You Rise, They Shine

Breakfast at Big Wong King.Photo: Ben Stechschulte

Big Wong King Restaurant
67 Mott St., nr. Canal St.; 212-964-0540
If it’s a hearty Chinatown breakfast you’re looking for, you can do no better than Mott Street stalwart Big Wong. Don’t get the wrong idea. Big Wong is not the Ritz. The ceilings are low, the walls are plain, the floors slippery-looking. Between the clatter of dishes, the barking of orders, and your host’s practice of greeting customers in a booming voice like that of a Cantonese town crier, it can get loud. To put it bluntly, the place is a dump, but a dump with soul, and a crackerjack kitchen to boot: If you like good congee, it’s available in thirteen different guises. To go with your congee, you’ll want what everyone else is having—a supercolossal “salty” cruller, about the size of a Little League baseball bat. There are giant “sweet” crullers, too, and a fiendish concoction known as a fried cruller rice crêpe—essentially the “salty” cruller wrapped in a diaphanous dough and sliced into bite-size pieces. There are oversize omelettes (more like frittatas) studded with scallion and delicious morsels of roast pork, ham, or shrimp and plopped down on a mound of rice. And since the entire menu is available all day beginning at 7:30 a.m., there’s no reason not to expand your breakfast horizons even further and order a side of the expertly lacquered roast duck or pig.

85 Water St., nr. Main St., Dumbo; 718-797-5026
What is the secret to the best croissant in town? “There is no secret,” says Almondine’s Hervé Poussot in an accent as thick and smooth as French drinking chocolate. Upon further reflection: “The secret is getting up at four in the morning to bake them.” By 6:30 a.m., the first batch of croissants—delicately crisp on the outside, with a moist and tender crumb that melts in your mouth like cotton candy—are finished. At 7 a.m., when he flings open the doors to his Dumbo pâtisserie, they’re still warm. Of course, layering good European-style cultured butter into the dough doesn’t hurt. Nor does proofing the dough for 24 hours to achieve a rich flavor. Ditto M. Poussot’s steadfast refusal to pump up production and branch out indiscriminately with satellite shops and wholesale accounts. “I prefer to do high quality, not high volume,” he says, like a gentleman-pâtissier of the old school. “My accountant doesn’t like it, but that’s just the way I am.”

21 Bedford St., nr. Downing St.; 212-989-5769
Breakfast at panini pioneer ’ino is one of New York’s better-kept secrets. No crowds, no commotion, just some righteous fresh-squeezed orange juice and one of the better cappuccinos in town. The entire menu is available from 9 a.m. on, though the designated breakfast section is home to one of the city’s now-iconic foodstuffs, the mighty truffled egg toast, an Italianate toad-in-the-hole blanketed with gooey Fontina and ringed with bits of asparagus. There are scrambled-egg breakfast bruschette, too, and a like-minded breakfast panino, not to mention regular Patti Smith’s favorite, the prosciutto toast. If you’re so inclined or have an extremely stressful day ahead of you, you can wash it all down with a glass of Prosecco, or something else from the regional-Italian list.

Clinton St. Baking Company & Restaurant
4 Clinton St., nr. E. Houston St.; 646-602-6263
Of the infinite hordes pacing the sidewalk each weekend afternoon outside this Lower East Side establishment, at least half are there for the pancakes. And no wonder: The things are at once delicate and substantial, consistently fluffy and liberally studded, depending on the order, with sweet Maine blueberries or bananas and walnuts. And then there’s the warm maple butter, a surpassingly rich, sweet condiment that some have been known to sip straight from the bowl. As delicious as these pancakes are at brunch, they’re even better at weekday breakfast, when the lines subside and the regulars have the run of the place, not to mention the day’s supply of maple butter.

El Malecon
764 Amsterdam Ave., nr. 97th St.; 212-864-5648
Unless you were weaned on the stuff, mangú could come off like something you’d spackle the bathtub with. But the mashed green plantains actually make a soothingly bland, scarily filling breakfast, especially when accessorized, as they are at the finest Dominican lunch counters, with fried or scrambled eggs, juicy longaniza sausage or salami, and the soft, salty squares of Dominican cheese that fry up nice and crispy. Mangú’s distinguishing characteristic, of course, is the pile of pickled pink onions that sit on top, contributing the requisite vinegary bite. The El Malecon chainlet is known for its roast chicken, but we happen to also love its café con leche served in a paper cup on a china saucer, its quick and friendly service, and its mangú, which handily holds its own.

