Tofu before noon
Raisin Bran has its place in the world; blueberry pancakes are fine. We have personally fried enough eggs over easy to swamp Dodger Stadium in slightly runny yolk. But on the other side of the world - and in other parts of town - breakfast is more likely to contain a bit of pickled cabbage, a fried fish or a slug of soy milk than it is one of those individual-serving boxes of Apple Jacks. And that's okay with us.
I can't think of a better way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday than meeting friends here for dim sum. The dining room is packed with big round tables covered with myriad tiny dishes, with more and more of them added as the waitresses pass by with their rolling carts. The trick is to pace it out, so you won't risk missing the little short ribs in a glorious black-bean sauce, or any of the exquisite and varied steamed dumplings, so transparent you can easily read the contents: shrimp and greens, chicken and mushrooms. My favorite is a boiled "water dog," a bird's-nest-soup dumpling the size of a small bowl; break into it with your spoon and you'll find a broth so concentrated it tastes as if 10 chickens have been boiled down to get one cupful of soup. Bamboo Plaza, 988 N. Hill St., Chinatown; (213) 617-9898. Open Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. $1.85-$4.80 per plate; $12-$15 per person. Full bar. Takeout. Validated parking. AE, DC, MC, V.
Golden Deli's spring rolls, cha gio, are crusty golden things, 4 inches long and as thick as a fat man's thumb, five to an order, crudely rolled in a manner suggesting rustic abundance rather than clumsiness, and perfectly, profoundly crisp. You wrap them with leaves of romaine lettuce into bursting green "tacos," along with fistfuls of mint, cilantro and basil, also a few shreds of marinated carrot and turnip, a slice of cucumber, a squirt of hot chile paste. You dip the bundles into little bowls of nuoc cham, a thin, sweetish garlic-fish sauce. Then you bite through the vegetable-crunchy herbs to the garlicky, pepper-hot forcemeat of crab and minced pork inside. No two bites are alike. Golden Deli has a long and complicated menu, but it is difficult to contemplate a meal - breakfast, even - without an order of these. 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; (818) 308-0803. Open all day Thurs.-Tues. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$12. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.
Hong Kong Low Deli
Open in time for early breakfast, Chinatown's Hong Kong Low Deli serves what dim sum used to be back when everybody called them "teacakes," i.e., dumplings without the parboiled geoduck and jellyfish salad and mango mousse with a cherry on top. Baked bao, browned and hot and brushed with sticky syrup, are filled with barbecued pork in a sweet, garlicky sauce. Turnoverlike pies are made of flaky pastry, egg-washed to a deep, burnished gold, stuffed with chicken stew, barbecued pork or a truly fine pungent mince of curried beef. There are dense fried sesame dumplings, savory turnip cakes, sticky rice flavored with bits of meat and vegetable, deep-fried to a wicked oily crunch. Hong Kong Deli is the kind of place the city's Cultural Heritage Commission ought to be preserving - instead of a bunch of old buildings that don't even have restaurants in them. 408 Bamboo Lane, Chinatown; (213) 680-9827. Open daily 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Lunch or breakfast for two, food only, $3-$5. No alcohol. Takeout only. Cash and checks only.
Jook, a Cantonese rice porridge, is something of an acquired taste. Although the flavors are fairly direct, the okra-esque texture can be off-putting. Still, Mayflower's jook is terrific, spiked with shredded green-onion tops and crunchy shards of boiled won ton skin: hearty stuff. Splashed down with a plastic tumblerful of hot tea, the jook here is a real power breakfast, shot through with spicy strands of fresh ginger, packing enough complex carbs to slingshot a guy through an honest day's work. Try it with peanuts. Or with strips of tripe. Or with the house combination of chicken, shrimp, liver and kidney, which flavors every drop. May Flower is also where to find perfect Cantonese beef stew, long-braised, anise-flavored chunks of brisket, and meltingly tender beef tendon that's among the richest foods I know. 800 Yale St. (at Alpine), Chinatown; (213) 626-7113. Open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5-$8. No alcohol. Cash only.
Middle East Restaurant
Unlike most Lebanese restaurants, the Middle East Restaurant makes a specialty of breakfast, of scrambled eggs with the spicy Armenian sausage sujuk, or of fatch, a fantastic mess of chickpeas, toasted pita, garlic and pine nuts fried in olive oil, then doused in homemade yogurt. Before 10 a.m., there is a $4.95 combination that includes a plate of yogurt-tart homemade cream-cheese labneh slicked with olive oil; a turnover stuffed with the thymelike herb zaatar, a squarish sort of Danish thing with a sweetly spiced forcemeat; a basket of pita; a plate of olives and pickles and another plate with onions, tomatoes and fresh leaves of mint; two kinds of cheese; a glass of hot tea; and a giant bowl of foul moudamas, the herby, tart fava-bean salad Egyptians traditionally have in the mornings. 910 E. Main St., Alhambra; (818) 281-1006. Open daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$20. Beer and wine. Takeout and catering. Lot parking. AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V.
The perfect breakfast is hard to find. Soul food is too fattening, diner food too bland, Japanese pickles just too weird before noon. If you like noodles, you might think Pho 79 serves the perfect breakfast, light, tasty and just exotic enough, inexpensive and filled with vitamins: beef soup. The strong, dark-roasted coffee, dripped at table in individual stainless-steel French filters, is among the best I've had anywhere. And in an area - Chinatown - thick with Vietnamese noodle shops, Pho 79 serves the best noodles. Of course, the place does have a few drawbacks: On weekend mornings, you may have to wait for as long as five minutes. Plus, it hasn't changed its one Vietnamese easy-listening tape since it opened a few years ago, and if you go every week, you get to know the songs pretty well - maybe too well. 727 N. Broadway, Suite 120, Chinatown; (213) 625-7026. Open seven days 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$10. Beer and wine. Validated parking. Cash only.
Yung Ho Tou Chiang
At Yung Ho's, the breakfast protocol is easy. You order some soy milk, then some stuff to go along with the soy milk: flaky buns stuffed with sweet, simmered turnips; steamed buns filled with spiced pork or black mushrooms; crusty fried pied[s]??? stuffed with pungent messes of sauteed leek tops; small steamed pork dumplings bursting with juice. The sweetish soy milk itself is a resolutely bland, non-exotic substance; paired with dumplings, however, its flavor opens up, tempering the richness of simmered stuffings and the greasiness of fried ones. The traditional accompaniment to soy milk is a long, twisted, light-as-air cruller, and Yung Ho does them well. For another buck or so, you can get the cruller smeared with a salty paste of pounded meat and wrapped inside a cylinder of sticky rice, simulating the texture of good sushi roll. 533 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (818) 570-0860. Open daily 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Breakfast for two, food only, $5-$10. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
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