When I first began this journey, I asked readers for suggestions for future sessions. Most of the input came from people who didn’t quite understand the whole concept of what I do here. I’d get stuff like, “Why don’t you eat as many Chicken McNuggets as you can in an hour?” While I would love to eat a ton of those things (if they weren’t $6+ for twenty nuggets), that’s not how IEM works. The first person to forward a reasonably sound idea was Mitchell Cardwell, a fellow recession victim who has accompanied me on parts of 2 eating sessions. He said I should do a session on breakfast. I didn’t quite know what he meant at first. Breakfast is a big umbrella of food. It could mean granola or it could mean deep fried, peanut butter-stuffed, french toast wedges. While both of these things are indeed delicious, you can’t really compare them. They’re too dissimilar. He then suggested I compare the “classic breakfast” of eggs, meat, potatoes, and toast. He was scheduled to come along on part of this session, but he had to withdraw when his stereo receiver broke down. As of today, he still hasn't gotten the receiver back from the shop. So many esoteric records are going unheard.
I can’t say I was very excited about this session theme. Truth be told, I’m not all that into breakfast. No, I don’t mean that I’m against eating in the morning, nor am I against eggs or bacon. Don’t be a moron. I wholeheartedly support morning eating. And am a big contributor to the fund for bacon and eggs. My issue lies with designating certain items as breakfast food. For instance, why is spaghetti not appropriate breakfast food when a waffle is? When I ask some people why "regular food" isn't available in the morning at most restaurants, I’ve been told that people don’t eat chili, or a hamburger, or a falafel for breakfast because they want something "light" for the first meal of the day. What a sham. Bacon, homefries, fried eggs, and buttered toast are the furthest thing from a light meal. I can see eating a piece of fruit, or a salad, or steamed vegetables, or muesli if your wish is to start the day without weighing yourself down mere minutes after awakening. But the classic breakfast is as heavy as any food traditionally reserved for lunch or dinner.
And the classic breakfast is bland. All the elements of the meal are sound, but there is a serious lack of spices used. The ingredients can be incorporated in a myriad of other dishes with bold seasonings, but when they stand on their own, they’re kind of meh. There is a reason the “Mexican breakfast” is starting to become so popular. Americans are realizing that the classic breakfast imparts all of the detrimental fat, sodium, and cholesterol of a chicken fried steak dinner, but has all the flavor of a cotton ball. When you get a Mexican breakfast, there’s some salsa, the sausage is spicy, and you get scoops of lard-laden refried beans. If you’re going to eat something greasy and heavy and reduce your lifespan considerably, why not make your suicide flavorful?
Despite my reservations, I decided this was an important session. Some people simply love classic breakfast and it’s not as plentiful around here as it is in many other areas. I hoped to determine if there could be significant differences when comparing these food items, as they use so few seasonings. In an effort to make it at least somewhat interesting, I decided that I would eat toast from as many types of bread as possible, eat every breakfast meat available, and get eggs cooked in all of the usual cooking methods: scrambled, sunnyside up, over easy, over hard, over medium, and poached. For potatoes, my choices were limited to hashbrowns and the occasional homefries.
So here we go. I’m doing this only for you, the reader. I hope I have provided more breakfast options that you previously had. Those clinging to the false idea that breakfast is a light meal, should have their world blown apart before I’m done.
Eating Day: March 28, 2009
NOTE: All locations in Oakland unless specified otherwise.
1. FIFTH WHEEL- 898 San Leandro Ave., San Leandro- 8:51am- $4.95 (3 strips bacon, eggs over medium, hash browns, sourdough toast)
I had to avoid the highways to get down to San Leandro. This was the day of the big funeral at the Oakland Arena for the 4 cops that got killed by Eastmont Mall in the shootout with that scumbag. There was to be a motorcade on I-880 with cops from all over the area. It would snag traffic for hours. Despite everyone's sincere sentiments, it seemed a little excessive to go to such lengths to commemorate the fallen officers. Will forcing thousands of commuters to sit in their idling cars for hours bring back these heroes? Don’t misunderstand me. It’s true that in my days as a stupid angry youth I might have ignorantly sided with the “community activists” in the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. They held a vigil for Lovelle Mixon, the guy who shot the cops. But I’m older and slightly less stupid now. Regardless of the tension they have with the OPD, it is unconscionable that these people can champion a child rapist who has preyed on their own community. They’re as bad as the fools who say Oscar Grant deserved to get shot because he was resisting arrest. To Hades with Lovelle Mixon for putting a black cloud over my pre-planned eating session.
I wound up having to traverse my way through the back streets of East Oakland to get through town and into San Leandro. And then I wound up getting stuck in the traffic near the Coliseum complex, anyway. I was already getting quite a late start for a breakfast session. And when you add the throngs of mourner traffic into the mix, it was close to 9am when I arrived at the Fifth Wheel. In case you’re not a big-rig trucking enthusiast like I am, in trucker parlance, a “fifth wheel” is the coupling device that connects a semi’s trailer to its cab. It’s kind of like a huge trailer hitch. Knowing this bit of trivia and learning that this restaurant dates to the 1950’s, I can only assume that it used to be a truck stop. Like Mac Arthur Blvd., San Leandro Ave. was probably a major highway here before the days of the Interstate system. These days, there are no truckers hopped up on goofballs hanging out looking for $10 hookers. Instead, there are folks from all walks of life enjoying a time capsule of a diner. The menu states that the current owners have run the place since 1978, so they may have been in the first group of Koreans to run a greasy spoon in the Bay Area. Thank these pioneers for preventing every restaurant in the region from morphing into overpriced fusion cuisine.
