moment’s notice. Like the doughnuts, it was prepared two ways: dry or glazed. The za’tar-spiced chicken was particularly special, capturing the robust, fruity-and-savory flavor of sumac and dried spices with a payoff I had yet to find at a MidEastern restaurant.

I walked away from Federal Donuts wondering if it would be nearly as enjoyable as a dining attraction in New York. The meal that brings people together over strong coffee and dollar tips certainly has its place in the same city that routinely sends people from skyscraper to steak house. Still, the jaded New York transplant in me wanted to believe that this crowd was less cosmopolitan, less desensitized, and simply less used to waiting for things that aren’t truly worth their while.

federal-donuts-pennsport-philadelphia-pa_02

Diners at the End of the World – Aug 20, 2010

By Zach Mann

Four glasses of wine into a perfectly warm Oahu evening, as I finished off my cousin’s barbecued flank steak and extra spicy caesar salad, his girlfriend regaled us with the paragon attributes of Kona peaberry coffee, a speech she learned from one of her employers. That employer was Alan Wong, a man with enough opinions on coffee to make Marin County wine snobs seem open-minded with merlot, and the speech boasted that Kona peaberry might just be the best coffee in the world. Meanwhile, my cousin was dual-wielding electric grinders at the marble counter where we sat, trying to temper expectations while trying not to overgrind either the coffee or the marijuana.

Maybe it was the beautiful breeze from the rainforested Kalihi Valley beyond the open door, or being able to spend time with my cousin whom I rarely see, or the fact that I was in Hawaii, immersed in the environment, experiencing something made local, cherished by locals and with locals. Maybe it was the speech, or the wine, or that it concluded a great meal. Or maybe the coffee really was that good, because in that moment I believed all of Kona peaberry’s accolades.

Big City Diner - Kaimuki - Honolulu, HI
I know that I like light roast more than dark roast, but that’s about where my coffee knowledge falls off. I couldn’t tell you if that specific variant of Kona coffee I tried on Oahu was better than a house brew I had weeks later in San Francisco, and I don’t particularly care. Enjoyment is fickle, contingent on the moment, and perception is everything. Taste is no different.

After the most geographically antsy year of my life, I came to expect that food consumed while traveling just tastes better. If I were making comparisons to meals back home, the contest would be rigged, because even if I discounted hunger caused by long days of new experiences, I couldn’t discredit my hardwired desires. When I destination dine, I want to have something to boast about to my friends back home, I want a reason to justify the costs of travel to myself, and I usually find enough to convince myself of exactly that.

Loco Moco - Big City Diner - Kaimuki - Honolulu, HI
So I can’t tell you if the Loco Moco at Big City Diner was better than that four-dollar Loco Moco combo special I lived off of for months in college. Sure, that Shattuck Boulevard discount dinner was saltier than bad crack seed, but the spam haikus on the walls were adorable, and did I mention it was four dollars for rice, mac salad, a meat patty and two sunny-side eggs? At that time in my life, there was no tastier meal.

In the end, Big City Diner won, because even though the meat was overcooked and the gravy underwhelmed, loco was slang for local. There I was, in a Kaimuki diner, and that counted for something. The Loco Moco was five dollars more, but it was a million times more satisfying because it had “Aloha”.

Papaya - Zippy's - Honolulu, HI
I don’t want to suggest that Kona peaberry coffee might not be the best in the world, or that food on Oahu can’t be amazing on its own. I just feel that when traveling, that isn’t the point. One thing I’ve learned in what traveling I’ve done is that the fun part about being in a different place isn’t the museums, the monuments, or even the wacky waxy Lenin corpse. Likewise, the most rewarding meals aren’t found at the most famous restaurants or the tastiest local hotspots, but at some ordinary diner where the food is usually un-special and rarely story-worthy, because that’s where the line that separates a tourist from a local becomes weakest.

That isn’t to say that mundanity requires blandness. After all, vibrant Hawaiian papaya enhanced with lemon is an un-special breakfast… to Hawaiians.

Zippy's - Honolulu, HI
Saimin - Zippy's - Honolulu, HI Chili Omelet - Zippy's - Honolulu, HI
On Oahu, there was no diner more ordinary than Zippy’s. It was the common denominator for Hawaiian-American food, normalized across the islands like Denny’s or Waffle House across the mainland. The food was just as ordinary, but not in a bad way. Ther’s a fine line between comforting familiarity and boring repetition, and Zippy’s tended to stay on the positive side. The same old waitress took your order and that same old meal tasted just as good as always, whether it was a dependable noodle soup or a perfectly acceptable omelet.

