Austin Over Easy

The Chronicle Guide to Breakfast Dining

Laura's Bluebonnet Kitchen

photograph by John Anderson

I inherited an appreciation for going out to breakfast from my cowboy uncle Charles Walden. Whether he came to visit us in Midland or we encountered him at the home of one relative or another, he'd gather us all up in his big white Lincoln and take us out to breakfast. His traditional morning repast included a plate of eggs over easy with a side of grits, a breakfast steak or a chicken - fried with gravy, a basket of hot biscuits, and a bottomless cup of coffee. During his heyday as a traveling cattle appraiser, it seemed to me that he was on a first - name basis with the best breakfast waitress in every downtown hotel coffee shop in his territory. They saw to it that the kitchen produced eggs and steaks cooked just the way he liked them, and his coffee cup was never empty. They were the kind of women who invariably called everyone "hon," cheerful but unobtrusive, providing the kind of nurturing service that a civilized breakfast outing really requires. As his guests, we naturally received exemplary service, as well. For their impressive skills, waitresses were regaled with Uncle Charles' sly sense of humor, charmed by his twinkling blue eyes, and rewarded with generous tips. What I liked best about those outings was that they turned breakfast time into a pleasant social occasion and always seemed to get the day off to a good start. Whether you're an itinerant musician building a career on the road or an appraiser of musicians determined to discover the next big thing, surviving the rigors of SXSW week calls for a good breakfast every day. The Chronicle food staff took this into consideration, and we're sharing the secrets of our favorite breakfast haunts. This is by no means a comprehensive survey of local breakfast restaurants, though we've provided sidebars about the 24 - hour places and a listing of some reliable Mexican breakfast spots. There are also several exemplary local bakeries, plus taquerias, coffee shops, and bagel stores too numerous to count, in case you're a fan of a portable morning meal comprised of breakfast tacos or a bagel with a schmear. Since you'll be here a few days anyway, why not give some of these places a try . - - Virginia B. Wood

In honor of Uncle Charles, I'll tell you about a local hotel dining room that does as good a job of gently easing a person into the day as any hotel I visited with him as a child. It's not as if Austin's award - winning Four Seasons (99 San Jacinto, 478 - 4500) needs any introduction to many SXSW participants, with all the dealmaking going on in the upstairs lobby bar, but for a change of pace, mosey on down to the Cafe for breakfast some morning. The breakfast menu is available until 11am weekdays and all day Saturdays. Sundays bring an elegant brunch buffet. The prices are not for the faint of heart or the financially challenged, but both the food and the service are top - notch.

Relaxing on the Four Seasons patio in dappled sunlight and gentle spring breezes is a truly civilized way to start the day. Though I love the aroma, the flavor, and even the idea of coffee, I'm not much of a coffee drinker, so I start the day here with freshly squeezed juice. Then I usually make a meal of a delicate blueberry waffle crowned with melting cinnamon butter. It arrives with a choice of syrups, and I find rich maple syrup marries well with the spicy cinnamon butter. What an elegant treat. Big, hungry Texan that he was, Uncle Charles would have gone for a man - sized charbroiled steak with two eggs over easy, plus sides of cowboy beans and a zippy serrano cornbread. He'd have polished off his ration of coffee and mine, too.

Some days, however, just demand an egg breakfast. There are plenty of good choices available here. For the heart and health conscious, there's an Eggwhite Fritatta served with garden vegetables, grilled asparagus, and homemade ketchup. The ethnic bases are covered with Eggs Benedict or Florentine, a bagel Napoleon with poached eggs, smoked salmon, and dill cream cheese, and even a breakfast burrito. On another visit, I opted for the festive Huevos San Jacinto - two eggs over easy on a fried corn tortilla with chunks of cured ham, tasty black beans, buttery avocado slices, and a spicy ranchero sauce. With a side order of cheddar cheese grits and a Texas - style chewy pecan bun from the pastry basket, it made a very satisfying breakfast. Just the kind of substantial meal that would carry a hardworking person through hours of schmoozing, deal - making, or sound checks.

