Other Feature Writing
Wake Up to the World
Sure, you can pile your plate with bacon and eggs in countless hash houses around town. Or pick up a coffee and muffin-to-go on nearly every corner. But when breakfast boredom sets in, it’s time to seek out new sources of morning sunshine. A channa poori, perhaps? What about Haitian cornmeal porridge? Or some Taiwanese jellyfish salad?
Exploring ethnic breakfast spots around Boston requires a spirit of adventure, as well as persistence, since both hours and menus, particularly at smaller eateries, seem to vary somewhat randomly. But set out exploring, and you can wake up to a world of intriguing breakfasts from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.
Jellyfish and Pig Ears: First Stop, Asia
Chung Shin Yuan. 183 California St., Newton, 617-964-0111. Taiwanese-style dim sum Sat.–Sun. 11:30 AM–2:30 PM.
Timing is important at Chung Shin Yuan. When we arrive at 11:20 on a recent Sunday, the line to enter the boxy brick building stretches more than 20 people long. The Chinese families and groups of students are all waiting for the weekly Taiwanese brunch.
Like Cantonese dim sum, brunch here means a selection of small dishes, although you order from a bilingual menu, rather than choosing food from passing carts. We start with puffy steamed buns stuffed with tangy pickled mustard greens and pork ($1 each). Our table’s favorite turns out to be jellyfish salad ($6), strands of crunchy, spicy jellyfish tossed with shredded carrots and turnips. We give high marks to the crispy fried turnip cake ($3), too, and then move on to the pig ear salad ($5.50). Fortunately, it doesn’t look like pigs’ ears. The chili-spiced pork is finely shredded, making it resemble light brown noodles that happen to taste a little meaty.
One drawback to arriving early is that you don’t get to see what others are eating before you order. Too late, we notice that the most popular items seem to be shao-bing (golden-brown sesame rolls, $1.50) and fried dough sticks ($1.75) that people are dipping into bowls of sweet soybean milk ($1). We’ll just have to return another day.
Pho So 1 Boston. 223 Adams St., Dorchester, 617-474-1999. Open daily at 9 AM.
On the floor of this Fields Corner storefront, two tiny figurines are seated in an ornate red-and-gold altar. In front of each one is the morning’s offering: a cup of dark coffee and a coconut-covered donut.
The human patrons aren’t eating pastry, though. There’s no separate breakfast menu at this pho shop, and most of the Vietnamese couples and groups of men breakfasting to the beat of Vietnamese techno on the stereo are sipping tea and slurping big bowls of traditional Vietnamese beef soup. I’m not ready to face a bowl of steak, brisket, and tripe at 9:30 AM, so I opt for the vegetarian variety, a light, fresh-tasting broth liberally sprinkled with cilantro, scallions, and crisp-tender broccoli.
My husband chooses “rice chowder,” a comforting porridge similar to Cantonese congee. His duck version comes with big hunks of on-the-bone bird, and it’s served with a stick of fried dough, like a Dunkin’ Donuts cruller except that it isn’t sweet. Dipped in the chowder, this donut makes another tasty offering.
Aujourd’hui. Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St., Boston, 617-351-2071. Breakfast Mon.–Fri. 6:30–11 AM, Sat. 7 AM–noon, Sun. 7–11 AM.
Interrupted only by the discreet clink of china coffee cups, business is buzzing one Tuesday morning on the second floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. Yet despite the thickly upholstered banquettes, the heavy silver, and the corporate murmurings of the dark-suited diners, I’m looking for a taste of Japan.
Aujourd’hui offers a set-menu Japanese breakfast ($24) accompanied by silver pots of green tea. The centerpiece is a simple but meaty slab of grilled salmon, along with four maki rolls, wrapped in cabbage rather than nori, packed with chilled, bright green spinach. More color comes from a dish of pickles: a tart olive-green one, crunchy pickled carrots, a sharp sunshine-yellow radish, and a meltingly soft, rose-colored, pickled plum.
My breakfast tray also includes an onsen egg, although I’m not sure how to eat it. My only utensils are chopsticks, and the soft-boiled egg keeps slipping out of my grasp (I eventually ask for a teaspoon). Miso soup, a bowl of rice, and a dish of adzuki beans – in a syrupy sauce that leaves sticky threads trailing from my chopsticks – round out this vicarious trip to Tokyo.
