DJ's 9th Avenue Cafe: Is this new breakfast/lunch spot as good as the original? It's relative.
Rise and shine: Devin Stallings at DJ’s 9th Avenue Cafe. See also: A Closer Look at DJ's 9th Avenue Cafe
When are they going to have another one? The question jostled about my brain for years, but I never got around to asking it, not because it's taboo, as it would be when posed to parents of an only child — as if there's something wrong with only children, which there isn't, and I can say this proudly because I am one — but because I've never had the occasion to talk with Devin and Jason Stallings.
See also: A Closer Look at DJ's 9th Avenue Cafe
For the past seven years, the Denver-born brothers have operated DJ's Berkeley Cafe, a neighborhood favorite on Tennyson Street with exposed brick, wood booths and plenty of high chairs and toys to keep families happy while enduring long waits for breakfast burritos, pancakes and eggs Benedict. And when I finally did get the chance to ask Devin the question, I learned that the Stallings, like so many others waiting for number two, had in fact been trying. For years. But spaces and loans had fallen through until, a day after New Year's 2013, the brothers finally announced the happy news: DJ's 9th Avenue Cafe was open, the griddle was hot, and the coffee was brewing.
I wanted to rush in, but instead I waited a while to stop by. New additions can be rough, whether in the form of diaper-clad bundles or new kitchens in new neighborhoods, and I wanted to give the staff time to settle in. Not that everyone and everything is new: Devin is in the kitchen 90 percent of the time; two friendly servers were brought over from Tennyson Street; and the menu is identical. Nevertheless, change is change, no matter how much stays the same, and we all know it doesn't always go smoothly.
When I finally did venture in, for multiple meals at all times of day, I found a space as different from the original as a lacrosse-loving child might be from his chess-loving brother. Where the original can feel dark, the new location boasts walls of windows along Lincoln to let in the morning light. You might even find yourself playing musical chairs as I did once at breakfast, moving around the table as the sun rose higher in the sky to avoid the heat and glare. (Make it easy on yourself and bring sunglasses, just in case.) Berkeley can feel cramped, but 9th Avenue feels airy, with seating for 85 — that's 35 more than the original — spread across a long, split-level rectangular space.
Of course, dark and cramped can also mean cozy, which Berkeley definitely is, whereas the new location feels spare verging on empty. In part, this is because business is still catching on, particularly at breakfast on weekdays. But even if more than a handful of tables were occupied (I never saw the place close to full, much less on a wait), orange accent walls, multi-colored counter stools and rotating displays of local artists' work simply aren't enough to warm up the hard-edged space. There are no booths, and the tables — topped with glossy photos of mushrooms, tomatoes or blueberries enlarged to funhouse proportions — don't invite you to relax.
But the Hollandaise is just as good as at the original cafe. The sauce is used to top all six versions of eggs Benedict, including salmon with asparagus and chorizo with poblanos over polenta — but don't ignore the classic, with Canadian bacon, a sturdy poached egg and a thick, toasted English muffin. When Hollandaise is made over a double-boiler with as much lemon and butter (not to mention housemade chicken stock, not water, for extra flavor) as it is here, it deserves to be appreciated, the way good coffee beans deserve a macchiato or crusty bread a touch of unsalted Plugra butter, without stronger flavors getting in the way. At both locations, Benedicts are served until 11 a.m. during the week, a fact cheerfully noted by servers if you arrive after that.
In fact, just about everything is cheerfully noted by servers, who bustle from table to table topping off a cup, providing suggestions and welcoming newcomers with a broad smile. They seem to know and joke with everybody, regulars or not. Once, when a guest got up to grab an extra napkin, a passing server teased, "That's what your pants are for," making everyone within earshot chuckle. Their warmth and sparkle set you at ease, even if the currently half-empty space does not, giving glimpses of what the restaurant's grown-up self might look like.
Many think of DJ's as a spot for breakfast and weekend brunch, but in addition to the breakfast menu, which is served all day, there's a full lunch menu, too. Lunch is popular at this new spot, with more people ordering off the lunch menu than at the more residential original location. Some of the lunch dishes are very good, especially the fried goat-cheese salad with figs, walnuts and fennel; the Southwest burger, with avocado, pepper Jack and poblanos roasted in a drum out back; and the house-smoked pulled-pork sandwich, with barbecue sauce featuring more heat than sugar. Hot and cold half-sandwiches, some on baguettes, some on grilled (occasionally over-oiled) focaccia, can be ordered as a combo with a cup of soup. One soup is made daily, not according to a recipe, but to the chef's whim, and some are no doubt better than others. I spent one lunch wishing I'd paid an extra 75 cents for a whole cranberry turkey sandwich, since my lentil soup tasted less like a finished product than an in-process pot of boiled legumes.
In other words, I wouldn't drive across town for lunch — not the way I would for a plate of biscuits, four inches tall before being sliced and drenched in sausage gravy, or pancakes, especially the Bisquick-like (read: not too sweet) banana walnut, which can be ordered as part of the mix-and-match Three Pancakes plate. More savory but just as delicious are the Toad-in-a-Hole pancakes, with an egg in the center and studded with bacon. Omelets may not be the fluffiest around, but it's hard to resist the spicy sausage, with cheddar and scratch-made green chile thickened as much with flour as with shreds of pork. (Devin takes an immersion blender to the pot.) Good enough to spoon like soup, which you can do if you order it on the side, the green chile also tops a breakfast burrito stuffed with three eggs, potatoes and cheddar. Yet as tasty as the food is at the new DJ's, I can't help but wonder something that crosses the minds of many parents at one time or another: How can you be part of the family yet be so different?
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