The breakfast here was a decent start to the session, but I wasn’t as bowled over by it as I was by non-breakfast items I’ve had here. The bacon came in large pieces with a good ratio between crispy and chewy elements, but the eggs were a lot closer to over hard than over medium. The yolk was almost completely solid. The hash browns had a decent golden crust, but the interior was somewhat undercooked and there was a pool of grease inside. I have my suspicions that the potatoes may have been frozen. The sourdough was clearly of the “commercial” variety, but it was well-toasted and well-buttered. I was able to polish off the meal in fewer than 10 minutes and didn’t feel the least bit full afterwards, but it already felt as if my entire body had been coated in lard from within. I was starting to wonder whether this session would result in me drowning on fat. As grotesque as that sounds, it would make a pretty cool news story, or at the very least, a fun segment on 1000 Ways to Die.
As I ate, a 20-something African-American gent down the counter was talking to another guy. “Those cops had to have expected this. You treat the community like they do, and someone’s gonna strike back eventually.” The 5th Wheel is a place where cops eat. It’s a good thing that nearly every officer in the county was on his way to the funeral at Oakland Arena, because if there were any Fuzz eating here on this day, the guy at the counter would be eating his omelet with a lead chaser. Listen, nobody’s debating that the OPD doesn’t have a very good record dealing with its black constituents. However, this Mixon guy did not shoot those cops to make a political statement. He shot them because he got pulled over for a parole violation and figured he would rather be a dead gangsta than a live bitch in prison. If he was trying to be the next Huey Newton, he would’ve methodically picked off the pigs and then sent a letter to the Tribune taking responsibility for the shootings along with a list of demands. The guy would’ve wound up getting gunned down in the end, anyway, but in that scenario, the community could at least claim he was an activist, rather than just a child raping waste of carbon. I really wish people would think before they court controversy in public, especially when I have hundreds of fat grams to consume.
2. SOUTHSHORE CAFE- 531 W. Southshore Center, Alameda- 9:36- $6.20 (4 sausage links, eggs over easy, home fries, rye toast)
I took the town roads back from San Leandro to avoid any more death-centric motorists. I saw the traffic on 880 below me as I crossed over on the Davis St. overpass. There was a line of cop cars with their lights flashing that stretched as far as the eye could see in the left lane of 880 North. They were moving about 5 mph towards the Coliseum complex. The other lanes were at a complete standstill with drivers standing next to their cars as they watched the processional pass. It was quite a display. It’s tragic that those dead cops weren’t here to see it all. I bet they would’ve gotten a kick out of the whole thing. I know I would have. (IEM readers: when I meet my certain food-related demise, please honor my passing in a similar manner. And be sure to give the food concession at the funeral to the California Avocado Growers and Sinai 48 hot dogs.) As I approached the Oakland Airport, I saw more than a dozen police helicopters overhead going in for a landing in a single file formation. I know the occasion called for somber tunes, but it was impossible not to hear C.W. Mc Call’s “Convoy” in my head:
By the time we got into Tulsa-Town
We had eighty-five trucks in all
But there was a roadblock up on the clover leaf
And them bears was wall to wall
Yeah them smokies was thick as bugs on a bumper
They even had a bear-in-the-air
Callin' all trucks, this here's The Duck
We're about to go a huntin' bear
Shortly after this somber aerial display, I crossed into Alameda using the secret back entrance near the airport. I’ve been to the Soutshore Shopping Center (now the Alameda Towne Centre- gimme a break!) a million times, but had only a vague idea where this cafe was located. If you’re heading west on Otis, it’s to the right of where the old Safeway was. It looks like the décor here hasn’t been touched in 30 years. The somewhat dim lighting is probably due to their laziness in promptly replacing light bulbs, but I’m sure it helps to mask a multitude of eyesores. The brown booths are somewhat broken down and the carpet looks like it needed to be replaced 25 years ago. In addition to the booths, there is also a counter with a few stools facing the window to the kitchen. I sat at the counter and looked at the artwork on the walls, which includes some motel-style paintings and 2 large murals painted on the walls. One mural is a beach scene; the other a lighthouse. They’re undoubtedly the work of an “outsider artist,” possibly one of the geriatrics eating at the café. I was the youngest patron by at least 30 years. The establishment is reminiscent of one of those café/diners that are popular among the old Jews of South Florida. They even have an early bird special. The seniors sit around talking and eating while they make the sole Asian waitress really hustle for her tip (or lack thereof.) They all seem to hang out for a loooong time. The groups were conversing like they would be there long enough to enact a new tax code and the solo diners all had books or newspapers with them. Nobody was in there for a quick bite. Eating there is a marathon, not a sprint. The waitress knew many of the customers by name. This must be THE hangout for the Alameda geezer in the know.