Café of India. 52A Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-661-0683. Breakfast daily 7 AM–noon.
Café of India, in Harvard Square, caters to a university clientele by blending Indian and American fare. As recorded sitar music plays, you can get scrambled eggs, English muffins, and home fries, or one of several Indian breakfast dishes, like aloo paratha ($3.95), a flatbread filled with potatoes and cumin seeds, paired with tangy yogurt. The more substantial channa poori ($5.95) is a dish of curried chickpeas, served with puffy fried bread. And the breakfast crepes come with butter and jam ($2.95), mango and mint ($4.95), or, in the tikka masala version ($6.95), creamy chicken curry.
Yogurt lovers might try the chilled mango lassi, while those who need caffeine might choose milky masala tea, with its undercurrent of clove. Nothing is very spicy here, and that seems to be how the tweedy Cambridge crowd likes it.
Breakfast with a Salsa Beat: Latin America
Taqueria Mexico. 24 Charles St, Waltham, 781-647-0166. Breakfast daily 10 AM–noon.
If it weren't for the brightly colored serapes and sombreros hanging from the walls, Taqueria Mexico could pass for an Irish bar, with its knotty pine paneling and crimson vinyl booths. Still, as Calvin Trillin once wrote, a Mexican eatery is authentic if it offers menudo, a tripe stew reputed to have hangover-tempering properties. This Taqueria scores high on the Trillin authenticity scale.
Menudo notwithstanding, eggs are the focus of the bilingual breakfast menu. A particularly appetizing option is the huevos a la mexicana ($4.25) – scrambled eggs with bits of crunchy onions, tomatoes, and green chilies that have just enough heat to warm you on a winter morning. It’s served with golden rice, soupy red beans, and a basket of warm tortillas.
My own authenticity test is horchata, a creamy rice drink with a dusky cinnamon flavor. Taqueria Mexico’s freshly made version ($1.25) passes this exam, too. Juice lovers can choose from numerous combos, like the jugo especial ($3), a blend of pear, mango, strawberry, papaya, and orange juices.
The Latin pop in the background tends toward quiet ballads, but there's enough salsa spunk to prompt my waiter to do a little bump and grind for the kitchen staff. He smiles sheepishly when he catches me watching. I just sip my horchata and grin back.
Taqueria Cancun. 65 Maverick Sq., East Boston, 617-567-4449. Open daily at 7 AM.
It’s anything but quiet at this Maverick Square hole-in-the-wall with Latin pop dancing out of the speakers, a Spanish-language talk show on TV, and a regular chorus of “Buenos dias” from the stream of people coming in for their morning pupusa fix. The pupusas ($1.50 each) are hefty cornmeal pancakes, filled with cheese or a gooey blend of cheese and shredded pork. They’re served with curtido, a vinegary cabbage slaw. Most people order two of them, and if you do, you may not have to eat again till supper.
Also on the breakfast menu are pasteles salvadoreños ($1.50 each), which aren’t sweet pastries as I expected, but meat pies. Colored a pale orange not unlike the Taqueria’s walls, the pasteles are stuffed with ground beef, rice, tomatoes, and green peppers. You could take them to go, but then you’d miss the action inside the bustling dining room.
El Cafetal. 479 Cambridge St., Allston, 617-789-4009. Open daily at 10 AM.
A Telemundo talk show is playing on the large-screen TV at this Allston eatery, too, when I stop in to sample arepas, the Colombian version of cornmeal pancakes. The arepa de chocolo ($3.50) is chewier than a johnnycake or a pupusa, more like a sweet, fried corn muffin. It’s served with a dollop of white cheese that looks like whipped butter but tastes like farmers’ cheese, tangy and slightly sugary. My pale guanábana (soursop) drink ($2.50) is frothy like a smoothie, and its subtle pear-like flavor complements the sweet arepa.
The larger meals, called calentados, come with grilled steak ($6.50), huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs, $3.50), or both ($9), along with a pleasingly salty mixture of rice and plump red beans. The eggs, tossed with tomatoes and scallions, are similar to the Mexican version but without the chili heat.
Spicing Up the Morning with Zesty Caribbean Fare
Bon Appetit Restaurant. 1132 Blue Hill Ave., Dorchester, 617-825-5544. Open daily at 9 AM.
