I’m having a surreal moment in a bland Fullerton shopping center. I’m eating, and loving, a pile of crispy rice that’s flecked with salt cod, fresh herbs, and roasted peanuts. Moments before, I fell for Texas quail on a puddle of coffee molasses made with fresh strawberries and rye. I almost look around for hidden cameras.
Rookie breakfast diner Early Bird is at last serving dinner, and this is no prank. The fare is so bold and interesting and unexpected that I have to stifle the urge to squeal with delight. This just doesn’t happen to me. Not often, anyway. And seldom in Fullerton.
The thrills have nothing to do with the setting, which is willfully humble, or the backers, a team with no boldface names. It’s truly all about the food. Even better, the menu changes weekly. Executive chef Frank DeLoach, on board since February, is ingredient-driven and applies a mad-genius energy to what comes out of his modest kitchen.
Joseph Mahon, with his hot-in-L.A. street and media cred, was top toque when Early Bird landed on the dining scene as a 70-seat breakfast venue in mid-2012. Early this year, Mahon decamped to his Burger Parlor down the hill on Harbor Boulevard, and partners Tank Menzies and Marcelo Caraveo brought in DeLoach, who had a stint at Santa Ana’s Playground. Before that, DeLoach worked under rising star Micah Wexler at Hollywood’s bemoaned Mezze.
Ever so slowly, the dinner crowd—and it’s as varied as the restaurant’s quirky menu—is finding Early Bird. A retired couple here, a large family there, and near the kitchen, a sprinkling of seasoned foodies chatting up the waitress. They seem unbothered by the lack of amenities, and they’re all gorging on small and large plates of everything from ricotta gnocchi to hamachi ceviche to poutine laden with silken beef cheeks. Don’t expect the short menu to help romance this cuisine; it’s a blunt listing of dishes and their ingredients, separated into no-nonsense categories along the lines of “vegetables,” “meat,” “fish,” and “sweet.”
A menu this stripped down demands solid knowledge from the servers, who are not only up to the task, but have the infectious energy of cheerleaders. Meanwhile, DeLoach lets his ingredients speak for him. At summer’s peak, he creates a tasty sweet corn soup dotted with charred okra and laced with goat cheese crème. Garnishes of crunchy popped corn and zingy pickled corn elevate it to great.
Some of the best stuff is in the vegetable lineup, and none is a mere sideshow. This is where I find the finest fried green tomatoes of the year, resting on creamy burrata, drizzled with black-garlic hot sauce, and dotted with bits of candied Fresno chilies. Young kale—the greens in danger of being the next menu cliche—gets due respect from DeLoach’s addition of watermelon, tangerine segments, toasted almonds, and horseradish vinaigrette. Fresh Chinese long beans with fermented black beans and chewy bacon nuggets recall late-night takeout feasts of yore, except they were never this good. Nibs of blackened cauliflower along with pickled serrano chilies and mild Spanish anchovies push tame ricotta gnocchi into the wildly flavorful realm.
Fish tend toward lighter creations such as the salt cod, which is really more of a rice dish enhanced by the house-made bacalao. Peanuts, fresh ginger, and bright herbs make this an untraditional and bewitching seafood play. With 24 hours’ notice, you can tear into luscious woked Dungeness crab, Singapore-style and slick with chili and messy as hell. It’s so much work extracting the sweet crab meat that you feel you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming. A shellfish fork or pick would be a big help. Hamachi ceviche with avocado, juicy blueberries, crisp jicama, and pink peppercorns is just as delicious, and by comparison, fun to eat. Two dishes—chicken liver toast, and the pork belly mini po’ boy—are too laden with bread to fulfill their promise. Those ratios need serious rethinking.
While dinner dishes are awash in bold flavors and exciting combinations, they aren’t heavy. It’s hard to leave here feeling stuffed. Even the wholly tantalizing 12-ounce rib-eye is a just-right portion, buoyed with batter-fried pickled red onions instead of the usual rich potatoes. Texas quail is a tasty tribute to Early Bird’s mascot—so rich it seems the tiny bird is a concentrate of everything we love about poultry. Excellent twice-fried chicken is a good one to share if you don’t mind everyone double-dipping into your three sauces: bright red Carolina hot sauce, creamy dill pickle aioli, and a combination of fish sauce, Filipino vinegar, and maple syrup.
The crowds are thicker during daytime hours, as if this place is firmly locked into folks’ megabreakfast circuit. The morning menu is packed with eggy, buttery, carby temptations. Succulent duck confit hash competes with several omelets, carnitas chilaquiles, and brioche French toast. There’s a perfect, almost plain Dutch waffle, too. And the coffee is tremendous. It’s fresh, well-roasted, and brewed correctly, with layers of flavors and nary a trace of bitterness. Why is it so difficult to find coffee this great at a restaurant?
At lunch, there’s a fine old-school BLT and a gooey grilled cheese on cranberry walnut bread, but beware the fried-chicken salad. It bears chef Mahon’s name, and after three samplings, I can’t figure why this greasy, boring mess deserves that honor. And yes, I tried it twice while he was still working the kitchen.
It’s obvious Early Bird was conceived as a next-generation breakfast diner: the name, the quail logo, the focus on coffee over booze. But, a year into operation, the no-frills diner-that-could is now an unexpected dinner spot with a chef who dares to fly high.
Best New Dishes
Dutch waffle, duck confit hash, chilaquiles, corn soup, kale salad, green tomatoes, Chinese long beans, ricotta gnocchi, twice-fried chicken, Texas quail, rib-eye, poutine, salt cod rice, ceviche, Singapore crab.
Breakfast and lunch, $3 to $15; dinner, $9 to $24.
A second location is under construction in Yorba Linda.
1000 E. Bastanchury Road, Fullerton, 714-529-4100, earlybirdoc.com
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Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.