The friendly waitress may have also been one of the owners, because she was yelling at the cook like she had some kind of authority over him. They’re not the usual Koreans, though. I think they’re Thai, if the Thai food section on the menu is any indicator. The food here was surprisingly good. The eggs were half the size of the eggs at the 5th Wheel, so I assume they weren’t using the same size eggs. (Believe it or not, there is a big difference between a jumbo egg and a medium egg.) The yolk had the right degree of runniness, even though the whites had some crispiness to them. The sausages were standard-sized breakfast links, but they had a nice mix of spices without that chemistry-set flavor you often get. And they weren’t swimming in grease. This was to be one of only 2 stops where I had the option to get home fries rather than hash browns. Their version leaves the skin on and cooks the outside until it’s somewhat crisp, yet leaves the inside soft. They’re well-seasoned with a Lawry’s-type concoction. They packed a total flavor punch and were far less oily than any hash browns I would eat during the session. The rye toast was a nice change of pace. It had a significant caraway flavor, so I was surprised when it tasted so good with all 3 flavors of jam provided. I checked the menu and saw that they have a “Joe‘s Special,” a mixture of beef, onions, spinach, and eggs that is purported to have originated at the late, lamented Original Joe’s in the S.F. Tenderloin. I may have to sample this and see how it stacks up against the original version. I also noticed that there were a few small bottles of Gallo wine on the counter outside the kitchen window. I assume that they must have a liquor license, so lonely widows can get hammered while they play sudoku for 6 hours straight.
On her way to the toilet, one of the regulars chatted with the owner. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom now. Oh, there’s somebody in there? They better hurry up because I need to go. Afterwards, I’m visiting Ned at the cemetery. I figure this is a good time to visit the graveyard because everybody’s down at the…you know.” Thanks go to child-raping cop killer, Lovelle Mixon, for enabling an incontinent woman to visit her late husband’s tomb in peace.
3. BLACK AND SILVER BURGERS- 1927 International Blvd.- 10:26am- $5.50 (ham, scrambled eggs, hash browns, white toast)
Black and Silver is right around the corner from our practice space. Along with Banh Mi Ba Le, we finally have something do over there other than ogle the scantily-clad teen girls on the corners and play the hottest game in East Oakland: Ho/Not a Ho. Black and Silver is located in a space that used to be a “café.” There was a sign on the awning in Vietnamese, under which there were always the same group of menacing young men sitting in patio chairs and smoking. The place didn’t seem to be open to the public. I’m guessing it was a kind of private club where the goings-on were not always of a legal nature. That place was closed for a few months and then it seemed like Black and Silver entered the space almost overnight. The new place is run by another group of SE Asians- Cambodians, I believe. As you might infer by the name, there is quite a bit of Raiders paraphernalia on the walls, but it’s not over the top. Any sports bar in a 30-mile radius of the Coliseum is far more tasteless in that department. The space is massive, yet there are only 9 tables in an area where they could fit at least 30. The cavernous tiled room reverberates like a church gymnasium. There is a pool table in the middle and Street Fighter and Puzzle Bobble video games by the window. These may be relics of the previous establishment, but they’re a nice bonus in this new eatery that has a decent burger, hot dogs, fried fish, and cheesesteaks along with breakfast fare.
Scrambled eggs are not as easy to make correctly as it may seem. There’s about a 30-second differential between the perfect specimen and eggs you wouldn’t feed to a starving chimp. The ideal offering is fluffy and moist, but with no trace of runny yolk. If you go wandering around and leave the eggs unattended, it’s almost certain that they’re going to wind up looking and tasting like canary jerky. Black and Silver seems to have gotten their scrambled eggs down to a science. They looked like yellow clouds that could float away with the slightest breeze. The only downside is the cook had a somewhat heavy hand with the salt. With any egg, it’s generally best to go light on the salt during cooking and allow the eater to add any extra later. I’m not the biggest fan of ham as a stand-alone meatstuff. I enjoy it just fine as a cold cut on a sandwich and I like it okay when it’s served in thin slices with mashed potatoes and rolls during gentile holidays. But when a big hunk of the stuff is sitting on a plate as a steak stand-in, I’m not that into it. The curing, salting, chemicals, sugar, etc., in ham are a little too much for me to enjoy it when it's presented in such a manner. The ham here was large in diameter, but it was cut quite thin, thankfully. It was grilled as to allow a little char to develop on its surface, which may have leeched out some excess nitrates. I tore off a piece and put it on my toast along with some of the eggs and hash browns. It was a fine example of an open faced sandwich. The hash browns were cooked in a huge thin sheet with a serious crust on top. The underside was kind of chewy, which was unusual but pleasant, and there was an unexpected cheesy undertaste. My guess is there was a little cheddar mixed in with the potatoes, which may have contributed to the chewiness. While the hash browns didn’t seem to be at all greasy, my stomach was already starting to feel that rumbling sensation that I had endured early on in the fish and chips session. In spite of this, I was certain I had more than adequate capacity remaining to consume many more breakfasts.
