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What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - A New Twist on a Familiar Friend

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

I’ve always been a huge breakfast fan. Favorite meal of the day. Breakfast for dinner? Tight. Eggs, potatoes, pancakes, sausage, it doesn’t matter, it’s all tasty.

However, when I think about breakfast restaurants, the places that come to mind are typically diners, bakeries, or coffee shops. More Waffle House (why there are no Waffle Houses in California is a whole separate post) than Wolfgang Puck. Rarely are the terms “breakfast” and “haute cuisine” associated with each other. But this week’s restaurant seeks to blend those concepts together.

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Break of Dawn Restaurant in Laguna Hills takes traditional American favorites and adds a European/Vietnamese influence to create a high-end eating experience from comfort foods. Chef Dee Nguyen leverages his prior background as the executive sous chef at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel to infuse fine dining principles to a more typically casual meal, challenging the convention that all culinary creativity can only be found at dinner.

Interestingly enough, Nguyen opened Break of Dawn last year primarily because he wanted to spend more time with his family. As such, the restaurant is only open from 7 am to 3 pm on Tuesday through Sunday, which enables the chef to look after his disabled son. While the restaurant’s hidden location in the back of a shopping center tends to attract far more senior citizens from nearby Laguna Woods than destination eaters, it provides an ideal spot for Nguyen to achieve the work-life balance he craves, given that his house is less than ten minutes away.

But that wasn't the only reason the chef left the comfortable confines of the Ritz: he wanted to be back on the line creating great meals for people. And we are the beneficiaries. Dee's menu is a mixture of standard breakfast fare, sweet specialties, unique savory brunch dishes, and even traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup (pho) and sandwiches (banh mi). Unlike your run-of-the-mill brunch spot, premium ingredients are used to inject a little life into ordinary dishes. Coconut-pineapple muffins. Oatmeal brulee. Goat cheese omelettes. Chilaquiles rancheros with a chipotle pepper sauce and fresh guacamole.

During my last visit, I went sweet and got the crème brulee French toast. One of the most popular dishes, the dish should almost be classified as dessert - what better way to start the day than crème brulee! The custard base was a creamy Kahlua-coconut concoction, kinda similar to the filling of a Beard Papa cream puff, and certainly beats the maple syrup that I would normally drown French toast in. The bread was a raisin and cinnamon brioche, moist and not overly sweet (the crème brulee takes care of that part). Another house favorite is the homemade sticky bun, served with coffee syrup and pecan glaze.

On the savory side, the recommended dish is the barbeque pork, served with jalapeno corn bake, Vietnamese slaw, and tempura poached eggs. The pork is served Southern barbeque style, shredded, but seasoned with five spice to give it a distinct Asian flavor. However, my personal favorite part of the dish is the tempura egg. Not only does the runniness of the egg help coat the pork, but the light flakiness of the tempura batter complements the tenderness of the meat. And really, when is tempura not good? Chef Nguyen also professes his love for the smoked salmon and egg, served with a lemon-caper emulsion, oatmeal galette, and tomato. (He likes to pair meats with poached eggs to add heartiness to the meal) Other interesting combinations include corned beef with sweet potato hash, biscuits and gravy with ginger meat loaf and a cheddar biscuit, and a butternut squash bisque with crab rolls.

Break of Dawn also weaves these contrasting themes throughout its design and layout. While the dishes are plated elegantly as they would be at a classy European restaurant, the restaurant is filled with greenery and dark wooden furniture reminiscent of Vietnam. The walls are adorned with elegant framed calligraphic prints containing philosophical thoughts about food ("Cannot think, love, or sleep well unless one has dined well"), but the kitchen is open so you can casually sit at the counter and talk with Dee while he is caramelizing the custard or prepping an omelette. It's part of the whole vibe, making sophistication accessible to the masses, and he makes you feel like you're a guest in his house rather than receiving some stuffy white-glove service. The other nice thing is that you won't have to break the bank to sample these inventive creations; almost all of the dishes fall between five and ten bucks, and many of them can be ordered as a side dish as sort of a build your own sampler platter.

Typically I don't think breakfast warrants going out of your way for (and Break of Dawn is certainly out of the way for most patrons that would be reading this blog), even if it is my favorite meal of the day, but Break of Dawn is such an atypical brunch concept that it deserves special treatment. That and it's some damn good eats. We all love The Pantry. But it's nice to go gourmet every so often as well.

Break of Dawn Restaurant
24351 Avenida de la Carlota #N6
Laguna Hills, CA 92653