Fish and Eggs - Zippy's - Honolulu, HI
That comfort in familiarity is what drove my Hawaiian-born girlfriend across Mainland towns in search of diners that serve rice with breakfast, like the aforementioned Benice. It’s also what cased her to order fish and eggs over and over during her trips to Hawaii, because it was just one of those things taken for granted on Oahu but absent in California. Zippy’s fish and eggs in particular struck a comforting chord, and it’s for that reason that she preferred Zippy’s over others that might be better. The setting just mattered more.

Fish and Eggs - Jack's Restaurant - Honolulu, HI
As a tourist, I preferred the setting of Jack’s. A well-known secret in a Hawaii-Kai strip mall, Jack’s was a popular mom-and-pop breakfast joint with an ordinary menu that could get quite special on its own, without serving anything out of the ordinary. All of the food was delicious. The fish and eggs were no exception, and neither was Jack’s (Portuguese sausage) Omelet, but most of all I loved that it was tiny, invisible and run by aging residents who didn’t care who I was or where I was from. I just love diners, no matter what side of the sea they’re on, as long as a dedication to efficiency trumps current trends or efforts to put forth something new and different.

When I’m someplace new and different, that’s not what I’m looking for, and when you’re someplace familiar, sometimes familiar is exactly what you want. As we went from diner to diner in Hawaii, I loved all my meals through the lens of adventure and she loved hers through nostalgia, and both of us found the mundane to be rather special.

Jack's Omelet - Jack's Restaurant - Honolulu, HI

Poetic Breakfast (and Lunch) – Feb 1, 2009

I’ve lived in New York for about nine weeks, and about as many times
I’ve stopped to think of California and what I’ve left behind.
It isn’t that I feel regret. I’d say I’ve had my best weeks yet. And yet-
I will admit: There are certain things that never leave my mind.

It’s not sunshine and sand that I remember when snow begins to fall,
not coastlines and tans in mid-December or weeknights at the mall
(I consider myself lucky to have escaped these things at all).
No; when my toes have vanished and I can barely move my jaw,
it’s not the ever present, artificial warmth that I recall.

It’s a sandwich that occupies the space that fills the void behind my face.
To be perfectly honest, I never thought a sandwich could be so difficult to replace.

Before I continue with this story, I’d like to add a tangent to my tab:
In the kingdom of free associations, sawdust is still up for grabs.
The lucky among us would translate a scent of that unmistakable grit
as a prelude to hunger, a heavy plate, content, conveniently halved.
As for the unlucky… well, I’d wager there’s no poetry to be had.

The end of this aside is that my sandwich comes from a place.

Philippe the Original - Los Angeles, CA Philippe the Original - Los Angeles, CA
Philippe the Original - Los Angeles, CA

A mild observation, I know, but one can’t come from a place without something to show-
and, in this location at Alameda and Ord, there are one hundred years of faces to know.
One hundred years of sawdust and labor, a city to flee, a vacancy to grow.
One hundred years of sprawling arms bent backward across skid row.

After one hundred years, I’m left to wonder when I think about downtown LA:
Is this as cosmopolitan as this city gets? As urban as textbooks will say?
A Sunset drive may be the way to plot a hopeless afternoon,
but Hollywood and Vine won’t be in my thoughts anytime soon.

Corned Beef Hash and Eggs Breakfast With Biscuit - Philippe the Original - Los Angeles, CA

If I’m lucky, I’ll make the breakfast call for eggs over easy and corned beef hash.
Chinatown has left for work. I haven’t hit the lunchtime dash.
Suits and helmets trickle out, and wood grains skid along the floor.
I scoop some salsa on my plate and claim a flour tinged biscuit as my reward.

When the sun begins its next ascent, I can’t help but be overwhelmed
by the sight of Los Angeles filing in for its daily bread.
Clerks and lawyers, would-be John Hoyers, seekers of their quarter hour,
servants, merchants, abrasive speakers of unsigned power,
the honest and the hopeful, all lining up to be fed.

Across the counter, the contemporary is met with an antique sight
from the fabled years when an honest day’s work was a worker’s right.
An army of mothers, wives and daughters assemble plates
with a server’s calm and a vendor’s grace.

At the end of this centennial line is the L.A. that I miss.
Roast beef, turkey, pork and lamb are carved and dipped into the drink,
then stuffed into rolls, where the juices and grease have a moment to think.
The insides meld, the outside flakes, and hunger transforms into an abyss.
I find a seat, set down my plate and assume the role of another weak link.

The East River wind snaps to attention and shakes me straight.
The snow begins to drift away, dragged behind the memory’s weight.

I walk up Bedford, seeing not a single trace of a nine cent cup of coffee,
an earthy pickled egg, that blistering mustard, that plain-Jane slice of pie
or the sandwich that’s so difficult to replace.

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