If your appetite demands creative chow, but your travel budget dictates bargain dining whenever possible, the two - for - one breakfast deal at the downtown location of Z'Tejas Grill (1110 W. Sixth, 478 - 5355) could be just what you seek. From 7 - 11am, the breakfast entrées are two for the price of one at this popular Southwestern eatery. Each entrée comes with a choice of two side dishes, such as grits, home fries, fresh fruit, muffins, or toast, allowing four struggling band members (or screenwriters, independent filmmakers, et al.) to eat heartily on a budget for two. The Navajo Eggs are a good choice, offering eggs scrambled with very lean chorizo, sautéed strips of onions, and red bell peppers, nestled on a bed of crispy, fried fresh spinach atop a crunchy disk of Navajo fry bread. Another winner is the Pollo Omelette, a fluffy cloud of three eggs wrapped around pieces of tender chicken breast bathed in a mild, homemade tomatillo salsa. Neither dish is so spicy as to startle an unsuspecting palate, but both are full of flavor.

Connoisseurs of fine flapjacks will especially appreciate the Banana Pecan Pancakes here, and it's possible to make a meal of pancakes, a hot bowl of oatmeal, or fresh, homemade muffins if that's what starts the day off right. Coffee service for our group of three last week was relatively prompt, but the waiter endeared himself to me by not blanching visibly when I ordered a Coke to start the day instead of coffee. Z'Tejas is perched on a little hill overlooking busy West Sixth Street. Sitting in the airy, sunlit dining rooms or on the tree - shaded deck, it's easy to imagine yourself having a casual breakfast in someone's treehouse.

- V.B.W.

Here in Austin we know that morning is hardly the time to stop eating Mexican food, and nothing satisfies a craving for eggs, salsa, and tortillas like a trip to Curra's Grill, a colorful South Austin haunt (614 E. Oltorf, 444 - 0012). Slip into one of the restaurant's comfortable booths, order a cup of dark roast Oaxacan coffee, and groove on the surreal culinary visions of painter Pio Pulido - or is it Salvador Deli? - before diving into Curra's eclectic selection of Mexican breakfast plates.

Floating peppers and transparent dripping eggs hover overhead while you ponder a bevy of tasty options ranging from standards such as migas - eggs scrambled with fresh chile peppers, onion, tomatoes, and tortilla chips - to such one - of - a - kind specialties as Huevos à la Albanil - two eggs made to order and smothered in a salsa of pasilla and ancho chiles. Or try my favorite, Huevos Curra's, a heart - tremoring combination of two eggs accompanied by a superb version of carne guisada, beef tips stewed in a rich gravy. Or, if you're feeling particularly decadent, add two tamales, call an ambulance, and tell them that you've just ordered the Hungry Ranchero.

Of course, some mornings only a breakfast taco will do, and even if you're a vegetarian, Curra's has what you're hankerin'. Choose two of 12 tempting fillings, including eggs, vegetarian or regular chorizo (Mexican sausage), mushrooms, meatless bacon, and texturized vegetable protein, then watch Curra's cooks assemble your hand - held miracle in the grill's open kitchen. And don't forget to say gracias to the restaurant's owners, the brothers Garcias, and to their grandmother's recipes for bringing a little bit of Mexico to your mouth.

On the other hand, there are those days when you feel like parking your carcass behind a stack of pancakes and drinking coffee until your skin hauls you out of the building. For those occasions, there's Laura's Bluebonnet Kitchen, a homey north - central diner (5408 Burnet Rd., 467 - 9552). Mint vintage appliances and flashing Christmas lights snaked around pastel mixmasters highlight Austin's kitschiest kitchen, where the friendly service and bright blue - and - white interior are guaranteed to cheer even the most hungover curmudgeon. You'll probably have to wait if you get there after 11am, but there are plenty of magazines to read and always a communal jigsaw puzzle in progress to keep you occupied while you wait for your seat.

