Aspen Times Weekly: Hash-slingin’ spectacle
IF YOU GO ...
Breakfast in America
58 El Jebel Rd., #2, El Jebel
Mon-Sat 7 a.m. to 1:50 p.m.
Sun 8 a.m. to 12:50 p.m.
WE DIDN’T VISIT Ichiban for the food. Sure, the Japanese steakhouse near Syracuse, N.Y., delivered solid teppanyaki stir-fry before a booze-soaked night of birthday celebration — but it was also lax on ID checks, generous on drink refills, and happy to stick our party in the two-grill private dining room, sequestered from more, uh, decorous diners.
Above all, though, we went for the show: Eggs cracked midair on a metal spatula. Shrimp tails flipped into the chef’s toque. Bad jokes in broken English, setto a background of madcap chopping and maniacal laughter. And the grand finale onion-ring volcano, which shot flames skyward to the hoots and hollers of two-dozen college kids, fresh from summer vacation and flushed on sake bombs.
When I ventured to El Jebel’s Breakfast in America last week, I was surprised to find a similar theatrical scenario. During my three years in Aspen, not once has anyone described the 20-year-old joint as owner Dan Weis does: “The Benihana of Breakfast.” Why not? Because it’s cooking as entertainment: one rectangular room with 18 bar seats set horseshoe-style around a flattop grill and abbreviated stovetop manned by a single short-order cook. This kind of diner-style pageantry makes a morning meal here a mandatory Roaring Fork Valley experience.
At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, we wait only a few minutes for two seats to open up. No big deal, because self-serve coffee and a pile of newspapers sit just inside the entrance. The cook running the show, Salvatore Vasquez—who, I learn later, took the torch five years ago from his brother Javier, the restaurant’s original ringmaster—greets us with a wide grin then turns his attention back to three sauté pans.
We find the menu just extensive enough to make decisions difficult, and with big Mexican influence: huevos rancheros, migas, chorizo and eggs, two kinds of breakfast burritos, chile relleno with beans—any of it smothered in spicy pork green chile for $1.49 extra. Nearly everything is in the $7 to $11 range; the most expensive dish is an eight-ounce rib-eye steak with eggs for $16.99. Red and green chile sauces are homemade, and there’s a small collection of bottled hot sauces placed at intervals along the counter.
Classics include fluffy pancakes, French toast (“voted best in the valley by the guy in the back who wants a raise,” the menu notes); cheese blintz; a variety of eggs, omelets, and something called pasta frittata; cream chipped beef on toast; homemade pork sausage and gravy with biscuits. Lunch, which ends promptly at 1:50 p.m. (12:50 on Sunday), offers two kinds of enchiladas, a club sandwich or Philly cheese steak wrap, and a grilled burger served on a bagel with spinach instead of lettuce.
Perhaps nostalgic for my Ichiban birthday parties, I crave fried rice and eggs ($9.49): Brown rice sautéed until nutty and slightly crunchy with scrambled eggs, lots of crispy diced bacon, chopped tomato, wilted spinach, scallion, and a splash of soy sauce for good measure. It arrives with a slice of barely toasted, chewy six-grain bread, which begs for Weis’ homemade jam — Palisade peach, strawberry-apricot, raspberry, blackberry, cherry, mango jalapeño — set out along the bar in small Mason jars. (In autumn, he prepares five gallons of Concord grape jam, in high demand by big-game hunters.) Come spring, Weis maintains a small, flowering garden of rhubarb, parsley, mint, and other vegetables and fruit in front of the restaurant.
Rubbing elbows with local folks, we watch Salvatore make our food. Actually, it’s more like we feel him making our food just steps away. He flips omelets high in the air and pivots to pull items from a cold station behind him, all the while shaking, stirring, and smiling. His arms are awhirl, as if in a cartoon, but his gaze is focused, his stance confident. Mesmerized by one particularly impressive series of movements culminating in a huge plume of flames from a pan, we drop our forks to clap heartily. The grill cranks on, keeping the room toasty.
“You need the right person in this role,” Weis explains. In fact, the Breakfast in America founder offered grim counsel when Weis and his wife, Pauline Trujillo, assumed ownership in 1999. “He goes, ‘About one out of 100 folks you hire here will be able to put up with this.’ There’s added pressure. [You need] the right personality: Being cool under fire, literally.”
Luckily, Weis has had Salvatore and other Vasquez brothers during his 17-year run. This, plus handcrafted touches — Weis’ freezer jam, freshly squeezed orange juice and freshly ground meat for the burger patties, the garden out front—make Breakfast in America about more than just the communal experience of watching a cook in action to a classic rock soundtrack. The food is damn tasty.
“I don’t know of anyone who boils and shreds their own potatoes anymore,” says Weis, who worked at the Village Smithy in Carbondale for a decade and the old Crystal River Steakhouse, too. “Right now we’re going through about 400 to 600 pounds a week. In the summertime we’ll serve over 1,000 pounds of potatoes a week,” when the shaded front patio doubles seating capacity. He sighs. “It gets so, so busy. The waiting line gets so long….”
Then don’t wait until spring to make a downvalley pilgrimage. Just go. Breakfast in America is a rare breed of restaurant and, as I learned last week, an essential Aspen-area experience.
Amanda Rae was raised in a blue-collar New England manufacturing town, where the old-fashioned luncheonette counter reined supreme as social hub before fast food ruined everything. firstname.lastname@example.org
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