While I ate, I observed the only other party in the restaurant. It was a group of youths in their late teens/early twenties who could be used to cast a new edgy youth culture show on PBS or an East Oakland version of Degrassi High. There was their leader, a Latino guy with spiky hair and a “Don’t Tase Me Bro” t-shirt; a nerdy Asian girl with glasses that kept falling down her nose who wore a shapeless red polo shirt with East Bay Asian Youth Center on the pocket; a tall, ridiculously skinny black guy with retro Adidas Top Tens who seemed to be forcing himself to use as much city slang as possible; and finally, the fast-talking Chicana with painted-on pants and cleavage for days. I don’t know whether these kids were teachers or peer counselors or if they had some kind of position in the correctional system, but they were having a deep discussion about how to deal with unruly kids at school. The leader took notes on a legal pad while the Asian girl transcribed them on her Blackberry/Palm Pilot/iPhone/Electric Abacus. At the end, the sexy one actually stood up and read back the minutes of the meeting. The two guys gave each other a manly half-hug and the girls hi-fived each other and may have exchanged a “you go girl” or two. As they all walked out, the guy who took my order shouted at them, “Good luck, you guys. Stay strong!” I waited for a voiceover to tell me what to expect on the next episode, but all I heard was the guy in the kitchen rapping in Cambodian. If this is what unemployment is all about, I’m NEVER going back to work.
4. HIDE-A-WAY CAFE- 1920 Dennison- 10:53am- $4.95 (bulk sausage, eggs sunnyside up, hash browns, wheat toast)
There are plenty of spots in previous sessions that also feature the classic breakfast, but I tried to eat at as few repeat venues as possible. That said, there was no way in hell I wasn’t returning to the Hide-a-Way on this session. On my initial visit (see the Cheeseburger session), the 40-something skateboarders raved to the owner about her hash browns, but I would’ve returned even if the hash browns were laced with dung. This place is a national treasure and I will come back here for as many sessions as possible just so I can witness Ms. Kim’s floor show. The quality food at bargain basement prizes is just a wonderful bonus that turns the restaurant into a bizzarro-world interpretation of dinner theater.
I had incorrectly surmised that the Hide-A-Way would be much busier on a weekday than on a Saturday, which is when my first visit took place. When I arrived, one guy exited as I was walking in, but the place was now empty. The recession must be hurting Kim significantly if her place is this dead at almost 11am. She greeted me with the same, “You ready? I’m ready!” as last time. When I ordered, I paused as I decided whether to get my sausage in link or patty form. “Oh! You should get patty. Just ask my police officers. They ask where I get my sausage patty. I tell them I only work here. My family bring to me.” If it was good enough for the OPD, it was good enough for me. I sat down and enjoyed KOIT playing my favorite lite-rock classics like Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That.”
A leathery guy with a pony tail and biker tattoos came in for a pack of smokes. He was clearly a regular.
Leathery Guy: There’s a place near the Park St. Bridge where I can get cigarettes for 50 cents less. How come your prices are so high?
Ms. Kim: What you talk about? My cigarette prices are good!
Leathery Guy: No, at Cigarettes Cheaper, they’re 50 cents less per pack.
Ms. Kim: Nobody like cheap cigarettes. They want Marlboro, Kool, Newport. Cheap cigarettes nobody buy.
Leathery Guy: Cigarettes Cheaper is the name of the store.
Ms. Kim: I no carry those.
This latter-day version of “Who’s on First” went on for way too long before Kim began explaining that the city and state were charging her out the wazzoo for the permits to sell smokes. “It not worth it! My sister used to have store in Oakland and she no sell smokes because of hassles with permit. She moved to Hayward and now she make so much money on smokes. Here it not worth it. I only sell because my customers want. I hate the mayor!” She was getting pretty worked up. So worked up, in fact, that she kept talking about smokes to herself long after the ponytail guy had left the building. Then she asked me what I did for a living. When I told her I was laid off, she looked at the ground and paused and then sighed and kind of moaned a little. “Very hard times! Many of my customer unemployed. You got to be strong. You must keep going.” She made a fist and punched the air. “Very, very sad. I have a tenant who laid off. I feel sorry for him. I ask him if he hungry and bring him food. He no hungry! His parents are rich! Hahahaha!!! Hard times cause me stress. I go to gym 6 times a week and run on treadmill. It get rid of stress. Without that, I go crazy! Hahaha.” She then reverted back to talking about cigarettes. “I no like Schnegger!” She then went back to check on my food. I took me a little while to realize that “Schnegger” meant the Governator.
The egg, meat, and potatoes all looked nothing like any entry I would receive before or after. The yolk on the sunnyside up eggs had a film over the yellow part, as if they were eyes with cataracts. They tasted fine, the yolk was perfectly runny, and the whites were done, but the look of the filmy-eyed eggs was a little disconcerting. The sausage wasn’t really a patty. It was from bulk sausage and was in a single sheet that covered up as much area as the hash browns underneath. The sausage had ZERO chemical taste and they were chocked full of herbs and mild spices. I could taste some fennel in there, which usually only appears at fancy places where they charge you $10 to lick a bagel. This was easily the best sausage of the day. The hash browns were also in their own class. Unlike all the other browns I’d eat, these didn’t seem as if they had been grated. The potatoes were in strands about the thickness of an earthworm. They had gotten a little black in places, probably due to her rant about cigarettes, but they had a great potato flavor, even though they were pretty greasy. It was kind of like eating an order of fries from the old Kwik Way after they had been run over by a fat kid on a Big Wheel. The wheat toast was unremarkable store brand bread, but it helped to soak up a little of the oil from the potatoes and the sausage. After this meal, I really felt it. My stomach was gurgling non-stop like a white noise machine. I hadn’t really consumed that much food pound-wise, but my gut felt like it was filled with molten lead. It was difficult to move, talk, or breathe at this point.
