Wake Up Crawl In search of offbeat breakfasts

Tongs for the Memories: Guatemalteca serves up an unforgettable morning.
Darrow Montgomery

Listen, I’ve read the same reports you have. I know that eating a healthy breakfast reduces the risks of colon cancer, diabetes, and obesity. But you know what? You could tell me that eating breakfast will save Darfur, or at least end body odor in our time, and I still wouldn’t get all that excited about the meal. I’m a coffee drinker in the a.m., all right?

This dietary habit doesn’t really suit my job, I know, so I decided to break an old pattern and investigate some of the offbeat breakfast options out there. Here’s what I found: Y’all aren’t too fond of the morning meal, either. I mean, good luck finding a restaurant, other than Mickey D’s or a diner, that opens before 11 a.m. We seem to be a town of institutional breakfast skippers.

I learned this the hard way. I was heading to European Delight in Rockville to sample the Russian breakfast that an employee had bragged about the last time I was there. When I arrived at 9 a.m., I discovered the place didn’t open for another hour. Even I realize that 10 a.m. stretches the definition of “breakfast hour.”

So I cruised Rockville Pike for a suitable alternative and didn’t stop until, miles later, I tripped upon the Guatemalteca Bakery in Old Town Gaithersburg. The plain, white-washed carryout has the look of a place that could fold up shop quickly, if need be. The display case to the left is filled with the kinds of Latin breads and pastries you’ve seen countless times before; truly interesting eats can be found on either side of the cash register.

On one side, there’s a glass counter showcasing a number of Guatemalan empanadas as well as a tray of flaky pastries called milojas. The empanada de leche and the empanada de piña are unlike any turnovers I’ve ever had; the baked dough is moist, dense, and strikingly orange in the center, concealing the faintly gelatinous milk or pineapple fillings. Owner Carlos Reyes wouldn’t cough up any details on his addictive little empanadas other than to say they’re made from traditional Guatemalan recipes. He’s equally mysterious on his milojas, airy stacks of phyllo dough slathered with what tastes like a creamy frosting. The milojas are as fragile as old Super 8 film found in an attic, but if you can manage to bite into one without breaking it apart, you’ll be rewarded with a rich, sweet, and buttery taste.

The savory foods are located on the other side of the register at Guatemalteca. Manager Oscar Portillo, in a snappy bit of salesmanship, convinces me that both the chili relleno and the Guatemalan tamale are eaten during any meal, including breakfast, back in the home country. This turns out to be mostly bullshit. Reyes tells me later that while some Guatemalans eat tamales on Sunday mornings, most traditionally eat them on Saturday evenings, when locals buy the freshly made snacks from stores shining telltale red lights. He says flat-out that chili rellenos are a lunch item.

No matter. As I sit in my car eating breakfast, I’m struck by the chili relleno’s main ingredient: a red pepper, not the more typical green one. The pepper comes stuffed with a pork and veggie filling that contrasts nicely with both the flaky, eggy, pastrylike coating and the sweet tomato dipping sauce. The tamale is even more complex; the masa tastes as if it has been mixed with a trough-load of lard, then wrapped around chunks of pork coated in a spicy paste. I even spy a tiny green olive that has been smuggled in. I figure if I suffer congestive heart failure right now, I’d at least die happy. And I’d have money to bequeath. All my pastries and savories totaled less than $6.

The multitab menu at the 24-hour Yechon Korean and Japanese Restaurant in Annandale doesn’t even have a breakfast section. It starts with lunch. That’s because, aside from a greater emphasis on side dishes in the morning, there’s not much difference between breakfast, lunch, or dinner foods in Korea, says my friend Lou Cantolupo, whose military father dragged his family to Seoul for three separate tours of duty.

If eating breakfast is foreign to me, then eating breakfast at Yechon feels like living under a small, unstable military dictatorship. I feel utterly powerless to make any decision. I first ask Lou for help, then turn to the waiter. Lou says he’s going to order the kal bi dolsot bibim bap, in part, because it mixes a fried egg into the hot stone bowl of rice and marinated beef. (The egg, alas, is MIA.) The waiter suggests I try the kai bi tang, a beef short rib soup. I dryly note that there’s nothing like short ribs for breakfast. The server laughs as if I’m the next Chris Rock.

It’s eerily quiet at Yechon during the 9 o’clock hour. There’s no ambient music and no noisy children. It’s so still I can hear chopsticks tinkling against the bowls at the table next to us. I like the meditative quality of the wood-heavy space. It feels like the perfect spot to wake up in the morning, particularly if you have a hangover (which I’m not saying I do, OK?).

I’m surprised at how much I like these pungent foods for breakfast. My kai bi tang, at first glance, looks like a yawner—a large bowl of oily broth in which gray, meaty short-rib sections have sunk to the bottom. I have to pluck the ribs from the hot liquid to eat them. My embarrassing tableside manner has its rewards, though. The meat is chewy, yes, but it’s also flavorful and unexpectedly pink in the center, indicating that the bones haven’t been boiled to death. The broth is even better; it’s saturated with cracked black pepper, which is always my favorite spice with beef, whether in slab or soup form.

By contrast, the marinated short-rib meat in Lou’s bibim bap is mostly sweet, which makes for an excellent bite when paired with the accompanying hot sauce and pieces of crunchy, piquant kimchi. The fermented cabbage, of course, is just one of the many banchan side dishes that come with every meal. Perhaps sweet-and-sour seaweed, firm tofu drizzled with red sauce, or supersweet mashed potatoes don’t sound like breakfast staples to you. I strongly suggest you readjust your morning calibrations and give them a try. I was delighted with almost everything.

Except for the coffee, which the waiter said Yechon didn’t have. I had to stop at Starbucks on my way home because…well, let’s be honest: My usual morning ritual is just a drug habit, one that’s as addictive as heroin—and tastes so much better.

Guatemalteca Bakery, 207 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg, (301) 330-1681.

Yechon Korean and Japanese Restaurant, 4121 Hummer Rd., Annandale, (703) 914-4646.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

Restaurant Info:
Guatemalteca Bakery
207 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg, (301) 330-1681.

Yechon Korean and Japanese Restaurant
4121 Hummer Rd., Annandale, (703) 914-4646.

Our Readers Say

Please tell me I don't have to go to Gaithersburg or Annandale for breakfast! Isn't this the WASHINGTON City Paper?!
Well, I did say OFFBEAT breakfasts, C. You can still get a ho-hum pastry at Starbucks, along with your overroasted coffee, or some eggs and waffles at The Diner or some decent huevos rancheros at Mixtec. But, c'mon, you knew that already, right?

BTW, next week, Angela Valdez and I are checking out the salty pork congee for breakfast at Maria's Bakery Cafe in Rockville. That's a little bit closer, yes?

Also, if you haven't tried Flip It on Georgia Ave NW, do yourself the favor. Check this beauty out:

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2007/03/23/hot-plate-6/

-Tim
Hey Tim - can I come along again with you and Angela? ...lou
I guess the term 'healthy' just about kills it for some...If you're a big southern style breakfast eater (eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, biscuits w/butter, etc.), there is no healthy equivalent.

I love you Paula Deen...lol

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