You’re not imagining it — the air on weekend mornings in Orange County does smell more like bacon and maple syrup these days. Breakfast and brunch concepts are sizzling hot right now. If you can pardon the pun: They’re selling like hotcakes. Nep Cafe in Fountain Valley, Toast in Tustin and Breezy in San Juan Capistrano are a few of the recent entrants. In fact, the latter two were featured on these very pages in the past month.
But a great brunch was always possible before this recent renaissance. However, since no single brunch spot can satisfy every preference, here are three different options for the vegans, the gluttons and the families with kids — because everyone needs a good brunch joint to call their own.
A vegan brunch even carnivores would like
1617 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach
weekends, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Entries: $14.50 to $23.50
An unsuspecting meat-eater might be lured into Gracias Madre not knowing they’ve walked into a vegan restaurant. The outdoor patio, which is shaded by a roof made of reeds and boxed in on all four sides with a lush green hedge, has an atmosphere as lulling as the Garden of Eden. The bar is so opulent that no one standing behind it can be referred to as anything less than a “mixologist.” Gracias Madre’s vibe is, in a word, tasteful.
But “tasteful” is an adjective that applies more to its Mexican cuisine than its interior design. And if a meat-eater should wonder “Does it taste good enough that I won’t notice the absence of bacon and cheese?” the answer is an unequivocal “Yes.”
The food here proves what vegans knew all along: treat vegetables with care and respect and they will yield dividends. There’s an elote dish the menu calls “grilled street corn” that tastes as though it was plucked at the peak of summer. Each corn kernel bursts with sugary nectar.
And when you scoop up the queso fundido composed of a bean-based Oaxacan chili topped with a melted layer of cashew cheese, you realize that a great Mexican dish does not always need to rely on carnitas or asada.
By the time you try the huevos rancheros, which use soy chorizo instead of real chorizo and tofu in place of eggs, you’re not thinking about what’s missing; you’re thinking how satisfying it all is, with blubbery beans, a bright salsa roja, creamy avocado and a soft tortilla as the base.
If you must have pancakes, try the banana pancakes. They’re so impossibly banana-forward they must be made of mostly fruit, and so substantial, one pancake will make you full the whole day. The entire stack? A whole week.
A brunch for the buffet-loving gluttons
CITRUS CITY GRILLE
122 N. Glassell St., Orange
Sunday brunch from 10 am to 3 pm, $49 per person
COVID-19 was not good for a lot of things, but it decimated brunch buffets. Habana at Irvine Spectrum, once an online sensation for its formidable spread that included whole roasted pig and all-you-can-eat crab legs, nixed its buffet when the pandemic broke. And it won’t be bringing it back. Orange Hill, that precipitously located high-end restaurant with a view, also discontinued its good.
There are now so very few brunch buffets left in Orange County that it has made Citrus City Grille’s Sunday brunch buffet a novelty. And “novel” isn’t a word often associated with this long-lived Orange Circle icon. In its more than 25 years in business, it has been a predictable and dependable meat-and-potatoes purveyor of American fare in a town that’s Orange County’s answer to Mayberry.
But ever since the revival of its brunch buffet to its pre-pandemic glory, it’s once again a Sunday morning Mecca for those who’ve missed limitless slabs of the well-roasted prime rib at the carving station and made-to-order eggs Benedict .
On Sundays, the restaurant gets packed. You can watch the ebb-and-flow of the crowd as they rotate from the chafing dishes of breakfast foods to the hot lunch entrees and back again to the breakfast section for a third helping of bacon — and maybe, another one of those addictive Bananas Foster crepes that eat like a dessert. The privilege of sampling more than two dozen items is included in the $49 per person entry fee. The price also entitles you to unlimited access to the self-serve mimosa and Bloody Mary bar that tests your self-control. But isn’t that the entire point of a brunch buffet?
A brunch for families with kids and kids at heart
8549 Irvine Ctr Drive, Irvine
seven days a week, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m; Entries: $11.50 to $15
Burnt Crumbs broke the internet a few years ago with its spaghetti grilled cheese. And it’s easy to understand why it struck a chord. It took two childhood staples — mom’s spaghetti and grilled cheese — and merged them to make a decadent and cheesy, starch-on-starch, nostalgia sandwich that feels both inventive and excessive.
Like fried butter or bacon ice cream at the county fair, it’s probably something parents should only allow their children to eat “just this once,” even as they realize that they, themselves, would have one every week if given the chance. Dunked into marinara, consumed with a side of chips and onion dip (when was the last time you had onion dip?), it’s a cheat meal to end all cheat meals.
And since you’re cheating, you might as well go all the way and order a souffle pancake. The restaurant is still one of a few places where you can indulge in the Japanese viral invention that incorporates whipped egg white to make pancakes so puffy and covered in strawberry cream that it could double as a birthday cake.
If Burnt Crumbs has an operating principle, it’s to offer a brunch without the stuffiness or the need for table service. Ordering is at the counter, soft drinks are self-serve, and when that spaghetti sandwich is brought to your outdoor table, your inner child rejoices.
But there are also menu choices that are decidedly more adults, like a breakfast salad that asks the question, “What happens when you put breakfast potatoes, bacon and a sunny-side-up egg on top of lettuce and croutons?” The answer: brunch kismet.
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