You get the point.
In some philosophical circles, time is defined by change: “My car was parked outside” and “my car was stolen” are two realities that mark a passage of time that is otherwise undetectable to the senses. (The events also predict a future in which so much time is lost on the phone with insurance agents, but that’s a whole other tangent.) Without change, it stands to reason, there is no time, which is why I’ve decided to do the only logical thing:
Eat breakfast whenever I feel like it.
As a child growing up in the Midwest, breakfast had its own definable features, too: It came out of a box. The cereals I preferred were often based more on the toy (glow-in-the-dark globes!) than the sweetened nuggets packed inside the box, which tells you something about the culture I was raised in. We were addicted to sugar and susceptible to bribes.
Depending on which flawed survey you read, America still loves cereal in the morning, at least among those who bother to eat breakfast at all and not just drown their first cravings in black coffee. Early in the pandemic, I would eat a bowl of Raisin Bran, partly to break the fast and partly to remind myself that days are supposed to have well-defined periods, but I quit once the sugar crashes became intolerable.
The notion of eating cereal for lunch, dinner or a snack (or whatever we call these meals when the days are measured in light and darkness and more darkness) strikes me as the wrong approach for the wrong time. I mean, you might as well pour melatonin gummies into a bowl, add milk, dig in and wait for the sweet bliss of sleep.
Those in other countries have less of a sweet tooth for breakfast than Americans. In Vietnam, they enjoy pho, so hot and fragrant, for their first slurp of the day. In El Salvador, they devour griddled pupusas stuffed with cheese and pork. In China, they dig into bowls of congee, a rice porridge that may conceal sparks of ginger or pungent blasts of preserved duck egg. In South India, they savor steamed rice-and-lentil cakes paired with spicy sambar and chutney. In Egypt, they sop up ful medames, a stew of seasoned fava beans, with puffy loaves of aish baladi. In Ethiopia, they love genfo, a stiff porridge thatfeatures a deep well in the middle, filled with melted butter and a combustible berbere spice blend.
Patrice Cleary, chef and owner of Purple Patch in Mount Pleasant, was born in the Philippines but moved to the United States with her family when she was a child. Her breakfast memories are informed by the foods her mother, a native of the Bicol region, served in America, making do with a limited budget and the limited Philippine ingredients available in the United States. Garlic fried rice (sinangag) and two fried eggs (pritong itlog) were staples, sometimes served with a sweet breakfast sausage called longanisa.
“We loved bacon,” Cleary remembers, “but bacon was really expensive. My father was in the military, so if it wasn’t a good payday, we didn’t get bacon.” Instead her mom, Alice Hammond, would take stored bacon grease and prepare her version of bacon fried rice. Her three kids never complained.
You won’t find American-style bacon fried rice on Purple Patch’s brunch menu, but you can order traditional Philippine preparations of garlic fried rice, whether longsilog or tosilog, both of which are portmanteaus of the principal ingredients. Longsilog combines longanisa with sinangag and pritong itlog, while tosilog substitutes a Philippine-style cured pork, called tocino, for the sweet sausage. Whichever you order, it makes for divine eating anytime of day.
I’m clearly not the only one jonesing for Purple Patch’s breakfast fare beyond its typical weekend window. During the pandemic, Cleary decided to offer her brunch menu seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. “People want to eat breakfast any time of day,” she says. “We stop it at 3 o’clock because we can’t run breakfast and dinner at nighttime.” Dinner orders apparently push the kitchen to its limits. The crew just doesn’t have the bandwidth to also prepare the restaurant’s signature waffles and pancakes, which, at first glance, look like dishes custom made for Prince’s breakfast table: These morning cakes owe their striking violet hue to a purple yam called ube, widely used in Philippine desserts.
Brunch has always been something of an enabler. It’s the one period every week that allows breakfast to actively invade another meal’s turf. But, now, the pandemic has given breakfast carte blanche to form unholy unions anywhere it pleases. British writer Guy Beringer was the one to coin the term “brunch” in the late 19th century. Here in the 21st century, he would need to devise even more semi-clever mash-ups, like “brinner” and “bracks” (breakfast + snacks). I mean, we’re living through a 24-hour smorgasbreakfast, including early-morning bouts of insomnia when we decide to treat ourselves to a giant bowl of Lucky Charms or maybe two of those sugary packets of instant oatmeal.
Beniam Belay, co-owner of Elsa Ethiopian Kitchen on Georgia Avenue NW, says back in his native country, breakfast would often consist of genfo, an eye-opener that is next to impossible to find in Washington (though I’m sure readers will be quick to prove otherwise). Breakfast menus, in general, can be hard to come by at Ethiopian restaurants in the D.C. region. Ethiopian expats are more of a lunch and dinner crowd, Belay tells me, at least when they could crowd around a communal table.
But Elsa — named for Belay’s wife and business partner, Elsa Yirge, who’s also the chef — has a robust breakfast menu, available till 3 p.m. daily. Sadly, it offers no genfo. Instead, you can feast on ful medames (that Egyptian staple has taken hold in Ethiopia, too) or kinche (a cracked-wheat porridge spiced with Ethiopian butter) or even firfir (torn pieces of injera soaked in a piquant tomato-heavy sauce).
