The early morning crowd gathered outside Nookies on Halsted looks like a Boystown rave. I’ve watched people read most of the Sunday New York Times while waiting for a seat at Wicker Park’s Bongo Room. Forget Alinea or Schwa, everyone knows the toughest table in town is Sunday breakfast.
I’m not averse to waiting for great food. On any given Friday I’ve killed an hour waiting for duck-fat fries and gourmet sausages at Hot Doug’s.
During New Orleans Jazzfest 2005, I arrived at Uglesich’s restaurant at 8:30am (the restaurant didn’t open until 10:30) and there was a line out the door that looked like a Ticketmaster sale for Pearl Jam seats circa 1994. The 80-year-old institution was closing the following week, so I waited three-and-a-half hours to spend a glorious thirty minutes sucking down firecracker shrimp, deep-fried oysters and a soft-shell crab that in my heart was as large as a B-movie killer octopus.
Yet Sunday breakfast is a stolen moment, an opportunity to linger over a good egg and conversation. Nothing kills that ideal more than getting jostled in a cramped restaurant foyer, or if you’re lucky enough to procure a table, enduring the beady eyes of the ravenous Donner Party-like masses waiting to tear you limb from limb should you luxuriate too long in that last sip of meal-ending coffee. Thankfully, I’ve found a few good places where the breakfast wait is not interminable.
Hashbrowns, 731 West Maxwell
The myth of the food writer is that we only spill ink on the restaurant where mom is really cooking in the back or where the heirloom ingredients are grown by a former Hasidic Jewish ninja turned farmer/chef. Hashbrowns is not one of those places. The raisin toast, a fifty cent up-charge, is served burnt, and the inconsistent omelets, like the “City of Chicago,” a six-egg city council ban waiting to happen, filled with Polish sausage, Italian sausage, steak, chorizo, pork chops, bacon, grilled onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, range from creamy soufflé puffed gems to Sahara dry.
Then again the restaurant’s not named “omelet.” It’s the hash-browns platter–a flying-saucer-sized portion of spuds–that redeems. There are mounds of sweet-potato hash browns; rough chopped piney-scented rosemary-flecked new red potatoes; “killer” creamy grated Idaho russets blended with cheddar cheese, onions, sour cream and topped with crushed corn flakes; and rounding out the sampler is the “combo,” a mating of shoestring Idahos and maple-syrup sweet potatoes sautéed with roasted garlic and a crust of caramelized bubbling Romano cheese. Man can truly live on potatoes alone at this joint.
Most importantly, the mint-colored space is filled with comfy mocha-colored velvet banquettes and plenty of room to spread out the morning broadsheets.
Las Mananitas, 3523 North Halsted
The Margarita is the new Mimosa. There’s no better way to wake up then over a fishbowl-sized pitcher of Herradura reposado tequila, Grand Marnier and freshly squeezed lime juice at this Tex-Mex Boystown spot. The name of the restaurant translates as “little mornings,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, but there’s nothing little about their Chilaquiles, a spicy casserole of tortilla strips, freshly scrambled eggs, porky chorizo tossed with jalapenos and green chilies topped with bubbly queso fresco. If you prefer your eggs runny, the huevos rancheros, two sunny-side-up eggs smothered in an earthy chili-infused red salsa, is just the answer.
And there’s enough plastic lounge furniture on the sidewalk patio to ruin an ecosystem and to accommodate the masses on a languorous summer morning.
Bongo Room, 1152 South Wabash
While South Loop high rises have been popping up like Kevin Federline’s kids, the sky-dwelling masses haven’t overtaken this sister restaurant to the famed Wicker Park Bongo. Only once in the last two years have I had to wait more than fifteen minutes for a table. And thanks to the lobby coffee bar and a pint glass of Intelligentsia mocha, there were no worries.
Breakfast is the redheaded stepchild of cuisine. No short-order Homaro Cantu or Grant Achatz has popped up to redefine breakfast. Along with Orange and Toast, Bongo Room is one of the only restaurants reimagining morning nosh. The cilantro jalapeno tortilla filled with guacamole and fluffy eggs and topped with ancho chili cream is as fat as Popeye’s forearm. Haute eggs benedicts topped with duck eggs, lump crab cakes, or steak smothered in inspired hollandaise variations kick up the old classic. The marquee plates at Bongo are sweet concoctions including Butterfinger-like pancakes oozing with toffee butter, or the chocolate tower French toast stuffed with mascarpone and covered with an oozy banana flavored crème anglaise.
This article first appeared in Newcity