If you're lucky, you'll land a booth or one of the neato swiveling barstools at the counter. Once seated, the question becomes which of the cafe's tasty flapjacks to order. Should you go with Laura's scrumptious light wheat pancakes - perfectly sized disks made with a traditional batter - or say bollocks to orthodoxy and ask for Jake's Cottage Cheese Cakes (the delectable mutant offspring of a blintz and a pancake?). Both styles come plain or gingered, and for a few cents more, Laura will top your order with apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, or pecans. And when you're done, be sure to check out the blue - plate special listed on the dry - erase board. Lunch is only a few hours away, and you never know when you'll be overcome by an urge for chicken fried steak or barbecued brisket when you're down in Texas. - Patrick Earvolino

My ideal breakfast would include a basket of freshly baked breads, a pot of ebony coffee, a sun - drenched table, and little sound other than the occasional clank of silverware and the ruffle of turning pages. In other words, nothing knocks my system more out of kilter than a matinal obligation to face a crowd, absorb pulsing music, or devour a plate of Mexican food (not to mention shower and dress). So when it comes to going out for breakfast, I'm hard - pressed to find a spot that suits my monastic morning mood.

When it comes to discretion given its early morning customers, HighLife Cafe (407 E. Seventh St., 474 - 5338) is unbeatable. One Sunday morning in recent weeks, I opened the cafe's colored glass doors, slipped inside, and had time to take in the gentle harp music and inhale the memory - charged aroma of waffles before a waitperson quietly slipped up and asked if I cared for something to drink.

HighLife Cafe

photograph by John Anderson

Several things keep me coming back to HighLife, among them the generous French press pots of hand - ground coffee and unusual herbal teas. Beans are crushed on order, and a neat shelf lined with Bell jars reveals tea leaves and flower heads for infusion. Breakfast at the cafe exhibits originality, though none of the fare is designed to overwhelm or stir a waking stomach. There are steamed eggs and trout or steamed eggs and polenta for the protein - seeking (the steam the work of the espresso machine), wafer - crisp waffles redolent of spice, steel - cut oatmeal sprinkled with currants and brown sugar, and a cold, creamy, Basmati rice pudding layered with exotic spice. Fresh - squeezed orange juice comes thick and sweet. And, in a manner I can appreciate, everything comes to the table softly and gently, thankfully free of idle chat from the waitstaff. The New York Times and Austin American - Statesman fill an in - house newsstand, and the cafe's bookshelves and window sills are crammed with dog - eared books and magazines.

Many breakfast patrons at HighLife arrive alone, and the pub - like conviviality that prevails at lunch and dinnertime is replaced by respectful reserve in the morning. Unfortunately, the cafe's tables aren't sun - drenched. In fact, the restaurant strikes me as the warm kind of spot designed especially for sipping red wine and downing homemade food while the wind rages outside. But short of the UV rays, it remains my #1 choice for breakfast away from the comfort of home.

My other top pick for breakfast seems to embody the antithesis of all I've claimed to require of the morning meal, so I feel obliged to qualify my choice by noting that I prefer this place at least an hour after I've eased into the day with a cup of coffee and The New York Times at home. That said, when breakfast becomes a social event, the spot with the menu and mood to suit most any a.m. taste is Austin Java Company (1206 Parkway, 476 - 1829). Omelettes, from the classic ham and cheese to a bold spinach - and - artichoke creation, creative takes on Eggs Benedict (one version features a tomatillo - green chile sauce), breakfast tacos with beans and taters, Frisbee - sized pancakes, and tamer treats such as oatmeal, bagels, and a highly recommended, mammoth French toast with spiced butter answer every palate's desires.