A guy with cargo shorts and an Inhuman Butchery t-shirt came in with an older guy who looked like Eddie Money’s doppleganger. I later learned that Inhuman Butchery was a Chilean death metal band, but at the time, it seemed like a sign that the Inhuman Eating Machine was butchering himself in the name of the 12 dorks on the internet. I went home. I sat upright on the couch, afraid to lie down fearing I might be unable to right myself- like a giant sea tortoise. I went in and out of sleep for an hour. I was periodically awoken by explosive gas pungent enough to induce nausea, but my stomach continued to churn at warp speed, so regurgitation was out of the question. The discomfort had become so pronounced that I really needed to release some pressure immediately by any means necessary. I felt no need to defecate, but I had to at least attempt a bowel movement or I was in danger of rupturing. I sat on the toilet, once again in periodic slumber. After a few attempts, I finally released a series of slimy Lincoln Log-like compositions that jettisoned from the source as if on a flume ride at Six Flags. The pressure had been relieved very little, but it was enough to allow me to regain proper respiration and my sense of balance. I curse your session suggestion, Mitch Cardwell!
5. EMERY BAY CAFE- 5857 B Christie, Emeryville- 1:55pm- $6.25 (4 strips bacon, eggs over hard, hash browns, sourdough toast)
I was finally able to get off the couch around 1:30. After resting a little, the gurgling had subsided somewhat and I felt there was a little room in my stomach. I looked up the addresses of a few of the places Mitch had recommended, but at this late hour and in my diminished state of being, I decided that it didn’t make much sense to go solo all the way up to Vallejo to eat an infernal sausage and egg breakfast. Eating eight or more breakfasts in one day and writing about my farts and shits made complete sense, but going to Vallejo alone was madness. I opted to stay closer to home.
I’ve been going to the International Food Court in Emeryville on a semi-regular basis since I first arrived in the East Bay. I driv past the Denny’s across from Circuit City every time, but had no idea there was another restaurant in the back of the parking lot behind their building. There’s a big multi-story office building there, so I assume the cafe mostly caters to the occupants of that building, the workers in the office park near the theater, and maybe even some of the zillions of workers at Pixar and in the biotech industry. When I arrived, the only customers were a really trashy looking fat white chick in a wifebeater and a non-supportive black bra and her boyfriend, a short Filipino with a souped-up Acura. They went outside to smoke while they waited for their food. The dude was half a head shorter than the girl, who was in heels, so his face was positioned right at her chest level. They embraced as she sat astride his lap and then the guy motor-boated her right in front of the restaurant. Classy kids. There was also a 50-something guy in the back of the café drinking coffee and reading The Da Vinci Code. He looked very laid-off and wasn’t going anywhere for a while. But that was it. Sure, it was almost 2pm, but shouldn’t a place like this be busier during the workday? These sessions were illustrating the reality of the economic downturn more than the Wall Street Journal or CNBC ever could. So many of the places I visit are primarily the domain of employees in nearby buildings, yet they’re all at minimum capacity. Perhaps the workers are trying to make ends meet and are brown-bagging it and bringing their coffee in a thermos. But I suspect there just aren’t as many workers around anymore to eat at these places. During my unemployment, I’m glad I can do a small part in helping these eateries by spending some of my government-issued checks on their premises.
2 tiny Asian girls staffed the counter. They were very delicate-looking and may have been in their twenties, but neither looked a day over 14. Since the place was so dead, they were constantly texting while they sat back-to-back on a box. The cooks, who may have been their brothers, occasionally hassled them to induce the girls to do a little work. Bay Café is a pretty massive space with an entire unused area roped-off. One of the girls picked up a broom and started sweeping the area in front of the counter while the other girl cleaned the coffee pots. When they noticed that the cooks were no longer paying attention to them, they both sat down and went back to their phones. Those cooks may be slave-drivers, but they know their way around the griddle. The bacon was enormous. The strips had to be close to 8 inches long and quite thick. They must have started with some serious bacon to yield strips of this magnitude with a good amount of chewiness mixed in with crispiness. It was almost like eating a strip of bacon steak. The egg was perfectly round as if it had been cooked in a mold and the yolk looked like an opaque yellow gemstone. The toast was from a fancy loaf; thickly sliced and well-buttered. The hash browns were the only weak link. They were almost identical to those at the 5th Wheel, except slightly less greasy.
The radio in the café played the latest hit by Christian-songbird-turned-quirky-sex siren, Katy Perry. Yes, you hipster fucks, her records are “product” the same way a Baby Alive or an Arch Deluxe are products. But you’re all fools if you deny what impossibly catchy products those songs are. Spend your day in a grease-induced fog and then tell me that “Hot ‘N Cold” isn’t a song for the ages. My innards were reaching critical mass. Eating the minimum eight servings of breakfasts was starting to seem an impossibility. I was certain that I had a Crisco-like substance running through my veins, in my lungs, and coursing through my lymphatic system. And then I got a call from my wife, Kelly. I had completely forgotten that we had made plans weeks ago to eat dinner with 2 of her clients/friends that evening. It was far too late to cancel. Not only did I have to consume at least three more breakfasts that day, I had to eat Thai/Lao food, be sociable, and pretend I didn’t feel like death.
