Break of Dawn is an innovative breakfast spot tucked away in Oakbrook Village near Laguna Hills Mall and is well worth seeking for chef-owner Dee Nguyen’s fantastic Asian-influenced cuisine. Nguyen worked at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel as Executive Sous Chef, but left to limit his hours and be close to home, so he could care for an ailing family member.
Break of Dawn features Vietnamese paintings on the walls, along with rows of accolades. The restaurant has only been open since late August 2006, and it’s already been written up in most Orange County newspapers and magazines. The real action takes place on the flower-lined patio, which sports a fountain and plenty of umbrellas, to ward off the sun.
Chef Nguyen’s written a powerhouse menu, influenced alternately in subtle and overt ways by his Vietnamese heritage. I wanted to order almost everything. There were omelettes, eggs Benedict, waffles and salads, plus more adventurous fare, and Vietnamese classics like baguette sandwiches and rice noodle dishes.
Allison and I started with a “sweet” cinnamon sticky bun ($6), baked and served in a cast iron pan with coffee syrup, a pecan glaze and a liberal topping of pecan-studded whipped cream. The hot sticky bun was surprisingly light, pull-apart and caramelized on the bottom, with feathery pastry.
For the rest of our meal, we went “savory.” Our entree was Barbecue Pork ($9.50), a generous pile of tender braised pulled pork. The hog meat apparently featured the “essence of five spices,” a common Vietnamese spice combo, normally cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Szechwan peppercorns. The pork was plated with a “jalapeno grilled corn bake” a sweet cornbread studded with corn kernels; a Napa cabbage slaw with sweet strips of mango; and two eggs tempura, which looked like fried sea scallops, but were actually poached eggs, tempura-fried.
Chef Nguyen generously offers several of his more compelling dishes as sides, making sampling possible. Impressively, his sides featured the same attention to detail as the entrée. The Biscuit and Gravy ($4.50) incorporated a halved buttermilk cheddar biscuit, sandwiching Vietnamese style pork ginger meatloaf, topped with scallions and plated with sausage-espresso gravy. I was impressed with the moist, char-grilled pork. The biscuit was slightly dense, and tasted like polenta, but at least it tasted like good polenta.
The Corned Beef and Sweet Potato Hash ($4.50) was incredible, featuring diced potatoes and sweet potatoes, char-grilled slices of succulent corned beef, tarragon braised cabbage, and whole grain mustard sauce.
Allison drank cranberry juice ($2.50). There were other juices available, plus wines and cocktails. At 9 AM, it was hard to fathom a Kumquat Champagne Cocktail or Screwdriver, but at lunch…different story. There are also wines by the glass.
After sampling Chef Nguyen’s cuisine, 100 miles round-trip felt like a short jaunt. Next time, I’ll return for lunch. I still want to eat the butternut squash bisque with crispy crab rolls and ginger-coconut cream; “falling off the bone” beef short ribs with taro rice cakes. He also said that next week, he’s introducing a tongue and cheek dish. I asked him what animal he has in mind. “Cow.” He said he’ll braise the organ meats until they’re really tender. Can’t wait.