202Photo: Ben Stechschulte

246 DeKalb Ave., nr. Vanderbilt Ave., Ft. Greene; 718-789-2778
Laurent Saillard was a manager at Balthazar, where he saw Keith McNally turn breakfast into a hundred-plus-cover-a-day operation. The always-open lesson stuck, and he resolved to run his Brooklyn bistro the same way, feeding the neighborhood from daybreak through dinnertime. Any morning, you’re likely to find a cross-section of the diverse Fort Greene population nibbling freshly baked croissants, nursing dark-roast La Colombe coffee, or tucking into Saillard’s heartier dishes (breakfast is served until a very civilized 4 p.m.). An early and devoted disciple of the cult of the local and seasonal, Saillard gets his eggs from Tello’s, a Greenmarket purveyor, and his yogurt from Evans Farmhouse Creamery upstate. (He’s currently in the market for a good locally raised free-range chicken, if you know of any.) We’re partial to his cheesy shirred eggs with bacon and greens, which are often so local they turn out to be grown-in-Brooklyn collards from Red Hook’s improbable Added Value farm.

211 Waverly Pl., at Charles St.; 212-627-7575
Do Italians even eat breakfast? Other than the obligatory coffee and cornetto, none we’ve ever met. But we can pretend, can’t we? Especially since Keith McNally’s Italian trattoria is never more peaceful and life-affirming than in the early-morning hours, when it’s possible to actually spread out with the paper and a strong, steaming Americano coffee. You’ll want ricotta fritters with that—hot cinnamon-sugar-coated orbs of sweet fluffy cheese studded with raisins and pine nuts. There are crêpes both sweet and savory, and a terrific array of egg dishes, made with Italian flavors for American appetites. We’re partial to the uova affogate, two poached eggs over favas, artichokes, and escarole, and the uova in camicia, baked with tomato and peppers. But nothing says Italian to a New Yorker (or vice versa) like the sfincione con pesce affumicato, a pizzetta with smoked fish, tomato, and red onion.

75 Ninth Ave., at 16th St.; 646-638-1173
Sadly, the natural beauty of fluffy, subtly sweet French toast is often obscured beneath clouds of whipped cream, snow drifts of powdered sugar, and hard, tasteless Frankenberries. Not at designer Nicole Farhi’s in-store café, where chef Annie Wayte relies on top-notch ingredients and long, languorous soaking to achieve the desired, if often elusive, custardy effect. The secret is the whole vanilla pods she uses to infuse a mixture of heavy cream, a restrained measure of confectioners’ sugar, and free-range eggs from upstate New York, left to sit overnight. Once the brioche wedges have absorbed every last drop, they’re gorgeously browned in clarified butter and crisscrossed with three strips of applewood-smoked bacon for a smart salty contrast.

La Esquina Taqueria
106 Kenmare St., at Lafayette St.; 646-613-1333
With the influx of Mexican immigrants to Corona and Sunset Park, our hometown tacos have made great strides. A good breakfast burrito, though, being more New Mexican than Mexican Mexican, is still hard to come by, especially since the closing of the late great burrito bastion Kitchen/Market. Into the breach steps La Esquina, the hipster hot spot that happens to serve an unheralded, mostly hipster-free (are they all asleep?) weekday breakfast. The service is counter casual, the setting is sun-splashed and open-air. But best of all is the burrito, a wieldy, well-wrapped assemblage of scrambled egg, stringy Oaxaca cheese, and pico de gallo, with a choice of chorizo, bacon, or potato. It’s hot, fresh, and delicious, especially when accompanied by the salsa verde, a creamy tomatillo-avocado blend with just enough bite to jump-start your day.

Abraço Espresso
86 E. 7th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-388-9731
For a meal-defining element, caffeine usually gets short shrift, and the places that actually specialize in it—those grounds-tamping, latte-artsy bean scenes—tend to outsource their snacks to the most predictable of purveyors. The diminutive, high-spirited Abraço is a welcome exception. Yes, the coffee drinks themselves merit a special trip, even if the closet-size space requires you to sip your cortado or à la minute individual drip standing up. But once you’re there, you’ll find freshly made, extremely tasty breakfast fare like a light and fluffy frittata, lemon-zested zeppole fried to order, and tender pain perdu folded around orange-flower-water-scented ricotta, plus some of the most resolutely non-cookie-cutter pastries in town.

