Are you a breakfast person? If you’re not (and so many of us aren’t), maybe you’re eating the wrong kind of breakfast. “To my way of thinking, breakfast is a state of mind rather than a traditional morning meal,” says Chanterelle chef David Waltuck in his book Staff Meals. “I’ll eat virtually anything in the morning rather than face a bowl of cereal, a bagel or muffin, or bacon and eggs.” Here, in the world capital of bagels, where most bakers make mountains out of muffins, those words sound like heresy. So what else is out there, anyway?
Actually, there’s plenty. Most of the world (and a good portion of New York) gets by, in fact thrives, on breakfasts that revolve around foods and flavors few of us imagine waking up to. So, in the interest of demonstrating that a toasted “everything” bagel with scallion cream cheese isn’t necessarily the ultimate morning meal, we’ve nibbled light dinners and woken up much earlier than usual to sample the city’s broad spectrum of international morning fare. Some of these edible imports seem utterly authentic; others merely integrate foreign flavors into the eggs-and-toast theme, but none will leave you scratching your head come lunchtime, trying to remember what you ate for breakfast.
If you need to start your day with a jolt, caffeine isn’t the only option. Chili peppers are just as effective – and addictive – especially when tucked away inside a three-egg breakfast burrito from Kitchen/Market (218 Eighth Avenue, near 21st Street; 212-243-4433), the superlative Chelsea source for all things south-of-the-border. This two-fisted portable breakfast is packed with protein, not to mention onions, green chilies, melted jack and Cheddar cheese, and doused with just enough hot sauce to get your juices flowing.
Early risers are doubly blessed at Kitchen – they avoid the inevitable lunch and dinner lines, and get to sample sensational Latin-American morning bebidas like the delicately milky Ibarra hot chocolate or, even better, the atole, a pre-Columbian drink made from roasted heirloom white-corn meal, piloncillo (unrefined Mexican sugar), and milk. It looks like gruel but tastes like ambrosia. If you’ve got time to linger, you can do it next door, at Kitchen’s tiled retro-diner sibling, the Bright Food Shop (216 Eighth Avenue, at 21st Street; 212-243-4433). The same burrito with a side of black beans will cost you an extra $3.15 sitting down, but the cozy counter and the light-flooded room are worth it. And there’s more interpretive Mexican-flavored morning fare to choose from, like a version of piloncillo-sweetened French toast made from whole-wheat tortillas, torn into strips and drizzled with a Mexican crema-and-maple syrup, and smoked whitefish maki: chili-spiked scrambled eggs, smoked whitefish, and wasabi cream cheese, an unpredictably harmonious fusion of Jewish, Japanese, and Mexican flavors.
The fusion theme carries over to Hampton Chutney Co. (68 Prince Street; 212-226-9996), and so does the notion of stuffing jazzed-up scrambled eggs inside an ethnic wrapper – in this case, a crispy, baguette-sized Indian dosa with the slightly sour flavor that comes from fermented rice batter. The $6.95 breakfast version features fresh spinach, intensely flavored oven-roasted tomatoes, and melted jack cheese; splurge an extra $1.50 for some ripe avocado slices, and drizzle everything with cilantro chutney.
If you’ve ever eaten leftover pizza, cold sesame noodles, or Cheez Doodles at the crack of dawn, you’re already open to the idea that one man’s lunch, dinner, or vending-machine snack is another’s breakfast. Even so, banh mi, those Vietnamese heroes loaded with lunch meats more mysterious-looking even than an Oscar Mayer variety pack, are not everyone’s idea of a suitable breakfast sandwich. But in Ho Chi Minh City, banh mi for breakfast is as common as bagels and lox are on the Upper West Side. At Viet-Nam Banh Mi So 1 (369 Broome Street; 212-219-8341) – a spic-and-span Vietnamese grocery – breakfast begins at 8 a.m. The lavishly constructed “special” banh mi ($2.75) is the way to go: crumbly barbecued pork, beige-colored pressed “pork roll,” and another fatty pink slice of meat that looks like headcheese, along with a crunchy pile of sliced cucumbers, cilantro, and sweetly pickled carrots all layered into a warm hero roll slathered with homemade mayo. Ask for a squirt of hot sauce and you have the defining flavors of Southeast Asia – hot, sweet, salty, sour – on a bun.
