We live in scary times. And what's the first thing to do when you get scared? Tell the truth: you turn around and run. Hide under the bed. Find your mommy. Eat something.
That's why, I theorize, comfort food has become the sure bet of the food business. It began slowly, almost surreptitiously (certainly softly), as mashed potatoes began to replace the infant vegetables you had finally become accustomed to seeing beside your fashionably unpronounceable fish fillet in raspberry vinegar. Or whatever.
Then came a return to American desserts, the thumb-suckingly satisfying sweets of your childhood. Remember the incredible chocolate chip cookie boom? It was followed by Oreos smushed up in your ice cream and new kinds of ice cream sandwiches. And the inedible embarrassment of raw cookie dough in ice cream.
Then came the conquering chickens. I defy you to direct me to a new restaurant which does not serve roast chicken, usually with mashed potatoes--as close to grandma's Sunday dinner as restaurant food can possibly get.
Now we're turning back to breakfast, the most comfortable meal of all. We've seen almost every kind of breakfast pastry make a coffee-fueled renaissance--the muffin, the croissant, the bagel, the rugelach (why not the doughnut?). Now breakfast is in full flower, a full meal deal.
This is not the power breakfast of the '80s with women in suits and men in yellow ties eating and dealing before the crank of dawn (as we refer to it in my family--a more honest metaphor than the traditional one). I'm talking about an update of the family-type breakfast, complete comfort food, nourishing body and more.
Breakfast is mom-food, the meal your mother really wanted you to eat. That's why the first thing you give up when you leave home is breakfast. (That'll show her.) You know you're on your own when you can leave the house without someone insisting on "at least a bowl of cereal" or "one more bite" of toast. Waking up to nothing more than a Coke in the can or a cup of coffee--do I have to specify black?--is a mark of true maturity and independence.
Jack Java, a new restaurant in a familiar location on Central, devotes half its menu and more of its hours to breakfast. No, it doesn't remind you of a French bakery. You won't be romanced by the ambience of a European sidewalk cafe. Jack's is an update of the vinyl-plated American coffee shop, splitting the difference between Denny's and Cafe Brazil.
The building that used to be Jojo's (exhibit A in retro breakfast habits) has been transformed--is in the process of being transformed, anyway--into a '90s breakfast palace. Lunch is served, let me hasten to add, and dinner, too, and whatever the meal you eat late at night when you ought to be in bed is called. But breakfast is served all day. (And they plan to open 24 hours a day in the near future, beginning on weekends.)
I say "in the process" because on our morning visit, the mural of Central Expressway over the kitchen was still unfinished (like the real thing), the service was a little ragged, and the food was a little uneven--some of it slightly underdone and some of it not as hot as we wished.
Not quite mercifully--though I still maintain fairly--we descended on Jack's in a larger-than-average group in its first few weeks. And though it wasn't perfect, the glitches we experienced are probably smoothed out by now. Judging from our eavesdropping, there were already plenty of Jack regulars; lots of the other tables were taken. And the new warming lamps were expected to arrive shortly.
The overall quality of the food was impressive for the price, proving that Americans have learned a little about good food; we expect more and better than we used to, and not just from high-end eateries. (Jack's breakfasts are all under $5.50; top price at lunch is less than $7 for a grilled steak.)
It's not that the menu here is particularly inventive or unusual--it's mostly three-egg scrambles, omelettes, pancakes, French toast, etc. But the ingredients are several cuts above the institutional quality of most coffee shops. Jack's bacon is thick, chewy, and fragrant with smoke, tasting of meat, not merely fat and salt. Eggs come with parsleyed new potatoes, their red jackets slick from a roll in the saute pan, their insides creamy and sweet. Many plates came with a generous serving of mixed fruit, fresh chunks of pineapple, ripe melon, and berries. Toast was sourdough or whole wheat.
There was an array of coffees--French roast, Guatemalan, decaf--for you to serve yourself as often as you liked. The French toast was scented with nutmeg and topped with fruit; the breakfast tacos were overflowing with chorizo, chopped peppers--bell and jalapeno--cheese, onion.
Oh yeah, and gently scrambled eggs. The eggs on the traditional breakfast combination plate were cooked accurately to order--over easy, hard, or scrambled. Pancakes were big and puffy; butter was real.
My only disappointment was the viscous, Karo-type syrup so thick it barely oozed out of the dispenser; I know real maple syrup is expensive, but there has to be a tastier alternative to this stuff.
Breakfast is the epitome of comfort food because it is the meal you never make for yourself. I think most people agree that a breakfast you have to make yourself is hardly worth the eating or the effort. Don't start writing to me about the exceptions and the rare occasions. I myself, the crank of dawn, make pancakes from scratch. Exactly once a year on New Year's day.
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It doesn't count, and anyway, exceptions only prove the rule.
No matter how little you spend, a restaurant breakfast is a luxury. Breakfast is the meal your mother made you eat to prove she cared about your whole self. It's the meal your lover cooked in the early days of the relationship to ensure there would be later days.
Cold comfort. Days when he or she would not be cooking breakfast.
Jack Java Cafe, 10011 N. Central Expressway at Walnut Hill, 890-0433. FAX: 890-0309. Open daily 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
Jack Java Cafe:
Breakfast Tacos $4.75
Traditional Breakfast $4.50
Western Omelette $5.25
Jack Java Burger $4.75