Salinas' First Awakenings
The wait is worth it at First Awakenings.
Thursday, January 2, 2003
First Awakenings, Monterey County''s breakfast headquarters, gets me to thinking about the chasm between Great Britain and the European continent when it comes to the morning repast. Sail south across the English Channel and breakfast quickly drops from a multi-course hot and cold affair to bread and jam. No wonder the Brits were the dominant colonial power. A little more protein in the morning and we might all be speaking French.
Knowing the owners and menu are identical at both First Awakenings restaurants--I''ve been to the American Tin Cannery location many times--I hauled the family over to Salinas to savor the difference. The downtown Salinas branch is housed in a striking building that dates to 1898, with lots of oak in the interior that gives me a feeling of nostalgia. In Pacific Grove, you''ll find an oceanfront atmosphere in a converted cannery with a sizable outdoor patio.
I''ve never been to First Awakenings when there wasn''t a wait, but it always moves quickly due to the staff''s efficiency--and both locations have lots of tables.
A bit of text on the menu cover distills the spirit of First Awakenings. Management is almost encouraging patrons to be a nuisance with maxims like these: "Separate checks anytime you ask...No extra charge if you share a meal or ask for an extra plate...Special requests are not a problem. If we can, we will." It''s brilliant reverse psychology. It makes me want to behave, for a change.
But don''t request anything off the beaten path. This isn''t the place for currant, pine nut scones or pear-ginger chutney. It''s a big American menu with a nod to our Mexican heritage and our more recent California healthy cuisine legacy. It helps if you burn at least 3,000 calories a day; otherwise you''ll be taking a snack home for later.
Service is fast and friendly--the whole place has the kind of buzz that wakes you up even before the coffee arrives. Breakfast or lunch is served anytime, but we took our cue from the moniker and placed breakfast under the microscope for this critique.
Before we had even parked, Dad was reminiscing wistfully about encounters with the Bluegerm Pancakes. They sound dangerous unless it''s in context, reading the list of gourmet pancakes (Blueberry, Bluegerm, Bananagerm, Raisin Walnut, Apple Cinnamon and Oatmeal, etc.) Throughout the menu, there are dishes with nutritious ingredients--wheat germ, alfalfa sprouts, multigrains, eggbeaters--and a Health Department category that I appreciate, but won''t bore you with today.
Pancake orders come with three cakes, but you may order one, two, or more--a good standard for pancake ordering everywhere. The Bluegerm cakes are just what you might guess. There''s plenty of wheat germ without turning the cakes from light-as-air clouds to sandbags. There are blueberries in the cakes, and in a side cup of syrup. Overall, it was pancake heaven, with the classic maple syrup outshining the blueberry.
Egg dishes come with homestyle potatoes and an English muffin. They have the potatoes down--flavorful, not too greasy, and not too salty. Omelets are a specialty, so I tried the Veggie, with cheese and sour cream. The vegetables were prepared delightfully firm, as if the chef understands that I might actually like vegetables and did not order them only to comply with a weight-loss diet or a doctor''s regimen.
The final dish, a breakfast barometer in California and maybe a few other border states, was Huevos Rancheros. Luscious layers of house-made black beans, eggs, salsa, onions, cheese, avocado, and sour cream are served on a flour tortilla and could rev up your engine for the whole day. The dish is a credit to its breed, except for the salsa, which is only okay. In our community of salsa-savvy residents, a freshly-made version would go over big with me.
There''s something I should have mentioned paragraphs ago. First Awakenings could do better in the coffee realm. This isn''t the ''80s, when weak, bitter coffee could pass unchallenged.
For lunch, there are three simple categories: salads, sandwiches and burgers. There are plenty of well thought-out sandwiches (no build-your-own) with chicken, turkey, beef, ham, and vegetables. I scanned the list for seafood and besides tuna, there''s a calamari steak burger that sounds intriguing. And if you didn''t notice at breakfast that alcohol isn''t served, some of you partyers might notice at lunch.
Price-wise, pancakes come in under $6, while most other entrees cost $6 or $7. Salads are made in half or full portions, but half portions are only $1 less than full portions. I can''t pass up a deal, so I''d have to order the full size and stuff myself silly since salad leftovers don''t keep well.
First Awakenings is a big, sociable restaurant where you aren''t expecting the world''s best chefs to fuss over your plate. Their model is preferable in many ways and the food is way up from the breakfast grub served at chain restaurants scattered across the national landscape. It has acquired a bevy of regulars, a pile of awards, and if I were a culinary forecaster, I''d predict that First Awakenings has a long, fruitful life ahead.