As I exited the café, I saw one of the cooks pulling a large box of restaurant supplies from the trunk of his car. As I walked passed him he monotoned, “LSD.” I have no idea whether he was selling, buying, or merely reciting the name of this drug, but I certainly had no desire to partake of it or any other mind-altering substance, as I was already on a very bad trip, man.
6. JODIE'S- 902 Masonic, Albany- 2:44pm- $7.40 (1 hot link, eggs over easy, hash browns, Russian rye swirl toast)
I’ve heard about Jodie’s from several different Albany residents. They all spoke about it as a quirky treasure. I love places that fit that description, but when people say a place like that is in Albany, I envision a “playful” new take on classic comfort food where you pay three times more than you should because the establishment is part of the Slow Food movement. Luckily, Jodie’s is really a weirdo place that does greasy spoon food quite traditionally. And the prices are only 50% more than fair. It’s tiny. Other than the kitchen, there is nothing more than a counter with 6 stools. It must be a complete madhouse on weekends, or closer to noon on weekdays, recession or not. Every square inch of the walls is covered with photos, posters, stickers, and other junk. Also, 2 of their 3 menus are on the wall. One menu lists the specials; the other lists regular items that don’t appear on the standard hand-held menu. In total, Jodie’s has over 100 items available, which is insane for a place that seats only six people at a time.
The stuff on the wall brings to mind the Top Dog on Durant, but Jodie himself comes across as one of the kindest souls on Earth, while the literature at Top Dog suggests it may be run in absentia by the Unabomber. Jodie is reminiscent of one of the seven grandfathers on the Cosby Show and appears to be a universally loved character in the Solano Ave. area, if one can believe the photos and testimonials on his walls. A small television was playing a tape of a Fine Living Network show that featured a segment about Jodie’s. I asked Jodie when the show aired and he said it had been on only one week before my visit. When his wife of 50 years appeared on the screen, he pointed at the set and explained that she had just died a few weeks ago. Wow. It must’ve been tough for him to watch his dead wife on a show that didn’t air until after she had died. Learning of his wife’s untimely passing kind of killed the comedy of this otherwise zany locale.
Once again, I was the only customer when I arrived. Jodie was assisting his sole employee, a youngish hipster type with a shaved head and a jaunty cap, who was cleaning the walls above the stovetop while standing on a board placed on top of the burners. I was afraid they might be closed when I saw this sight, even though the sign said they were open until 4pm. Jodie informed me that they were indeed open, but they were working on some cleaning projects since they didn’t have any customers. He was really hyping up the grits. “You know what grits are? These are the best you’ve ever tasted” He gave me a spoonful to taste. I thought he was gonna stick the spoon in my mouth like a mother feeding her infant. He wasn’t lying. The grits were delicious and unbelievably creamy. I was tempted to order them, but I couldn’t think of an item for which they could substitute. And I was not going to eat a serving of grits in addition to toast, eggs, meat, and potatoes. He seemed genuinely bummed out when I didn’t order them. As I waited for my food, the radio played a talk show that featured a guest expounding on the virtues of wearing magnets.
A junkie-looking guy with a trucker cap and a fu manchu was hanging out at the table on the sidewalk. He came inside a couple of times to talk to Jodie, who was trying not to get annoyed as he helped his employee clean. The junkie asked if he could give Jodie a brown paper bag to keep in his refrigerator. I think he said it was fudge. Jodie didn’t seem happy about complying, but he took the bag and told the guy to make sure he got it out of the fridge before he closed at 4pm. Since there were only a couple of feet between my ass and the wall, the junkie had to brush up against my keester every time he walked past. I thought for sure he was trying to pick my pocket, so I moved my wallet to the pocket in the front of my pants. Yes, I’m a paranoid square who doesn’t trust junkies and their fudge bags. Call President Obama and tell him I killed hope.
The egg was one of the best entries of the day. The white was cooked firm and the yolk oozed nicely. The bread made great toast. It had a beautiful swirl and must’ve been from one of the local high-fallutin’ bakeries. It was almost too good to keep company with diner fare. The hot link was quite spicy and was oozing red grease all over the rest of the items on my plate. The hash browns were golden throughout with a rather hard crust on top, but the hot link made certain they weren’t too dry. The potatoes tasted fine, I guess, but this was the entry where I was officially over hash browns. Who needs these things? They’re the crummiest permutation of potato possible. How is it that they are more appropriate for breakfast than french fries or tater tots or a baked potato or au gratin or mashed potatoes? Those are all superior potato manifestations. Hash browns are basically the same everywhere. Even when they’re not greasy, they’re greasy. The shredded center doesn’t soak up grease; it merely allows oil to collect, as in the reservoir tip of a condom. Except for the weirdo browns at Hide-a-Way, there were only microscopic differences between the various hash browns I ate in the session. It’s not right that home fries were available at a paltry 2 stops on my journey. While they are usually more filling than hash browns and probably not something I’d want to eat 8+ times in a day, they at least take some finesse and imagination. Hash browns are a cop out and uphold the status quo. After this session, it will be a long time before I eat them again. They represent mediocrity and are the petit dejeuner personification of the decline of America in the new millennium. When you eat hash browns, Bin Laden wins.