“No, there’s no breakfast menu,” the waiter tells us, a Creole lilt in his voice. “It’s just in my head.” When he describes the morning’s three choices – chicken gizzards ($5), beef liver ($5), and fish ($6.50) – my two companions and I, sniffing the rich, stew-like aromas wafting into the stylish purple-walled dining room, decide to sample one of each.
To our surprise, we’re most impressed with the gizzards, little bites of meltingly tender poultry in a subtly spicy tomato sauce. The liver fan among us praises the gamy meat, and the stewed white fish is also tasty, if somewhat less exotic. The plates come with starchy boiled plantains and iceberg lettuce salads.
The hands-down winner, though, is a side dish that the waiter calls simply “cornmeal” ($1). A thick porridge dotted with red beans, it’s like a jazzed-up bowl of cream of wheat and just as satisfying.
Lenny’s Tropical Bakery and Restaurant. 1195 Blue Hill Ave., Mattapan, 617-296-2587. Open daily at 7:30 AM.
Whether their accents are Caribbean or African-American, everyone in line ahead of me at Lenny’s is asking for patties in coco bread ($2). Though I’m not quite sure what I’m going to get, I ask for one, too.
The patties come in beef, chicken, or vegetable varieties, and my choice – veggie – is a golden-yellow baked turnover stuffed with onions, carrots, and celery. There’s hot sauce inside, and as I eat, my mouth gets a pleasantly slow burn. The coco bread looks like an oversized hamburger bun, so a patty with coco bread is essentially a bread sandwich, with the crisp patty tucked inside the coconut-scented roll. Unless you’re counting calories, the combo works unexpectedly well; the coco bread modulates the patty’s heat.
An assortment of baked goods is also available, including sweet potato pudding ($1.50), a dense, moist cake that tastes like a cross between Christmas fruit cake and pumpkin pie.
El Oriental de Cuba. 416 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6464. Open daily at 8 AM.
My eight-year-old daughter takes one bite of her huevos revueltos con chorizo ($4) and sighs, “It’s so American.” She’s ordered scrambled eggs with sausage, and it’s just not as exotic as other items at this Cuban eatery. Her twin sister has insisted on chicken soup ($3.50), unusual breakfast fare perhaps, but the bowl of steaming broth – flavored with cilantro, tender chicken, and soft spaghetti – prompts her to declare, “It makes me feel all warm inside.”
I’m warmed by my café cubano ($.75), a shot of dark espresso in a Styrofoam demitasse. Most of the other customers, Spanish-speaking couples and families plus an assortment of Jamaica Plain hipsters, are lingering over big mugs of milky café con leche ($2).
The massive plate of mofongo ($4.75), mashed plantains mixed with crispy pork rinds, is incredibly filling and seriously garlicky, so to purge our garlic breath, we order batidos ($2), fruity milk shakes. Our waitress recommends parcha (passion fruit), which has a tropical pineapple-y flavor, though the girls prefer the vanille, like a thick Friendly’s frappe. We also try guarapo ($2.50), a sugar cane drink that the kids describe as “sweet plant juice” – definitely not “so American.”
Merengue Restaurant. 156-160 Blue Hill Ave., Roxbury, 617-445-5403. Open daily at 9 AM.
The first time we stop into Merengue, a lively Dominican eatery, hoping for a late breakfast one Sunday around noon, the hostess shakes her head. “Sorry, breakfast finished.” When we ask what time we should return, she tells us, “Breakfast is at nine.” Till when? “Until 11.” But on another Saturday, when we turn up at 10:15, we’re turned away again with a polite, “Sorry, breakfast finished.” “What time is breakfast?” I inquire one more time. “Nine o’clock.” “Until when?” “Until finished.”
On our third try, when we arrive around 9:30, the waitress cheerfully seats us under the makeshift Caribbean beach shack constructed on the sunny yellow wall and hands us the lunch and dinner menu. “But don’t you have breakfast?” I plead.
“Oh, yes. We have Dominican breakfast.” She offers us two choices: mangu ($3.50) – creamy mashed plantains that are topped with a poached egg, a sausage patty, and a crispy triangle of fried cheese – or “fish” ($3.50), which turns out to be mangu smothered with stewed salt cod. The mangus are comfort food, like mashed potatoes, and a frothy mango batido is a perfect accompaniment.
A couple of Boston cops come in and, as they sit down, they look around to see what everyone is eating. They order Dominican breakfasts, too. Luckily, on that particular day, they’re just in time.