At African Grill (1496 Fifth Avenue, at 120th Street; 212-987-3836), breakfast seems more like dinner – and not just because the drapes are pulled tight against the morning light. Chef Ousmane Kane learned to cook from his mother, who ran a restaurant in Senegal, and his breakfast philosophy seems to be to eat what you might for dinner, only earlier, when you need the energy most. The protein-packed power breakfast menu one morning included juicy fried chicken spiked with loads of black pepper and garlic, served with salad and a hefty dollop of mayonnaise, and sautéed kidneys and onions with petits pois. Breakfast is served until noon, but sleepyheads run the risk of missing the lamb chops viande, which seem to sell out early.
Our Mom was never at her culinary best in the morning. Her breakfast repertoire boiled down to three dishes: Wheatina (clumpy), Maypo (lumpy), and Cream of Wheat (pasty). Since then, we’ve stayed away from anything hot and mushy in the morning. That was until we discovered congee, the soupy rice porridge which is to East and Southeast Asia what oatmeal is to Scotland. While there’s only so much you can do to dress up a bowl of breakfast oats, congee lends itself to all sorts of mostly savory condiments and add-ons. The kitchen at Congee Village (100 Allen Street; 212-941-1818), a jungly Cantonese oasis, turns out 26 versions of the sticky stuff, from chicken and black mushrooms mingled with chopped scallions, ginger, and cilantro ($3.50), to one with cartilaginous chunks of frog meat ($7.75). Our favorite congee, though, comes from an unlikely source – City Bakery (3 West 18th Street; 212-366-1414), where savory chef Ilene Rosen stocks her hot-cereal station with wonderfully creamy, thicker-than-usual congee made from fragrant organic baby jasmine rice that’s good enough to eat plain. It’s even better drizzled with homemade spicy ginger syrup and sprinkled with toasted coconut flakes and crunchy soybean nuts from the condiment bar.
Don’t confuse the tapsilog with the tocilog on the menu at Krystal’s Cafe (69-02 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens; 718-898-1900), a friendly little Filipino bakery-café in Woodside with a revolving cake display near the entrance and travel posters of the Philippines on the wall. The former seem like strips of beef that escaped the beef-jerky factory just before the final jerk. The latter, though slightly chewy, is tasty cured ham, mildly sweet like barbecued pork. Both breakfast meats come with two eggs any way you like, on a bed of garlic-fried rice, a typically delicious Filipino melting-pot approach to bacon and eggs.
Early-morning barrooms can be depressing places, but there’s something cheerful and life-affirming about Half King in West Chelsea (505 West 23rd Street; 212-462-4300). It could be the sunny yellow walls, or the rustic wood floor and roomy booths. More likely, it’s the hearty Irish breakfast available from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Two eggs, plus bacon, bangers, great black-and-white pudding, beans, toast, mushrooms, and – to cut the cholesterol perhaps – a half a grilled tomato. The addictively crispy home fries are just this side of burnt, riddled with delectably blackened bits. The Irish black tea is hot and strong, the homemade raisin scones warm and airy, served with a heaping ramekin of clotted cream. You’ll be fortified until happy hour, at the very least.
Of course, if you crave a pint of Murphy’s to accompany your Irish breakfast, you’re in the right place. But if you’re so inclined – and your sober presence isn’t required at a morning meeting – you can greet the day with a glass of vino at ’ino (21 Bedford Street; 212-989-5769), the Village panini bar that serves an idealized version of an Italian breakfast. The menu is all about bread, cheese, eggs, and, in the case of the pancetta bruschetta ($5.50), Italian bacon – but a McBreakfast it ain’t. Try the open-faced grilled ciabatta draped with prosciutto and garnished with a dollop of brightly flavored pesto ($6), or the truffled egg toast ($7), a thick wedge of toasted Pullman bread with an egg cooked in its hollowed-out center under a blanket of melted fontina cheese, with asparagus tips and a dose of truffle oil – all pungent enough to coax the deepest sleeper out of bed.
If you still have bagels on the brain, hop the 7 train to the newly expanded Hemsin Bakery & Restaurant in Sunnyside (39-17 Queens Boulevard, Queens; 718-482-7998), where the Turkish-born regulars wash down su boregi, a sort of deconstructed breakfast noodle pudding, with Turkish tea, or the tangy yogurt drink called ayran. You’ll have your pick of every sort of Turkish breakfast pastry, like the pohca, a variation on the croissant theme; kol boregi, puff-pastry coils stuffed with spinach, feta, or ground lamb or beef; and sesame-plastered rings called simits, quite possibly the world’s first bagel. Some say they even predate H&H.