Of all the hipster-driven food trends made popular in recent years — food trucks, craft beer, the transformation of previously hideous beets and Brussels sprouts into a culinary fetish — I have eternal thanks to offer for what they’ve done for breakfast.
Sincerely. My gratitude knows no limits.
Not that there was anything wrong with that splendid meal to begin with, mind you. Eggs, bacon, pancakes, grits, hash browns, coffee. Why mess with perfection?
Now the cool kids are fully engaged with breakfast, and its close personal friend, Mr. Brunch. We’re all the better for it.
At Elevage inside the new Epicurean Hotel, hungry breakfast customers can order lobster and bacon hash with creme fraiche and a fried egg. That is, if they can resist a plate of soft-scrambled duck eggs with goose confit, mushrooms and a delicate puff pastry.
On Sundays at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe in Tampa, mirth is on the menu in the form of a Funky Monkey Waffle topped with Nutella, banana and toasted peanuts. You can wash it down with a Bloody Ella cocktail made with chipotle vodka, rimmed with BBQ rub and garnished with a hickory smoked rib.
Their Seminole Heights neighbors at The Refinery put on a Sunday brunch featuring French toast made with challah, locally produced honey and a zucchini-basil pesto.
To those and others who push the boundaries of the most important meal of the day, I toast you.
But a person can eat only so much creme fraiche. (Translation: Cream that might, in fact, be certifiably fresh. And sour. And Frenchy.)
What about breakfast for the rest of us?
I’m happy to report after an exhaustive and delicious survey this month, during which I extensively deployed my mouth and taste buds, weekday breakfasts are alive and well.
The Cozy Oaks Restaurant in Lakeland is certainly packing in the weekday customers.
They do a biscuit-and-gravy special in which an alleged biscuit is drowned in milk gravy and paired with two eggs, two bacon strips and two sausage links.
You also get to choose between hash browns, home fries or grits.
I call it an alleged biscuit because I never found it under all that gravy. There was every evidence that a biscuit was there, and a good-size one at that, but the ocean of fluffy gravy formed a formidable cloak. A CSI team couldn’t have extracted a biscuit from that stuff.
Closer to home, Al’s Nuevo Cafe on South Dale Mabry Highway filled my belly with a Nuevo Special: three eggs scrambled with ham, bacon, sausage, chorizo, onions, peppers and cheese on Cuban bread.
Any time you combine four pork products in one egg sandwich, two things are likely to happen.
First, you’re bound to fill your soul with joy.
Second, your joyful soul will soon scream for a nap. The giant cafe con leche I drank to counteract my pork-induced lethargy never stood a chance against that tranquilizer.
I enjoy breakfasts most when I find new things in the most unusual places. I don’t know where I should expect to find a perfectly cooked asparagus, mushroom and cheese omelet, but I found it at the Riverview Sandwich Shop on U.S. 301. The sandwich shop parenthetically notes on its menu that it’s “not just a sandwich shop.” OK. I won’t be the one to stereotype.
At Nicko’s Fine Food on Florida Avenue in Tampa, I enjoyed a golden-fried fish fillet of unknown species with my over-easy eggs and grits.
Beyond the fact that Elvis once ate there, you should visit Nicko’s just to see the cooler-than-cool retro metallic orb that holds the miniature jelly packets. Stanley Kubrick would have loved using them before jellying his Cuban toast.
I had to wait for a table at The Brick House Cafe in Plant City. On a rainy Saturday morning. That should tell you something.
It told me that the country-fried steak with home fries, fried eggs and a biscuit were well worth the wait, as was the outstanding service.
Sometimes you have to overlook the name of a place to discover great morning grub. Palau’s Pizzaria & Cafe on Armenia Avenue in West Tampa serves impossibly creamy grits with its chorizo and egg breakfast sandwich. I asked about the grits’ secret ingredient. The server looked at me blankly and replied “Milk?” in a way that suggested it was no big deal. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.
Farther north on Armenia Avenue, La Pequena Colombia prepares a large variety of breakfast dishes that reward the hungry and the curious.
On Saturdays and Sundays, they sell caldo de costilla — rib soup — with rice and a corn cake.
I was there during the week, though, so I ordered the Desayuno de la Casa, or the Home Style Breakfast. I couldn’t resist the chance to dip a grilled pork chop into the yolk of two eggs, along with hash browns and pressed toast. I was hungry for another plate as soon as I hit the parking lot.
The other great thing about breakfast is that you can take a chance on something you might not have tried before. If you don’t like it, you won’t put the mortgage in jeopardy. You might not even break a $10 bill.
At the Harborside Grill, not far from where Causeway Boulevard elbows east from Port Tampa, the menu invites you to create your own omelet. “Chicken breast, fish & smoked pork chops available for breakfast,” the menu says.
What kind of fish, I asked my server. “Basa,” she said. How about folding them into the eggs instead of on the side. Sure, she said.
I trusted her judgment. She was wearing a ketchup-red T-shirt with large, silver, glittery wings on the back. I considered her my breakfast guardian angel.
Sure enough, the omelet came out with a flaky grilled fish fillet tucked in the middle of the egg blanket. It came with a side of home fries and a bowl of grits that had enough butter floating on top to require a living will before consumption.
That omelet? It was one of the best I’ve had in Tampa.
“I’ll put anything anyone wants into an omelet,” Luis, the cook, told me as I paid my bill. “Collard greens, fish, whatever.”
Collard greens and fish? Hmmmm. There’s an idea.
Save a seat for me tomorrow, Luis. Tell my guardian angel I’ll be by for breakfast.