Orders are taken at the counter, although Austin Java reduces the agonizing wait by bringing your food to your table once ready. Picnic table seating dominates outdoors and Austin Java makes use of both its front yard and back patio, the latter generally frequented by the more boisterous, the former surprisingly serene given its street - front orientation. Inside the converted vintage home, small tables - mostly two - and four - tops - are brightly dressed with flowers and local art decks the walls. You can grab a paper and try to remain anonymous if so inclined, but Austin Java's atmosphere incites interaction or at least active people - watching. Oddly enough, it's precisely this social dimension that I like about Austin Java. At any time of day or night, it stands out as a pleasant spot to enjoy well - executed food surrounded by a crowd that feels exceedingly "Austin." - - Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

High Time Tea Bar and Brain Gym

photograph by John Anderson

If I were in charge, we'd scrap afternoons in favor of having two mornings in quick succession. I'd start the first one quietly, lingering over breakfast and The New York Times with good friends. We'd drink coffee slowly but steadily until we reached critical mass, twitching slightly, laughing at anything, swinging our fists and singing, "Those were the days, my friend...." During the second morning, I'd get up and get the worm - start at 7:30am and work productively for about six hours.

As a freelance writer, I have a lifestyle that lets me give a lot of thought to my ideal morning scenario. It also allows me to research my options at times other than Saturday morning at 10:30am, when you are either waiting for someone to eat her toast faster so you can get her seat, or being rushed through your toast by someone glaring at you because he wants your seat. If a boot - camp style breakfast is what you're after, it's cheaper, healthier, and easier to stay home and punish yourself with a bowl of Grape - nuts. Or gravel.

But you do have options, even at 10:30am on Saturday morning. One spot that not only tolerates but actually promotes dawdling is the High Time Tea Bar and Brain Gym (1501 S. First St., 445 - 5405). Any cafe that stocks its shelves with chess, checkers, jinga, and even croquet isn't expecting a quick turnover. High Time's food is excellent, though portions are on the light side. This might be the right size breakfast for a record executive in L.A., but this is Texas. The simple solution is to order more than one breakfast. Order one and a half if you have a healthy appetite.

Recently, two of us staved off hunger pangs with an order of french toast ($2.75), some Eggs Diane ($3.50), and the portabello omelette with toast and mixed greens ($5.25). Eggs Diane is two fried eggs next to an arrangement of hummus, delicately drizzled with chile - infused Moroccan hot sauce (amazing), with two pieces of a special chewy flatbread. We fought over the four small, hearty slices of French toast dusted with cinnamon sugar, but the highlight of the meal was the portabello omelette and its accompanying sauce. When the omelette was just a memory, we were still licking clean the ramekin of creamy tomato sherry sauce. I always order a bowl of the rich yet light New Orleans coffee, a dark roast replete with chicory, topped by steamed milk. High Time is also the kind of place where you can buy scones, smoothies, and mood - enhancing teas. (I assume that, like coffee, they are legal.) Breakfast is served all day.

Another out - of - the - way place to start your day is Nau's Enfield Drug (1115 West Lynn, 476 - 1221). Cheap Mexican breakfasts abound in this town (see sidebar), but aside from breakfast tacos and huevos rancheros, Nau's is old school, and dirt cheap. Last week, I indulged in a $2.25 breakfast special of two eggs any style, crisp bacon, coffee, and toast. I upped the price to $3.00 by adding home fries à la carte and wasn't hungry for the rest of the day. It doesn't seem possible that the lunch counter is bringing in any money for the pharmacy, but for now the Clarksville neighborhood is blessed to have the old wooden booths and orange swivel chairs to fall back on. - - Meredith Phillips

Eggs over medium, dry rye toast, and well - done bacon. A slight variation on the standard American breakfast, and a simple request - you'd think. But there are nuances in that order, particularities hidden among the nouns and the adjectives as they make their way gruffly (no coffee yet) across my scratchy early morning vocal cords through the hungover ears of my waiter and on through the end of his pen.

