Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect address for Askale Cafe. This version has been updated.
Before you turn your nose up at what some other cultures think of as breakfast, consider that many Europeans used to suck down starchy soups in the morning before the arrival of coffee in the 17th century. And even then, they had to get the pope’s blessing before they’d dare choke down “Satan’s drink.”
“Before the arrival of coffee in Europe,” notes the Larousse Gastronomique entry on breakfast, “the first drink of the day was soup, and this continued well into the 19th century. Vichyssoise was created when [French chef] Louis Diat remembered the breakfast leek soup of his childhood. The Basque zurraputuna (salt cod soup) in Spain is in this tradition, as is the sweetened gramatka of Poland, made with beer.”
A number of cultures continue to slurp on soup, or something approximating it, at the break of dawn. The Vietnamese wake up with pho bo, or beef noodle soup, while many Chinese jump-start their day with a bowl of congee or rice porridge. Americans have their own morning gruel, too, otherwise known as oatmeal, with its origins tracing to the mother country.
If these soupier repasts have a common theme, it’s that they’re often calorie dense and carb heavy, perfect for folks who toil in factories and fields, requiring deep reserves of energy to make it through the morning.
The modern, office-bound Washingtonian, by contrast, seems to survive the morning on two cups of Starbucks coffee and a chocolate doughnut, even though the meal has all the soul of a Hot Pocket. (Cue comedian Jim Gaffigan: “How’d they come up with that? Was there some guy in a marketing meeting, like, ‘Hey, I got an idea. How about we fill a Pop-Tart with nasty meat?”)
All too often, the 21st-century Washingtonian is too busy and too distracted by deadlines to grab anything more exotic than coffee and a Danish. But you know what? One day, after you leave this grossly underrated Metro area, as so many eventually do, you’ll wake up one morning and realize you missed countless opportunities to break the fast with a foreign flair. The D.C. area, after all, offers a rich, multicolored spread of international breakfast options. The $20 Diner has a handful to recommend.
Askale Cafe in Brookland is a cozy home-style restaurant, complete with a faux fireplace blazing away near the counter. The breakfast menu is tiny, but it includes a favorite: ful medames, an Egyptian dish that has insinuated itself into other Middle Eastern and African cuisines. Askale, like most Ethiopian establishments, serves ful ($9.95) with a crusty, white-bread roll rather than traditional injera. Personally, I can live without it. The dish of mashed fava beans, garnished with so many contrasting elements (cool sour cream, fiery jalapenos, rich eggs, dusky African spices), becomes its own buffet; you can mix and match flavors, temperatures and textures to your heart’s content.
Askale opens at 7 a.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday. 3629 12th St. NE, 202-758-0077. www.askalecafe.com.
Does it seem to anyone else like saltenas are the chupacabra of snacks: much discussed but rarely sighted? So many places that hawk these Bolivian pockets tend to sell out before I can drag my weary frame to some distant Northern Virginia outpost. Fortunately, there is Reyna’s Bolivian Food in Arlington, where the street-level bakery (next to Reyna’s second-story restaurant) sells beef and chicken saltenas all day for $2.75 each. These football-shaped pastries boast a sweet outer shell that conceals a surprise: a savory soup studded with peas, eggs, potatoes, green olives and your choice of protein. Once you bite the top off, the shell becomes its own edible bowl. Spoon in some spicy llajua sauce, and you have a handheld breakfast of unusual complexity.
Reyna’s bakery opens at 7 a.m. daily. 3205 S. Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-979-2037.
Few dishes feel more right in the morning than a bowl of pho bo, the Vietnamese beef soup with a tangle of slurpy rice noodles at the bottom. The steam rising from the bowl seems to relax muscles on the spot, while the star anise and charred ginger aromas awaken the senses. There are many fine pho establishments in the area, but when I want it prepared right, I return again and again to Pho 75, which does little else but simmer large pots of the fragrant broth. Bowls run $6.50 for regular and $7.50 for large — a steal at any price.
Pho 75 opens at 9 a.m. daily. 771 Hungerford Dr., Rockville. 301-309-8873. There are four other locations in Maryland and Virginia.
The DMV is packed with pupuserias, where you’ll find Salvadoran expats tossing back a small stack of masa pancakes in the morning with a cup of chocolate caliente. But at La Casita in Silver Spring, the kitchen takes some creative license with the traditional flavors of the Salvadoran breakfast table. It, for instance, scrambles eggs with chorizo, onions, green peppers and tomatoes and then layers the mixture into a soft French roll slathered with fried red beans. A scoop of fresh cuajada cheese is plopped on top, creating the illusion of lightness for this meaty breakfast sandwich. It’s little wonder that La Casita calls it Pan Grande. It’ll cost you $5.50.
