RISE AND WHINE
Considering the number of eggs we eat, it's a wonder the chicken isn't our national bird.
According to a narrative on the back of the Dozens menu--inexplicably illustrated with a picture of a rooster, not a hen--Americans crack open an average of 314 eggs a year, which flies right in the face of recommendations by the American Heart Association that we consume no more than three a week.
Helping out with this astonishing statistic are plenty of breakfast joints happy to egg us on. Dozens is just one of dozens--actually two of dozens in the area. And it was almost a dozen years ago--eleven, really--that Scott Diamond and Lance Nading decided Aurora needed to wake up and smell the coffee in a restaurant devoted entirely to breakfast. They devised the Dozens concept based on their work with the now-defunct Grand American Fare company (which created, among other things, the Omelette Parlors). "At that time, there really wasn't anything around," Diamond says. "Now there are quite a few breakfast- and lunch-only places, but then we were kind of breaking new ground."
They went a step further when they opened their second location on West 13th Avenue by making it the first nonsmoking restaurant in Denver. "That was a tough one," Diamond says. "We had people coming in--this was in the do-anything Eighties, remember--and they were like, `What, man? You mean I can't smoke?'"
Last year the duo sold the Aurora restaurant to Chris Miley, with the stipulation that the menu and food quality had to stay the same. The looks of the two Dozens, however, remain as different as two siblings can be. Aurora has an old-fashioned, country feel with lots of wake-up windows and a neighborly clientele, whereas the downtown branch is crammed into a refurbished bungalow filled with business types. But both share a certain sibling rivalry. "Hey," Miley says of the 13th Avenue spot, "they're going to say that theirs is better, but really, the atmosphere and the food are better here."
In reality, we had the same meal at both, and everything was equal--except for the goat cheese in the "Here's Your Aspen" omelette ($5.95). The lame flavor of downtown's offering prompted us to ask our waitress if the goat had been mixed with cream cheese (she said no); in Aurora, the tangy flavor was right on. The rest of the omelette's contents--slices of ripe avocado and diced tomatoes--were fresh at both places, and the combination itself worked well. The plate's real draw, though, was the pile of potatoes with ever-so-slightly greasy crusts and warm, mealy centers. An English muffin with cinnamon-y apple butter and a few slices of cantaloupe rounded out the meal.
Nearly all of the Dozens dishes bear cutesy, Colorado-related names. "No Middleman Belgian Waffle" ($4.45) was an exception, a waffle that did its place of origin proud with an appropriately soft inside and crunchy exterior. An extra buck bought some limp, greasy bacon that wasn't worth the trouble. We also shelled out for what the menu promised was an "award-winning" cinnamon roll ($2.45), and this time we weren't disappointed. The size of a dessert plate, the roll arrived upside down so that it sat in its own buttery, sugary juices until we we couldn't stand it anymore and jammed huge chunks of pastry into our mouths. Then we had to drink a lot of fresh-squeezed orange juice to get rid of the large lumps of dough caught in our diaphragms.
But that roll had nothing on the dense cinnamon pincushions served at the diner-style Sunrise Sunset in Lakewood. Owner Steve Dirks says he even looked into marketing the rolls commercially. "The guy comes in from the distributor to look at the recipe, and he says, `Oh, my God, you could be making these with about half the ingredients you're using now,'" says Dirks, whose wife came up with the formula. "But he added that if the customers like 'em, I shouldn't change a thing." So he didn't. The $1.99 rolls are his biggest seller--and with good reason. They're whole meals, packed with cinnamon and sugar, and they came to the table steaming.
Not that we needed anything else to eat with those things around, but the rest of the food provided ample evidence of Dirks's "fill 'em up" philosophy. A vegetarian skillet ($5.79) linked basted eggs with fresh sauteed vegetables and loads of cheddar cheese, all atop a bed of potatoes that should have spent a little more time on the grill. More like boiled than fried, they appeared again alongside the Sun-basted Benedict ($6.59), two basted eggs on English muffins with deli ham and not-real hollandaise. ("We use a base and then embellish it," Dirks says.) But there the resemblance to a regular Benedict ended, because Sunrise's version also contained onions, mushrooms and cheddar cheese. Dirks claims the dish is popular, but the overall effect was one of plopping an oversized omelette on top of a muffin.
A more successful combination was Dirks's fluffy buttermilk pancakes topped with strawberries ($4.99). The fruit was the frozen-in-syrup kind during our first visit, but the season hit on our second, and the fresh, ripe berries made the well-cooked cakes something special. The pancakes' eaters, however, turned their juvenile noses up at Sunrise's icky hot chocolate ($1.09), which had been advertised on the window. It was watery and so sweet that the kids refused to finish it.
We had no problem polishing off the sides of sausage ($1.99) and bacon ($2.19), which proved Dirks's claim that his meats--most of them Coleman--are top-notch. The links were spicy and even-textured, with no gristle and no coating of grease. The bacon had been cooked crisply and was more red than white. "I think the meats are important at breakfast," says Dirks.
Like the Dozens duo, Dirks started his venture eleven years ago. "I want to be sort of a combination between a truck stop and a higher-quality skillet-breakfast place," he says, "with some good, quality ingredients. I got into this because whenever we were late for church, we'd duck into the Le Peep, and I thought back then that they were doing a good job with their skillets. They were really the only ones around at that time."
But 1984 must have been a good year for breakfast, because that's also when Steve and Lenora Williams opened their Egg-ception Eatery in Aurora. Their decor is standard sort-of country: checked tablecloths in a dining room that's homey and bright (as if everyone wants to confront reality so clearly in the morning). Instead of cinnamon rolls, though, the Eatery's special bread is muffin-shaped and filled with such delectables as mandarin oranges (95 cents) and raspberries with cream cheese and almonds ($1.25). The just-baked muffins were light and sweet, and the added cream cheese gave the raspberry version a cakelike texture. Along with an astonishing roster of toasts, English muffins and bagels, the muffins were offered as accompaniments to the Mexican omelette ($5.75), a gringo monstrosity made with four eggs, spicy chicken, vegetables, jack cheese and a mild green chile. As if that weren't enough, the nicely cooked omelette also came with annatto-colored rice.
The side of starch returned to the more common fried potatoes in an order of eggs Benedict ($5.50). The buttery flavor and crispy edges of the big chunks of tuber helped cut the cheap heaviness of the Benedict--listed on the menu as "the best in town." No way, but not bad for your standard stack of English muffins, grilled deli ham, overpoached eggs and not-real hollandaise.
Still, if I have to eat more than 300 eggs a year to keep up with the average American, I'd like to work off at least some of my quota with real hollandaise. That's the start of a true breakfast of champions--or at least a champion breakfast.
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