BREAKFAST IS the last great dining frontier. Los Angeles is full of intrepid culinary explorers, venturing to all corners of the city in search of lunch and dinner; but as for the morning, we’re often breakfast conservatives. Everybody knows about pancakes and waffles, and many are at home with Latin American breakfast staples. But Asian breakfasts are perhaps less well known. Except for dim sum, which is more of a fancy brunch option, what is Asian breakfast?
One of the first things the explorer discovers about Asian breakfasts is that, a lot of the time, they don’t exist.
“Koreans don’t really have a separate breakfast concept,” says Kathy Shin, a Korean American food theorist. “You just sort of eat the same thing that you’d eat at any other meal, but less.”
So at many Asian restaurants the same dishes show up at breakfast and lunch; some, particularly soups, are served all day. Rice porridge is served either for breakfast or as a post-clubbing midnight snack. Pho -- Vietnamese beef noodle soup -- is a perfect example of the type of soup that makes a great Asian breakfast -- radiantly light, greaseless and full of mineral tang.
The most intense experience of morning minerality, though, is sul lung tang, a Korean soup that’s basically just beef bones boiled for half a day. After a misspent night of carousing and electrolyte loss, a bowl of sul lung tang is a bowl of pure, sunny health flooding your body and your brain.
Northern China does have a distinct breakfast concept. Many dishes eaten all day long in the rest of China are breakfast-only foods in the north, including congee (rice porridge), wonton soup and baozi (meat-filled steamed buns), Chinese scholar Valerie Washburn explains. But the crowning glory of Chinese breakfasts, she says, are two items you’ll see only in the morning: youtiao and jianbing.
Youtiao are long, slender, ultra-crisp fried doughnuts, rather like crullers or churros. You dip one in a hot bowl of soy milk or some steaming rice porridge. It’s China’s version of doughnuts and coffee. Jianbing are bizarre but tasty hybrids -- part pancake, part crepe and part scrambled egg.
In Southern California, purely Northern Chinese places are rare, but there are plenty of Northern Chinese-style breakfasts as interpreted by Taiwanese-style and Thai places. San Gabriel Valley, in particular, has a concentration of breakfast places that make soy milk fresh every morning (it degrades quickly, so arrive early).
Perhaps the most Western-friendly Asian breakfast is Filipino breakfast. A typical Filipino breakfast is like an American diner breakfast crossed with a garlic festival: a garlic-fried egg over garlic fried rice with a side of sweet garlic-pork sausage.
A tour of the best Asian breakfasts
Here’s a selection of some of the best examples of Asian breakfasts in the area.
Banh Cuon Tay Ho 2. This, the tiniest and homeliest branch of the Tay Ho mini-chain, is the best one. It serves the classic Vietnamese breakfast noodle, banh cuon -- fresh, slippery rice noodles wrapped around two fillings. The first filling is a mixture of intensely seasoned ground beef and mushrooms; the other is pungent powdered dried shrimp. These are the noodles favored by Vietnamese diners for breakfast and light lunch -- tender, gossamer and utterly light. They’re so popular here that the place sometimes runs out before noon. 9242 Bolsa Ave., Space F, Westminster, (714) 895-4796; www.tayho.com.
Han Bat Shul. This cafe is a long, narrow hallway filled with folks all eating the same thing. That thing is sul lung tang, a soup experience of pure, bracing mineral intensity. It comes with a little noodle action and bits of beef, but the important part is the broth, made from simmering beef bones overnight. Throw in a big spoonful of salt to bring out the flavor, mix in some raw scallions and add some of the dense house hot sauce. No matter how hard you partied the night before, this will fix you. 4163 W. 5th St, Los Angeles; (213) 388-9499.
Max’s Restaurant. Here, you can get a fresh version of a basic Filipino breakfast: a starchy, greasy, garlicky wonder. A typical plate involves garlicky fried rice, a fried egg and your choice of meats, including intensely garlicky sausage and sweet barbecued pork. Break up the egg, let yolk mingle into the fried rice and you have yourself a big pile of satisfying tastiness. It fills precisely the same emotional niche as pancakes, bacon and eggs, and you can get it all day long. Max’s is big, clean and decorated in a cheerful, vaguely tiki fashion. Mornings are quiet; late nights are drenched with very enthusiastic Filipino karaoke. 313 W. Broadway, Glendale, (818) 637-7751; www.maxschicken.com.