One day recently in my home office, I alternated bites between ful medames and kinche, between the smooth stew and the textured porridge, between the recent past and the present. You could call it an indulgent breakfast in the middle of the afternoon. Or you could call it a way to mark the passing of time during a period when everything feels so stagnant.
Nine breakfast dishes that I’ve enjoyed at times that weren’t the breakfast hour (I think):
Ube waffles with Philippine fried chicken at Purple Patch
For those who order this dish for takeaway, allow me to explain its assembly: Take the modest scoop of ube ice cream and plop it onto your warm waffle, so that it melts like butter. Next, drape those strips of young coconut over the melting pools of purple ice cream. Now stand back and stare at it like a museum painting. This Philippine version of chicken and waffles — with thighs marinated in soy and vinegar — is too beautiful to eat. It’s also too delicious to ignore.
3155 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, 202-299-0022; purplepatchdc.com.
Pho at Pho 75
Pho is street food in Vietnam, where historically the noodle soup provided the necessary calories to get laborers through their morning shifts. But the dish proved too popular to confine to breakfast. The soup — packed with carbs, proteins and so much flavor — is an ideal energy boost at any time, especially when ordered from this small chain, which remains the gold standard. All soups are available for takeaway only, each packaged to reassemble at home.
1510 University Blvd. E., Langley Park, Md., 301-434-7844; 1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., 703-525-7355; and other locations.
Pupusas at La Casita Pupuseria
There are many great pupuserias in Washington and its suburbs, but I keep returning, again and again, to La Casita. The Silver Spring shop, for example, not only embraces the melting pot concept of America — it sells a pupusa in which the masa has been infused with beets — but also offers two kinds of pupusas: the masa-based pockets and pupusas de arroz, which are hand-formed with rice-flour dough, so mild and chewy when cooked on a hot griddle.
8214 Piney Branch, Silver Spring, 301-588-6656; there are also locations in Germantown, Gaithersburg and Washington; lacasitapupusas.com.
Shakshuka at Baker’s Daughter
There are eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, and then there is the shakshuka at Baker’s Daughter, where the chef Matt Baker’s kitchen has turned this Middle Eastern dish into a statement, maybe even an art form. Douglas Alexander, sous chef at the place’s sister restaurant, the Michelin one-star Gravitas, took the lead on the dish. The critical ingredient is the housemade harissa, built with four chiles, both sweet and spicy paprika, cumin seeds, garlic, coriander seeds and much more. The harissa provides a depth that feels like history.
1402 Okie St. NE, 202-729-6990; bakersdaughterdc.com.
Ful medames at Elsa Ethiopian Kitchen
Chef Elsa Yirge takes full advantage of the multi-compartment container used to transport her ful. Each element has its own space: the mashed fava beans, the diced onions, the chopped tomatoes, the egg scramble and the slivers of jalapeño, their seeds still clinging to the ribs. You’re free to compose bites to your preferred spice level but, just as important, you’re free to enjoy the favas on their own, savoring the berbere complexity already buried in that mash.
5768 Georgia Av.e NW, 202-450-5256.
Lean pork and preserved egg congee at Wong Gee Asian Restaurant
From my very first spoonful, I remembered why I love this porridge from Wong Gee. The rice, cooked to a silken consistency, doesn’t telegraph its pleasures. You don’t realize its comforts until the warm porridge coats your tongue in salt, broth and the mild creaminess of rice. Even the hard, ammonia-like edge of a preserved duck egg assumes softer, aged-cheese qualities when submerged in this luxurious congee. This bowl goes down like the medicine we need right now.
2417 University Blvd., Silver Spring, 301-933-3277; wonggee.com.
Chilaquiles at Taqueria Habanero
The key to takeout chilaquiles, during a pandemic or anytime, is not to take them far. In fact, I’d suggest eating them right in the car. Otherwise, you risk turning those leftover tortilla chips into something that resembles wilted cabbage. The very ingredients that sell the dish — the housemade salsas, the crema, the runny fried egg — are also the ones that can transform it into corn soup. Don’t let your container ruin this terrific incarnation of chilaquiles.
Lo tré golpé at Mecho’s Dominican Kitchen
If there is a more generous feast than the lo tré golpé at Mecho’s, I can’t think of it. The traditional Dominican breakfast is a caloric fun ride featuring wedges of salty fried cheese, glistening pucks of Induveca salami, a mash of boiled plantains topped with pickled onions and a single fried egg for good measure. It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one, the ultimate pandemic plate.
2450 Market St. NE, No. 801, 202-629-4847; mechoskitchen.com.
Salteñas at Silpancho’s House
Rosa Flores has taken over the kitchen at Silpancho’s House in the year or so since I reviewed this family-run operation in Alexandria. Not to worry, as Flores served under opening-day chef, Rosemary Vasquez, and has taken firm control of the Bolivian menu, including the salteñas, those sweet braided shells that conceal a spiced stew of beef, chicken or vegetables. Sprinkled with a little llajua, the pepper-based condiment central to the Bolivian table, salteñas may be the most satisfying meal you can hold in one hand.
3401 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-664-0000.