7. MERRITT BAKERY & RESTAURANT- 203 E. 18th St.- 10:53pm- $9.25 (4 strips bacon, poached eggs, hashbrowns, sourdough toast)
After Jodie’s, I went straight home. It was close to 4pm and we were scheduled to go eat at Champa Garden at eight. Every square inch of my stomach was filled with greasy starch. To have any chance of eating a Thai dinner and then follow it with 2 additional breakfasts to get the minimum, I needed to rest and allow some settling to occur. Every belch was phantom vomit; every fart was an olfactory rape. I faded in and out of a fetid siesta until Kelly came home. When she came in the door, the first thing she said was, “My God! Open a window! Use the spray!” A cumulus cloud of methane had permeated our entire apartment. Granted, we live in a Junior 1BR that is less than 500 sq. feet, but polluting the entirety of any living space with your own body is still quite an accomplishment.
We had a pleasant dinner with Kelly’s friends, a same-sex married couple originally from Montana and Wyoming, respectively. They met at college in Montana where they must have felt more out of place than an Irishman in a dry county. We had a $25 gift certificate, so of course we were obliged to order a lot of food. We got an appetizer, a large salad, 3 entrees, and beer and wine. I made every effort to appear that I was hungry, but I was moving very slowly. It felt strange to yield much of the food to Kelly and our companions. Usually, eating at a restaurant is an exhibition where I eat non-stop until all traces of food have been eliminated- included all sauces and garnish. If my fellow diners wish to have a chance at satiating themselves, they must eat in a frenzy and throw an occasional body check my way to prevent me from taking their portions. I try to be as polite as possible, but when I’m hungry and there’s food in front of me, all of my years of comportment school are forgotten. This evening, however, I was letting others take the lion’s share. And at the end of the meal, there were leftovers, which I ceded willingly to our guests. Kelly suggested that I should make it a practice to eat 6 pre-meals whenever we go out to eat with friends, especially when it’s our first meal with them. “It’ll keep you from making a pig out of yourself in front of people we hardly know. And that way, you’ll talk with the people, rather than eating non-stop,” she said. Sorry, wife, I gotta let my freak-flag fly for friends and strangers alike. I will NOT hide my light under a bushel.
I was able to escape Champa Garden only somewhat fuller than when I entered, but I was still distended far beyond the limits of comfort. Every breath was a struggle that required a deliberate effort to avoid inducing violent hiccups, which could, in turn, cause massive vomiting. But when I got to the Merritt, I felt certain I was able to find the will to finish 2 more meals before quitting. I have a love/hate relationship with the Merritt. It was the first place I ate after I moved to Oakland. I lived across the street from it with my ex-wife for a year and a half. I was over there several times a week for their 2-for-1 day old cake slices and I ate their amazing fried chicken often. The prices were reasonable then and they were open 24 hours a day. Around 2000, they changed their hours and were only open to 3am on weekends. And their prices started rising to levels that are not what you’d expect at an old-school coffee shop. Plus, the quality of the food began slipping. I ordered pancakes there a few years ago that tasted like they came out of the microwave. After that incident, I only ate at the Merritt as a last resort. As of the past year, they are now only open until midnight and the prices are almost too high to qualify for an IEM session. Staying open late on the edge of East Oakland has some serious disadvantages, but if the Merritt is going to serve mediocre food and close prior to last call, they have no business charging those outlandish prices. Until the visit on this session, the only thing I had to recommend about the Merritt (other than the bakery and take out chicken) was that it was a good place to go to the bathroom on the east side of the lake.
The Xmas wreaths were still up in late March, yet another sign of half-assitude that further illustrates how the Merritt is still just an unintentionally kitschy diner. It can try and con people into thinking it’s better than it is by charging prices you find at more contemporary establishments, but it takes more than $12 eggs benedict to polish a turd. When you consider my problems with this place, the visit on this session was an incredibly positive surprise. The bacon was even longer than at Emery Bay and almost half an inch thick. It was the best bacon I had all day. It had just the right degree of saltiness and smokiness and had a “small batch” flavor. In Oakland, you generally only find flavor like this in gourmet bacons at restaurants located in areas with far fewer crackheads in their parking lot. The toasts were huge rounds, at least as thick as the Texas toast served at places like Bonanza. I suspect the bread was hand cut directly off a locally-baked loaf of sourdough. The home fries were large chunks of potatoes and bits of onions and peppers. The potatoes must have been partially boiled or steamed before they hit the griddle to be this moist. It was spiced with paprika, garlic, and some cayenne and wasn’t the least bit oily. They were truly delicious and would’ve made a great accompaniment for a steak. Unfortunately, there was a HUGE pile of the stuff, not what I wanted after 6 breakfasts and a pretty decent amount of Thai food. This was my first experience with a poached egg, so I can’t say for certain if it was cooked correctly. It had a consistency similar to a hard-boiled egg, but with a runny yolk. I don’t understand why they’re served in their own cup. The little pool of residual water on the bottom of the cup was a little unpleasant. I would recommend draining off the water and patting the surface of the egg dry and then dropping it on the plate with the potatoes. It was okay, but I don’t think I would order this style again.