Mei Lin Tou Chiang. Mei Lin looks like almost every other Chinese breakfast place in town -- small, spare, grungy -- only more so. But it makes the best soy milk in the San Gabriel Valley. The stuff is an unflinching shot of the purest, cleanest, nuttiest soy flavor. Even if you’ve never before tried a soy milk you like, try it here. There are absolutely none of the bitter, astringent or harsh overtones that mark your typical slightly aged soy milk. Get it hot, get it cold, have it there, get an extra liter to go. Just have some soy. 1257 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 284-1868.
Pho Minh. Pho Minh, hidden in the back corner of a strip mall, is a temple of worship for pure cow. The cooks here are practitioners of the highest pho arts: no MSG, no excessive spices. They treat beef broth like a sushi chef treats toro, with utmost devotion. This is pho to contemplate, pho to meditate over, pho to sink into. It comes in two versions, one tangy, one full of the natural sweetness of beef. Either is exactly the sort of light, clean liquid experience you want to wake up to. The usual breakfast accompaniment is Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk; the intensely vegetal pennywort tea is worth trying too. 9646 E. Garvey Ave., No. 108, South El Monte, (626) 448-8807.
Sunset Siam. This tiny Thai restaurant in the parking lot of an America’s Best Value Inn serves a particularly heart-warming Thai version of Chinese breakfast. There’s hot tofu pudding in ginger syrup, there’s hot soy milk soup loaded with bits of barley and tapioca balls, and there’s gloriously crisp Thai versions of youtiao served with honey mayonnaise. Everything here is a little sweeter and crisper than at Chinese cafes. Dip your first cruller in the mayo, drop your second in the soy milk and be warm. A more filling option is the excellent hot rice porridge topped with raw ginger and filled with porky bits or with thin slices of raw fish that lightly poach in the porridge right in front of you. 5265 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 467-8935.
Ye May Restaurant. Ye May is a spartan place -- tile floors, a few bare tables and rows of metal bakery trays loaded with every kind of steamed bun and pastry you could want. There’s spectacularly fresh soy milk, made daily, that tastes exactly like what it is: the pure, clean, nutty juice of fresh-squeezed soy beans. Ye May’s salty soy milk -- hot soy milk loaded with meats and mushrooms -- is unspeakably satisfying. The youtiao is perfect for all your soy milk dipping needs. There’s an excellent assortment of steamed buns (try the pork and preserved vegetable bun). Pork-radish cake is an intensely flavored treat: bits of tasty pork inside a thick, chewy, glutinous rice shell, steamed in a lotus leaf. All sorts of jianbing variations are available; look for anything that says “egg” on the menu. This location is run by a very nice woman who’s willing to help customers who don’t speak the language. There’s also a menu of Taiwanese deli fare, which is mostly not as good as the breakfast offerings. 608 E. Valley Blvd., Space G, San Gabriel; (626) 280-8568.
Yung Ho King Tou Chiang Restaurant. This sweet little restaurant, like the better-known place with the same name a few blocks to the west, is a Northern Chinese breakfast place, but it’s leagues better. The youtiao is the best in town -- shatteringly crisp on the outside, ultra-tender and croissant-like on the inside. The kitchen also makes the best fan tuan in town, and a crunchy youtiao rolled in fluffy, salty shreds of dehydrated pork and excellently moist, crunchy pickle bits, and wrapped in a sheet of pressed sticky rice (it’s called a “rice roll” on the menu). Every form of fried pastry here is excellent. But best of all is the whole-wheat rice milk -- it’s like a whole-wheat cinnamon roll boiled down to its essential juices: a sweet, gloriously warm, glutinous custard. 1045 E. Valley Blvd., Space A105, San Gabriel; (626) 280-9317.