80 Spring St., at Crosby St.; 212-965-1414
So what is an ideal “brasserie breakfast,” exactly? Leave it to that famous breakfast fiend, Keith McNally, to concoct the perfect formula. It should involve fishbowl-size cups of café au lait, of course, and baskets of freshly baked croissants. It should be in a casually elegant setting (reminiscent of Paris, but rooted in New York), frequented, on weekday mornings, not by tourists but by appropriately raffish and arty residents of the city. You’ll find all this at McNally’s flagship establishment, Balthazar, where breakfast begins at 7:30 a.m. sharp and includes nine egg dishes (eggs “en cocotte” being our favorite), plus a slap-up English breakfast (eggs, bacon, beans, fried bread) for $15. We like the densely pleasing sticky buns, too (one of nine pastries available), and if the milky café au lait seems too languidly Parisian, the fishbowl-size servings of cappuccino will keep you buzzing all day.

Blaue GansPhoto: Ben Stechschulte

Blaue Gans
139 Duane St., nr. Church St.; 212-571-8880
You can thank chef Kurt Gutenbrunner and a tradition of doting Austrian mothers for the best eggs in town. They come soft-boiled and pre-peeled because, to loosely paraphrase the chef, young Austrian boys have better things to do with their time than peel eggs, and there is nothing a good Austrian Mutter wouldn’t do for her little Augustus Gloop. At Blaue Gans, Gutenbrunner serves them two to an order in a martini glass, one nestled atop another like a pair of baby seals sunning themselves on a rock. It’s a striking presentation—one that you can find in any coffeehouse in Vienna, according to Gutenbrunner—and one you almost don’t want to topple until you dig in and discover how nicely cooked the eggs are with their soft whites, bright-orange yolks that are runny but not too, and nary a distracting shell in sight.

Sullivan St BakeryPhoto: Ben Stechschulte

Sullivan St Bakery
533 W. 47th St., nr. Tenth Ave.; 212-265-5580
Nothing against the trend of restaurants serving doughnuts for dessert, but the doughnut is first and foremost a breakfast food. And while there is much to be said for the Rockwellian appeal of blue-collar throwbacks like Alpha Donuts in Sunnyside and downtown’s Donut Pub, it only stands to reason that the better the baker, the better the doughnut. That’s why we get our fried-dough fix at Sullivan St Bakery, where, on a whim, Jim Lahey recently began crafting extremely small-batch bomboloni. Why the Italians named a doughnut after a word that means “big bomb,” we’re not sure. Perhaps it’s due to the tendency of the filling to zero in on the front of your shirt like a cruise missile, or maybe it’s the way a lesser bombolone sits in your stomach all day, but these superior vanilla-pastry-cream versions are not only delicious, they’re exceptionally light and airy. Lahey’s trick is using a modified panettone dough instead of a regular bombolone dough—that, and cooking the bomboloni four at a time in a $99 Emeril Lagasse deep fryer he bought at Zabar’s.

Barney Greengrass
541 Amsterdam Ave., nr. 86th St.; 212-724-4707
Any harried New Yorker will tell you there’s no more sacred, satisfying breakfast in town than a fresh-baked bagel, devoured on the run, in the morning. But if you have time for a leisurely, even salubrious, bagel-oriented feast, there’s only one place to go. Barney Greengrass has been peddling more or less the same range of product, from more or less the same green-walled, weather-beaten space on Amsterdam and 86th, for exactly 100 years now. We suggest you go when the true aficionados do, on a weekday morning, when you can carefully inspect the stacks of sturgeon and sablefish and lox without being trampled by the unruly weekend hordes. There are twenty smoked-fish platters to choose from, 23 omelettes and egg dishes, and eight kinds of egg sandwiches. What do we recommend? Sturgeon scrambled with eggs and onions, with a plain toasted bagel and cream cheese on the side, of course.

80 Columbus Cir., at 60th St.; 212-805-8881
Are you tired of gnawing on stale croissants with the same bunch of self-serious, suit-wearing, pseudo-powerful gasbags at the St. Regis or Michael’s? Then do what we do whenever our agent, or editor, or banker friend wants to meet for an early-morning cup of tea—and is willing to pick up the tab. Take a seat at Asiate, the polished, glass-and-chrome eagle’s nest on the 35th-floor lobby of the Mandarin Oriental, in the Time Warner Center. You’ll find fresh orchids at your table and a grand penthouse view of the dappled meadows in Central Park. More important, you’ll find a pretty damn good meal. There are six strong egg options on the menu (the “All American” being the most classically satisfying), a $32 “Japanese Breakfast,” even a Chinese breakfast that includes steamed pork buns and rice congee. Our unorthodox, noncorporate choice? The Asiate turkey hash, topped with poached eggs and Hollandaise tipped with miso.

M&G Diner
383 W. 125th St., at Morningside Ave.; 212-864-7326
Diners—the true old-fashioned workingman’s lunch counters, not the vintage shells painstakingly rehabbed into hipster hangouts—are a dying breed, especially in Manhattan. That’s why we’re grateful for relics like M&G, the soul-food luncheonette that advertises itself as “old fashion’ but good!” That about sums it up. Comfortable in a bedraggled, lived-in way, the place is patronized by regulars who hang their coats on the standing rack before grabbing a stool at the counter, where bottles of Frank’s hot sauce or Aunt Jemima’s syrup mark the place settings. The place is known for its fried chicken, which is salty and greasy and can be ordered for breakfast on top of a waffle. But there’s something about the short-order setting that steers us toward the eggs, accessorized with any number of soul-food specialities, from smothered pork chops to salmon croquettes. Cakes beckon from beneath plastic covers, but the thing to get is the corn muffin, dessert by any other name.

EggPhoto: Ben Stechschulte

144 Second Ave., at 9th St.; 212-228-9682
For the next four weeks, this category really belongs to Florent, the meatpacking-district pioneer that’s been eulogized here and elsewhere. But the slickly renovated Veselka has its charms, too. Namely: fluffy, delectably tangy buttermilk waffles and pancakes, a diverse clientele of neighborhood irregulars and that random young couple—straight out of central casting—poring over a Bukowski biography, and the sweet Eastern European waitress who might entertain you with an impromptu magic trick between orders. Like any New York establishment that’s open round the clock, it has a bit of a forlorn bus-station vibe to it, of lonely souls biding time or nodding off. The pirogen usually rouse them.

El Beit
158 Bedford Ave., nr. N. 8th St., Williamsburg; 718-302-1810
There are two schools of thought concerning the egg on a roll. The first one, the classic school, professes that the combination of eggs (scrambled or fried), bacon (nothing fancy), and melted cheese (American, preferably orange) served on a standard-issue soft roll cannot be beat and should never be trifled with. Fairway Cafe makes an excellent version of this style, and undoubtedly so does your corner deli. The second school, the aspirational-gourmet school, believes that in breakfast-sandwich-making—as in all the creative arts—a little renegade tinkering never hurts. ’Wichcraft’s sophisticated and harmonious fried egg, bacon, Gorgonzola, and frisée sandwich on Sullivan St Bakery’s new “panini” roll falls into this camp. While we have no binding allegiance to either the high or the low, we recognize each’s appeal. The egg sandwich at Williamsburg’s new coffee-geek bar El Beit strikes us as the happiest of compromises: Eggs are softly scrambled to order, mingled with fried sage, and crowned with a slice of New York State sharp Cheddar, then deposited inside that soft and chewy new Sullivan roll for an upgrade that will appeal to the sensualist without alienating the purist.

Sáu Voi Corp
101–105 Lafayette St., nr. Walker St.; 212-226-8184
The beauty of breakfast in this town is that, like lunch and dinner, it can be just about anything from anywhere and cost you next to nothing. Which is why, whenever we get into an egg-on-a-roll rut, we head down to Sáu Voi Corp, a Chinatown sandwich shop masquerading as a ramshackle Lotto-cigarette-and-Vietnamese-record store, for a $3.75 bánh mì. Granted, tucking into a Vietnamese hoagie constructed of mostly porky mystery meats is a long way from a toasted everything bagel. Keep an open mind, however, and note that in Ho Chi Minh City, a bánh mì during the morning rush is as de rigueur as an Egg McMuffin is in Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Once you get past this breakfast bias, you have in the Sáu Voi Corp menu eighteen bánh mì variations from which to choose, from barbecued meatball to sour pork hash, all deftly assembled by a team of Yankees-cap-clad ladies. No. 1—the house special combination of ham, pâté, and slightly rubbery turkey loaf mingled with the usual cukes, carrots, hot sauce, and mayo on a crunchy Italian hero roll—is as good a way to start your day as any. Wash it down with an invigorating Vietnamese coffee, and you have a breakfast you won’t forget before lunch.

135 N. 5th St., nr. Bedford Ave., Williamsburg; 718-302-5151
Imagine a greasy spoon that sourced the best possible ingredients, then turned them into the sort of soul-satisfying, all-American breakfasts your Cheerios-pushing mother could never be bothered with. That’s Egg, Williamsburg’s plainspoken morning mecca, where chef-owner George Weld has forged a modest kingdom from local-free-roaming-chicken’s eggs and artisanal heirloom grits. Weld’s pancakes are light and fluffy, his buttermilk biscuits unsurpassed. Because of him, Col. Bill Newsom is a household name in country-ham-loving New York households. In short, Egg’s breakfast menu—served, mercifully, until three on weekdays, two on weekends—is New York’s finest. The whole is even greater than the sum of the meticulously sourced, expertly executed parts.

You Rise, They Shine