Plenty of people who are perfectly content to start off the day by polishing off the remains of a corned beef sandwich or a cold pizza cringe at the idea of eating a bowl of Asian beef-noodle soup or rice porridge for breakfast.
But why should corned beef hash with catsup seem more appetizing than a plump Mandarin yeast bun? The following is the second part of a survey of international eateries that serve breakfast--this time exploring Asian foods.
Amid the jangle of downtown traffic, A Thousand Cranes is an oasis of unflagging civility. The stylized Japanese garden sets the room's soothing tone. From the first hot towel to the last sip of tea (even a calligraphed poem on your tray), every detail of this calm Japanese retreat prepares you to face the day.
A waitress in classical kimono glides to the table with breakfast on a lacquered tray. Like other meals in Japan, the first one is often a series of little tastes. The covered bowl of miso soup and another of rice are served with smoky grilled salted fish and a tiny portion of jellyfish strands cloaked in uni . One may next select from several other okazu (the things to eat with rice) such as squares of delectably garnished and very fresh tofu or natto, a little mound of flavorful fermented bean.
Finally, a dainty bowl of green vegetable ( okutone ), colorful assorted Japanese pickles and an artful arrangement of fresh fruit round out the meal. A jar of umeboshi , the mouth-puckering tiny sour plums known as nature's own mouthwash, is placed on each table; one of these cleanses the palate.
You may also choose the okayu , or porridge breakfast. A bowl of rice, cooked to a soothing soupy stage replaces soup and rice on the breakfast tray, while the okazu remain the same.
A Thousand Cranes, New Otani Hotel, 120 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles, (213) 629-1200, Ext. 355. Breakfast 7-10 a.m. daily. $11.
The same Japanese breakfast in much more informal and inexpensive surroundings may be had at the Tsuru-ya Japanese Cafeteria, with its stack of Japanese-language newspapers positioned conveniently by the door. This is self-service; slide your tray along and select from any of a dozen or so okazu such as hard-cooked eggs or tamago-yaki , a rolled omelet served at room temperature (more familiar in sushi bars).
I love the flavorful salted-broiled salmon with its crispy edges and slightly smokey flavor. For greens--always part of the traditional breakfast--spinach is bathed with a slightly sweet soy dressing and roasted sesame seeds. Packets of crinkly nori are for sprinkling over your rice and, of course, there are pickles, umeboshi and tea.
Tsuru-ya Japanese Cafeteria, 1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena (in the Pacific Square), (213) 323-6841. Breakfast 8-11:30 a.m., Mon-Sat. Less than $5. Chinese
Brush up on your Chinese if you want to read Yi Mei's business card, for there is not one word of English on it. Yi Mei is known among Monterey Park Chinese residents as a very good traditional bakery whose bakers come from Taipei.
The bakery is also known for Northern-style breakfasts centering on large bowls of soy milk that may be ordered slightly sweetened or seasoned with a dash of sesame oil and salt. Look around and watch everyone dipping yu t'iao, long, airy fried buns that resemble unsweetened crullers, into their soy milk. Everybody enthusiastically soaks up the milk and then noisily (it is impossible to do this quietly), consume it. Many people order the sumptuous scallion cakes instead of the crullers. These fragile flaky pastry disks have no Western counterpart; they simply must be tried.
There are also the plump baked buns filled with a range of tasty options from ham and radish to coconut cream; these are eaten at all times of the day. Curry-filled pastry turnovers, moon cakes and much more supply the constant flow of customers.
Yi Mei Bakery, 736 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (818) 284-9306. Breakfast from 7:30 a.m. daily. Less than $5.
Jook (or congee, as it is called by the Cantonese) is the common man's morning meal, eaten throughout China. Many local restaurants serve the hearty rice porridge, but I like the way they do it at the Duong Son Barbecue. My favorite is the Junk Porridge, which comes filled with all sorts of wonderful assorted chunks including shrimp, slivers of pork, bits of chicken and Vietnamese pate. It is sprinkled with fried peanuts and Chinese chives.
Duong Son Restaurant, 637 N. Spring St., Chinatown. (213) 680-2776. Breakfast daily from 8 a.m. Les than $5.
By 8 a.m., big trays of lightly sweetened, baked Mandarin style buns line the back wall of Fun On Bakery. There are a few nondescript tables, the tea is free and those buns--just from the oven--are a wonder! They come stuffed with lean barbecued pork or beef, ham and cheese or sometimes egg. There are also scallion buns showered with green onion and twirled into a delightful figure-eight. Several varieties of steamed buns (such as the chicken bao ), are another hearty morning-starter. Come early; by the time noon rolls around the selection is depleted.
Fun-On Bakery, 645 N. Spring St., Chinatown, (213) 613-0186. Breakfast from 7:30 a.m. Less than $5. Vietnamese
Pho-- beef noodle soup garnished with a "salad" of fresh herbs and bean sprouts--is probably the national food of Vietnam. Specialty stands and cafes on every street sell the nourishing dish into the wee hours; they are especially popular at breakfast. And L.A. has a plentitude of shops serving pho , some opening as early as 7 a.m.
Two plates accompany your soup: one with raw bean sprouts and a bouquet of fresh basil and coriander, the other with fresh chili slices and wedges of lime. On the table, you'll find hot chili sauce, fish sauce and sugar; any of these garnishes are stirred into the soup as you alternately slurp noodles and broth--making each bite unique.
Pho Hoa, 640 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 626-5530; 410 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (818) 281-6123; 15034 Prairie Ave., Hawthorne, (213) 644-4106; 2317 West 1st St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-7558. Less than $5.