This meal made me rethink my feelings on the Merritt. I can no longer tell folks the convenient blanket statement, “That place sucks!” This breakfast proves that’s not the case. But will I eat here again? I don’t think so. As good as it was, it’s still just classic breakfast and classic breakfast should not cost more than $9- anywhere. In the past few years, I had no interest in eating here ever again, but if somebody else wanted to try the Merritt and s/he felt an urge to pay for my meal, I’d be very happy to join him/her. So if you’ve got some money burning a hole in your pocket, let’s set that shit up!
8. NIKKO'S FAMILY RESTAURANT- 340 23rd Ave- 11:51pm- $6.95 (1 link of linguisa, eggs over hard, hashbrowns, wheat toast)
Magically, I didn’t really feel fuller after the Merritt than before. My belly was churning and distended as ever, but it seemed that the Merritt food and the Thai items somehow managed to rearrange the food already inside me like a gastrointestinal game of Tetris. I had only one meal left to eat to make the session official and was quite certain I was going to make it at this point, but I knew any false move could cause everything to come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.
Other than the Denny’s on Hegenberger, which after dark is probably like Ft. Apache, I’m quite certain that Nikko’s is the only 24 hour non-fast food restaurant in all of Oakland. Considering this fact, Nikko’s prices are completely reasonable. They must have to spend a good deal of their overhead paying the medical bills of employees who get shot in hold-ups. The location is convenient for robbers- just off 880. And they have a parking lot, which is more precious than gold for customers and felons alike. Nikko’s deserves consideration if only for these amenities, but the grub alone is good enough to merit a visit. I’d been to Nikko’s late at night a few years ago and they were packed. It was nearly midnight on a Friday on this visit and there were a few people there, but it was far from crowded. I don’t know how they did it, but my order arrived on the table 4 minutes after I ordered it! Are they cooking with plutonium? Strangely, the only thing not cooked enough was the toast, which is the only item that a normal person might be able to make in 4 minutes. It was barely-toasted commercial grade wheat bread. It came with grape jelly that got me thinking. Why is it called "Concord" grape? Did this grape variety originate in Concord, CA back when that town was agricultural, rather than a suburban hellscape populated by dirtbag heshers? The eggs were cooked-through with a yolk that had the proper hardness. The linguisa was hot inside and outside with char marks on the skin and LOTS of grease issuing forth. They had taken a single link and butterflied it into 3 interconnected pieces. It was nothing less than meat-based origami. I had never even heard of linguisa before I moved to the Bay Area in 1996. It’s a sausage I rarely get, but usually love. While I generally prefer the spicier hot links to linguisa, the texture and complexity of spices in Nikko’s linguisa was near perfect. The hash browns were as brown and crispy on top as entries that took 15 minutes to arrive in front of me and weren’t too greasy. But, as stated earlier, I was over hash browns at that point, maybe forever. After finishing this plate, I was nearly paralyzed by all of the carbs and fat inside me and was in a state of sheer agony. Even if there was another place where I could eat at this point, I had no interest in going there. This session was now official and I was surrendering like a Frenchman.
It had been almost a decade since I ate at Nikko’s previously, but after this visit, I can see eating here somewhat regularly, especially in the late night hours. In most scenarios, I would prefer to eat something “ethnic”, but at 3:45am, you’re shit out of luck in that department in Oakland. As Kelly and I left Nikko’s, my bowels began twitching vigorously and audibly. Before I was 10 yards from their door, it became clear that I had to shit and soon. I’ve written before about my “window of poo.” Once I feel that I must defecate, I have roughly 10 minutes to drop the deuce in the toilet (or elsewhere.) In addition to my problem with my fecal timeframe, I also have many ridiculous neuroses, so I refused to re-enter Nikko’s to go to the bathroom. I had to get home immediately, by any means necessary. I had the sharpest pains in my abdomen that were only exacerbated by my safety belt. I was speeding and was afraid I might get pulled over by a cop. What would I tell him? “I’m sorry for driving too fast officer, but my duodenum is about to give birth to quintuplets. Can I get a police escort home?”
Miraculously, I made it home with seconds to spare. For what seemed like hours, I spewed forth something that resembled an algae-encrusted anchor chain you might find on a steamship submerged since the Crimean War. After I was finished producing it, I slumped over and nearly fainted. I was covered in sweat. My heart was beating so hard I though it might leap from my chest. I was hyperventilating, but I tried in vain not to inhale the vapors I’d created. Although I’d crapped out what felt like 100 metric tons of volume, I still had the sense that my belly was being externally inflated. My entire midsection was tender. I could not lie down and spent several hours sleeping upright on the couch. I later managed to go to bed, but had to sleep on my back. When I rose the next day, the distention had subsided, but my belly was still sore like a pregnant Catholic girl who had instructed her boyfriend to kick her in the stomach to induce a spontaneous abortion. It took 2 full days for me to get back to normal.
The Best: I supposed I enjoyed my meal at the Hide-a-Way more than any other place, but that's probably mostly due to Ms. Kim's personality. As far as the food itself goes, they're all pretty similar. No single place was so great that it changed my life; no place came close to being so terrible that I would steer people away. It's just classic breakfast, people!
COMING NEXT TIME: Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich)