Photo by Anne Fishbein
I don’t like brunch. The word itself, a silly elision, evokes big hotel buffets with omelet stations and meat carvers, steam trays and ice sculptures, and Sterno-scented rooms filled with the overweight well-off.
Even in its lesser local incarnations, brunch is breakfast for the late-to-bed, late-to-rise crowd who straggle, blinking into the sun at its zenith, when most self-respecting cafés have 86’ed the flapjacks and moved on to burgers and tuna melts. Somewhere along the line, though, restaurants saw dollar signs in these weekend slugabeds and thereby extended the availability of French toast by a few hours.
“Brunch,” avers a friend of mine, “is an excuse to drink early in the day.” Which may be why I have such a Pavlovian aversion to the term — too many ragged, lost afternoons in my youth. Yet in the 15 years I’ve been writing about restaurants, the brunch question is asked more than any other. Often I profess ignorance; but recently — when asked for a recommendation for something inexpensive and “different” on the Eastside — a few places sprung to mind.
Cha Cha Cha. The Virgil-at-Melrose location — with its bright, battered Third World charm — dishes up tropical-hued Cal/Caribbean food on clashing Fiestaware plunked onto gaily patterned floral oilcloths. Palmettos, Catholic imagery, a chandelier draped in red plastic crystals, wanton color, big-flavored cooking, a patina of hard use — even the guy mopping the concrete under our feet — it all conspires, modestly and resolutely, to delight.
The Jungle Brunch menu, in effect until 3 p.m. on weekends, offers some of the best chilaquiles in town — chewy tortilla strips stirred into scrambled eggs with guacamole, crème fraîche and a green tomatillo salsa. And the hot-sweet-smokiness of the jerk-chicken omelet is especially compelling. Milder is the tortilla marbella, a small egg pie studded with pink shrimp and seafood and served with rice, beans and plantains. The orange juice is fresh, the coffee delicious. Other options include churros, those ribbed, long donuts dusted with powdered sugar; apple pancakes; French toast made with bolillo (Cuban bread); and sautéed bananas . . . all under 10 dollars.
In Old Town Pasadena, at the new Café Atlantic, sunlight streams through the south-facing windows onto white tablecloths, old brick walls, the large art photographs of Miami, Havana and New York — the Atlantic ports of the Cuban diaspora. It’s a fine place to spread out, drink coffee and eat Cuban-style breakfasts starting with squeezed-to-order juice — orange, grapefruit or guarapo (sugar cane). Or make that a batido — a Cuban milk shake made with mamey, guanabana, mango or papaya. Then, perhaps, try the blandly named “Three Scrambled Eggs” — which proves to be anything but: The eggs crown a jalapeño-spiked sauté of collard greens, tomato and onions, with Cuban croquettes (crisp tubes filled with finely ground lamb and spicy chorizo) on the side. Pork hash, made with the house’s citrus-marinated, garlic-kissed roast pork leg, is a glorious mash of peppers, onion, string beans and potatoes with a fried egg “hat.” Huevos Campesinos, fried eggs with black beans, small rock shrimp and puddles of melted Manchego cheese, is a play of diverse textures and sudden gusts of flavor. Order an avocado salad for the table — it’ll enhance all these dishes.
Those with a sweet tooth will be happy to find Cuban and French pastries (Café Atlantic is also, in part, a neighborhood coffee bar). And, idiosyncratically, the menu includes yogurt with granola and fruit, lox and bagels, and French toast.
Lately, my own favorite late-morning, easterly eating spot is India Sweets and Spices (listed, charmingly, as India Sweet and Spicy in the phone book), a Duarte-based branch of the small chain of vegetarian Indian cafés. This is really fudging the brunch concept, as IS&S doesn’t open until 11 a.m. and sells no conventional breakfast fare; but the typical Indian snacks, such as respectable dosas, utapams, bhel puri and vegetable curries, offer a different and wonderfully low-priced option. The plates are Styrofoam, the utensils plastic, the curries dished up from a steam table and the décor minimal. But the flavors are big, authentic and lively, and the chai is free!
I typically get the number-two combination: two vegetable curries, basmati rice, raita, chapati or poori (baked bread or heavenly puffy fried bread), pickled onion, samosa and pakora (fritters — usually made with fresh spinach). At $3.99, it’s one of the great food bargains in the county. Every time I go, there is at least one astonishing curry. Once, it was a curried cabbage gravied in its buttery juices and almost sweet with caramelized onions; another time, a creamy, pale-yellow yogurt curry with vegetable dumplings. Channa, or chick peas, are always delicious, as is the sag paneer (spinach with fresh cheese). Wash it all down with good mango lassi or the chikoo shake — a cool, slightly grainy fruit that in this guise tastes most like fig.
If you want to finish with a sweet, I’d recommend the kalakan (a kind of yogurt cheesecake) or a bar of kulfi from the cooler, either the mango or pistachio. Recently, two young Paki-American friends convinced me to try the fresh pan that’s sold in small aluminum packets by the register. Pan is a kind of postprandial chaw, a leaf folded around seeds and beetlenut that’s at once so bitter, so salty, so sweet and spicy, that even this demure female restaurant critic began spitting like a fool — to the great amusement of her young friends. Takes the sting out of brunch.
Cha Cha Cha, 656 N. Virgil Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 664-7723. Jungle Brunch dishes, $4.25 to $9.50.
Café Atlantic, 53 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 796-7350. Breakfasts, $6 to $10.
India Sweets and Spices, 1208 E. Huntington Dr., Duarte, (626) 357-6899. Combination meals, $2.99 to $3.99.