Biting into OC Brunch - Break of Dawn

"With breakfast, you’re so limited to ingredients and palate. You’ve got to train people and know how to work with people. A part of me is pushing that. I’m bringing the dinner mentality, the dinner ingredients, to breakfast." - Dee Nguyen, Owner and Executive Chef

Whenever I talk to chef friends about where they get morning grub or see them checking into a breakfast joint, Break of Dawn is the most popular name. The other chefs mention that Dee is a genius (with a dash of crazy). We met up with him at an early hour, pulling into a fairly abandoned parking lot parallel to the 5 freeway and behind the Laguna Hills Mall. Though we came on a weekend, brunch is a full-time deal for this restaurant and not restricted to Saturdays and Sundays. That's because it was opened only to serve breakfast and lunch to allow Dee time with his family after work. He started casually cooking in college before taking the passion further by training at the California Culinary Academy. His culinary career was primed for fine dining including a role as the Executive Sous Chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. However, sudden medical complications with his son Berlin at an early age guided him towards starting up Break of Dawn, and frankly, Orange County is a better place to have him doing breakfast. Visit their website to get a better glimpse of his amazing story and family life! We didn't delve too deeply into it during our meeting though - the food started coming out before we could.

One of the thickest slabs of bacon I have ever seen was one of the first dishes to come out. House cured for seven days, dried for one day, smoked for another day, and then braised a full day, this pork belly melted into my mouth almost immediately after I had a piece. This particular one had a rosemary ginger nose to it and was accompanied by a spicy guava puree, a component that changes seasonally based on which fruits are in season. It is an example of Dee's outlook on breakfast - that it is actually more challenging than dinner.

"When you look at it and why people don’t want to do it, it's because it is hard. It’s hard to do. Simple breakfast is very easy but to get away from the norm, to push people’s palates is difficult. Now when I look at dinner, I think 'dang, dinner’s easy.'"

Inspired by his international travels and all the cuisines tasted on these trips, the dishes that come out after this marvelous bacon showcase creative genius that we can't wrap our heads around; how does one person come up with this? His BBQ Pork made as if Southern pulled pork is seasoned with Chinese five spice and achiote paste, served with a tall cube of jalapeno and orange marmalade corn cake, accompanied by a tropical napa cabbage slaw, and finished with a Japanese tempura poached egg. I asked him about how difficult the egg must have been to make considering it is fried on the outside but soft poached inside. He confirms its difficulty and the quickness that someone must work with the egg to achieve the right consistency (using the right tempura batter is key too!) - I just nodded along and knew it takes quite an amount of skill. Duc really loved the pork for its texture and seasoning while I was enamored by the corn cake, a perfect mixture of spicy and sweet.

The next two dishes were my favorite of the group though and not at all lacking in its international influenced ingredients. His Lamb is a ragout featuring leg of lamb braised overnight with sumac (Middle Eastern), spätzle (German), tomatoes, brussel sprouts, English peas, arugula, cauliflower, olives, Feta cheese (Greek), pepitas (Mexican) and 63-degree egg (a slow poach used frequently in Japanese cuisine). The spätzle recipe actually happens to come from a family recipe from Chef Yvon Goetz at The Winery Restaurant of all things. Dee joked that the dish itself (and the others) might be slightly surprising to people since it becomes a meeting place of multiple cuisines and is cooked by a Vietnamese chef whose own cuisine is not represented in the food! We don't mind though that there aren't representative ingredients. All we care about is how amazingly delicious the lamb is and how rich the ragout is with its multiple components. For this particular dish, the pieces may change occasionally as they are governed by seasonal vegetables and availability. Overall, it is a comfort food type of breakfast, hot and flavorful, that also makes for fantastic leftovers.

Dee's Smoked Salmon came with an oatmeal galette (French crusty cake) made with oatmeal soaked in milk overnight, a relish of fennel (with seed) and cucumber, and preserved kumquat caper mayo. An herb poached egg finished everything off nicely with its savory runny yolk. Upon first bite, it was obvious why guests often come just for this dish; in fact, Dee says that there are several who won't order any other dish. The salmon is smoked just perfectly, and the galette is an amazing crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside. There are several parts to this dish which can be eaten either all together or separately and still all be enjoyed. I plan on getting this one again the next time I drop in.

We were quite amazed by the food but also by the efficiency of how everything was run. Then he shocked us by saying that the kitchen line is only staffed by two people who have gotten a rhythm down so well that they can handle all the volumes of customers coming through. That is a feat in itself. It seems like everything at Break of Dawn is a little unconventional from the casually dressed chef before us (he doesn't like being recognized as an Executive Chef or anything) to the deliciously-arranged hodgepodge of countries on each plate. If you want to order his Bloody Mary, be prepared to sip down a drink made with wasabi, soju, pickled green beans, and bacon.

If you're now persuaded to go eat at Break Dawn, you can find the restaurant at 24351 Avenida De La Carlota #N-6, Laguna Hills, CA 92653 though we've heard that February 28, 2014 will be their last day in that specific location. Dee will be moving the entire restaurant across the parking lot to a bigger space with a whole renovation to better reflect the kind of food they create, one that I'd say is pushing boundaries and what people typically think of when they think about breakfast. Now we just wonder how much of the new furniture he'll be building himself (making furniture is one of his hobbies!) and when we can next get in on the breakfast action.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

NOTE: This brunch article is a part of a series that we will be running through to April, the month when the full editorial will appear with a multitude of more articles and informational pieces in the Orange County edition of LOCALE Magazine. Make sure to check stands when the issue drops so you can get the full scoop on brunch in OC!

Break of Dawn Restaurant on Urbanspoon