La Casita opens at 7:30 a.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. 8214 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-6656. www.lacasitapupusas.com.
Down on the island, Dominicans wake up to the smell of mangu, a mash of boiled and lightly seasoned green plantains. Sometimes, if all the ingredients are available, locals will top their mangu with fried cheese, Induveca salami and a fried egg for a dish they call “los tres golpes,” or “the three hits.” Los Hermanos , a family-run Dominican institution in Columbia Heights, offers a los tres golpes ($10) that defines the term “hearty.” Consuming the dish in one sitting pretty much qualifies as a “Man v. Food” challenge. But no matter how much you eat, here’s the thing to remember: The toppings are like image consultants. They make the plain-Jane mangu more attractive, lending the mash a saltiness and richness that are not part of its natural personality.
Los Hermanos opens at 10 a.m. daily. 1426 Park Rd. NW. 202-483-8235. www.loshermanosdominicanrestaurant.com.
One of the most visually striking plates in Washington can be found at Domku Bar & Cafe in Petworth: It’s the gravlax and herring platter ($17) on the weekend breakfast menu. The plate is a rainbow blaze of pickled and cured bites: salmon, herring, beets, cucumbers, red onions — a colorful collection of ingredients that provides a fleeting glimpse into Scandinavian history and how locals had to sustain themselves with a pantry full of preserved foods. Domku owner Kera Carpenter says to think of the dish as a “Nordic charcuterie plate.” What she means is you can experiment with different combinations until you find that perfect marriage of flavors for your palate. My fave: salmon, pickled red onions and gravlax mustard on woody Swedish knackebrod.
Domku serves breakfast from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 821 Upshur St. NW. 202-722-7475. www.domkucafe.com.
The moment you enter Asian Bakery Cafe in Rockville, you’re confronted with a wall of Hong Kong-style buns, organized by the time in which they were placed on the shelves. There is, for example, a 9 a.m. batch for the early shoppers and a later one for the afternoon stragglers. Either way, the array of baked goods is mouthwatering: coconut buns, custard buns, ham and cheese buns, ham and sausage with scallion buns, pork floss cakes, pineapple taro paste buns, red bean paste buns and on and on. They’re big. They’re bready. They’re addictive. And they all sell for $2 or less; if you buy five, the sixth is free. While you’re there, order another Chinese breakfast staple: a bowl of congee, such as the chicken with preserved vegetables ($3.80), a salty and ginger-flecked porridge that warms you to the bone.
Asian Bakery Cafe opens at 8:30 a.m. daily. 763 Hungerford Dr., Rockville.
The “egg in a waffle” ($4.50) at B Too near Logan Circle isn’t a traditional Belgian dish, but it’s based on one, according to chef and owner Bart Vandaele. Belgians are known for stuffing their famously airy waffles with raspberry and strawberry jams, but Vandaele wanted to create something all his own, with an American twist. So he engineered the brilliant and beautiful egg in a waffle: The kitchen pours a little batter into a deep, custom-made iron, adds a poached egg and then tops it with more batter. What emerges a few minutes later looks like a square, slightly modified Brussels waffle — until you cut into it. That’s when your breakfast reveals its secret: a rivulet of rich yolk, the ideal counterpoint to the sweet waffle. This is Instagrammable food at its finest.
B Too serves the waffles from 7 to 11 a.m. Monday-Friday. 1324 14th St. NW. 202-627-2800. www.btoo.com.
So few places prepare huevos rancheros the way I like them. They’ll tend to overcook the eggs or serve them on flour tortillas or dial down the sauce to near ketchup levels. Pica Taco commits none of these crimes with its huevos rancheros ($6.95). The over-easy eggs on my platter give up their yolks with the slightest prick of a fork, enriching a sauce already spiked with wide slices of jalapeno, their ribs and seeds still visible to the eye. A few squirts of the house-made tomatillo sauce for added kick, and I can almost feel the miles disappear between my stool at Pica Taco and all those lovely taquerias in Texas, where I spent many happy mornings destroying plates of huevos rancheros.
Two locations: Open at 8 a.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at 1406 Florida Ave. NW. 202-518-6820; Open at 8 a.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday, 1629 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-518-0076. www.picatacodc.com.