See, what I really mean is: fried eggs over hard - enough - so - there's - no - slimy - white - stuff - resting - on - the - surface - or - god - forbidon - the - inside - just - near - the - yolk - and - soft - enough - that - there - might - be - a - tiny - layer - of - hard - boiled - like - substance - on - the - edge - of - a - yolk - that - is - for - the - most - part - well,... runny. But not running fast, mind you. The toast, the rye toast - not wheat, not white, and rye to me is shaped differently, with rounded edges - since I didn't specify light or dark, should be toasted medium. Even if it doesn't look burned because of its natural dark complexion, I'll be able to taste it if it is. And the bacon, the most crucial part of the order because over the years I've learned just how many states of being the term `well done' can indicate, is preferably crisp, or should I say with a molecular structure just a few atoms away from carcinogenic. Eggs over medium, dry rye toast, and well - done bacon. It's my favorite breakfast - a treat on a lazy Sunday morning, a meal to digest the Times over, a little something to keep the coffee from eating a hole in my stomach. And the only place in town that brings it to me right, without the annotated description, is Star Seeds Cafe (3105 N. I - 35, 478 - 7107).

There are other reasons this little highway cafe is so popular - it's laid - back, it has a cool clientele, and there's a smoking section. Unfortunately, it's these exact same qualities - the service is laid - back, the clientele looks like they've slept there, and the smoking section won't keep to itself - that make some breakfastgoers avoid Star Seeds like orange marmalade. These days, when I report my newfound breakfast discovery to friends, they either mount arguments against my accolades or make me feel that I've already missed the boat, like I'm out of the loop because Star Seeds is an old Austin institution and where the hell have I been eating breakfast all these years? Since the joint is open round the clock, and at one time was one of the only 24 - hour places in town (its previous incarnation was a real motel diner operated by the Stars Inn), its name frequently elicits statements of nostalgia. "That place reminds me of a million drunken nights while I was in school." "Yeah, it used to be great." "One time I threw up in the bathroom." "We used to go there after the Armadillo."

But aside from its cultural significance and the skilled fry cook, Star Seeds is one of the only places in town that doesn't require you to get up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to avoid an hour wait. I've found that the cafe's weekend clientele are such late sleepers that if you show up by 10am, you're pretty much next up for a table. Wait until noon and you might have a little trouble. The insane breakfast crowds around town that are willing to wait forever to eat have tempted me to stop off at the Quix for eggs and o.j. before I check in for the night. Unfortunately, even I have trouble preparing breakfast to my own exacting standards.

What if my consummate morning meal doesn't appeal to you? Star Seeds' menu has breakfast selections galore, and an à la carte section that appeals to us fussbudgets (if you order a pancake as your side choice instead of toast, you can have toast too for under a dollar). The breakfast tacos are cheap and gigantic, oversized flour tortillas filled to overflowing with fluffy eggs and other items of your choice up to five ($.25 extra each item after the second). The pancakes - buttermilk, blueberry, and gingerbread, I've tried them all now - never give you any surprises (just like a pancake should), and the cafe does a fine job with Tex - Mex standards like huevos rancheros and migas. Biscuits with sausage gravy (I recommend the half - order) can fill you up 'til it's time for breakfast again.

As for the diner's ambiance, let's just say there are matters a perfectly cooked egg will allow you to overlook. I can deal with the sunken bird - nesty seat cushions (just move your butt a little to the left or the right of the worn sinkhole), so far I've never noticed the smoking, and while I prefer real butter, margarine doesn't upset me too much. Besides, though one might arguably categorize it as a less - refined Magnolia or Kerbey Lane Cafe, Star Seeds is as close to a real diner as Austin has.

But let's get back to bacon. If you want (and I do), Star Seeds can serve it inches away from falling to dust. They can do it in the morning, they can do it at lunch, and they can do it in the middle of the night. So far, there's been only one occasion when my definition of well - done was more hardcore than the cook's (I picked the bacon out of my taco and returned it with a plea of: annihilate it!) and they took it back gladly and returned it crisp as dawn, just how I like it. - Jen Scoville

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