I rarely eat breakfast — mostly because I'm either recovering from a meal the night before or because I've got big plans for upcoming lunches and dinners. The thought of food before 10 a.m. just isn't appealing; a dark cup of coffee with a splash of heavy cream is usually enough to get me through. But occasional cravings for something handheld that can be polished off while I'm still behind the wheel or just sitting down at my desk will sometimes inspire me to go on a pre-dawn prowl for a satisfying early-morning meal.
In Denver, nothing says breakfast like a burrito filled with eggs, potatoes, green chile and some chorizo. But people all over the world eat breakfast, mostly made with inexpensive ingredients that can be cooked up quickly and without much fuss. So why not a Chinese breakfast burrito?
For the answer, head to Naked Bowl, a fast-casual eatery that opened last month at 110 16th Street, at the corner of Broadway and the 16th Street Mall. Naked Bowl is the third metro Denver restaurant for Ben Ke, who operates PokeWorld on the same block and Machi Ramen & Poke in Westminster. The restaurant is named for the build-your-own bowls of American Chinese stir-fries heaped atop your choice of white rice, brown rice, fried rice or lo mein noodles. You can load up on kung pao chicken, beef with broccoli or tofu with vegetables (to name a few), or choose from eight different ramen bowls, including spicy miso, tonkotsu and kimchi.
Those are all perfectly acceptable if you're grabbing lunch on the mall, but breakfast options are far fewer. And what's even rarer throughout the city are breakfast eateries serving Asian specialties. Sure, we all know about dim sum brunch, but that's mostly a weekend thing and requires a couple of hours of leisurely eating. And while intrepid pho hunters know where to score a good bowl in the morning, even early openers don't usually get the stock pots simmering until 9 a.m.
So Naked Bowl definitely fills a niche with its unusual breakfast menu, served from 7 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday.
Rather than a standard tortilla, Naked Bowl uses what it calls a "Chinese pancake" for the wrapper on its breakfast burrito. These are a little thicker and doughier than flour tortillas, coming in somewhere between a pan-crisped scallion pancake (without the scallions) and the kind of wrappers often served with Peking duck. For $8.50, you get two narrow burritos (each one cut in half) filled with scrambled eggs, veggies, cheese and a choice of chicken, bacon or Chinese sausage. Diced potatoes are sprinkled over the rolls, and a cup of thin green chile comes on the side, bringing the breakfast burrito back to its origins.
Burrito rolling is perhaps not a skill taught in Chinese kitchens, so these are best eaten with a fork. They're a little too oily and fall apart easily if you attempt to eat them with your fingers, but otherwise they prove tasty and filling — the way fast food often does.
More interesting to seekers of traditional Chinese breakfast (rather than people like me, who are easily amused by novelty) is the congee bowl, a hearty serving of rice porridge topped with chile oil and a poached egg. You also get a choice of pork or chicken; if you go with pork, you're rewarded with flavorful shredded meat and generous curls of fried pork rind. Congee purists may complain that this version is a little too soft and sludgy, since the consistency is closer to oatmeal than the thinner Cantonese style found in dim sum restaurants, but it's nonetheless a comforting way to start the day.
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You can also get a rice/egg/meat combo with breakfast fried rice, which comes with either chicken, chashu (thin-sliced roast pork) or Chinese sausage and two sunny-side eggs.
Sweet breakfast options include custard French toast and matcha coconut pancakes. The former comes as French toast sandwiches holding a sweet cream-cheese filling, while the latter uses matcha green tea powder to transform standard hotcakes into moss-green rounds that soak up sweet coconut-milk syrup nicely. And for an odd, savory-sweet combo, the Malaysian-style kaya toast is like a tropical grilled cheese sandwich, oozing both molten yellow cheese and coconut jam. As is traditional, the toast comes sided with a cup holding poached eggs, which you stir with a fork and then use as a dipping sauce for the triangles of toast.
Six items isn't exactly the grand tour of Asian breakfast, but it's a concise — and tasty — list that allows guests a little variety each morning. While the Chinese breakfast burrito holds the most wow factor, the congee and fried rice are more likely to become regulars for anyone who needs a source of fuel to get them through a long day.
And if you're like me and only experience occasional breakfast cravings to go with your cup of morning joe (which Naked Bowl also serves), that kaya toast makes an excellent on-the-go order to scarf down in the privacy of an office cubicle.