Monday, March 17, 2008

Vella Cafe Smashers Review

Vella Cafe is a super awesome "blunch" joint under the Blue Line at the Western stop. They have as good a cup of coffee as you can taste anywhere (an Intelligentsia blend) and serve a nice mixture of light gourmet brunch style meals. Service is cafeteria style and fast enough for it. Word.

But the potatoes? They call their breakfast potatoes "smashers" here which is somehow linguistically connected enough that no explanation is necessary. Everyone just figures out that they must mean potatoes. These smashers are in big chunks, super tender, well seasoned, but with crispy enough skins, and not at all greasy. They look like this:

Now, I have no idea how they cook these, but it is obviously nothing too complicated. Which bugs me. Why is it so easy for restaurants to make completely dope breakfast potatoes so consistently? My home cooked ones are quality enough, but often too greasy, not seasoned just right, or otherwise just slightly off. Is it a big flat-top grill, is that it? Because if that's it I'll buy one for sure, someone just tell me.

Next time I go back I'll have to ask how they cook them, as well as if people really instinctively know that "smashers" are potatoes. I didn't even research that bit above at all, I just assumed my experience was universal. What? I'm blogging.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dunlay's hash browns review

It's Sunday, the day some people go to church. Also known as the day I go to brunch. Dunlay's On The Square has a minimal brunch lineup that usually satisfies if you're looking for slightly fanciful omelets, fried egg sandwiches on marble rye, pancakes, or an Irish breakfast. Crucial to a truly successful brunch experience during the warmer months in Chicago, there is also outdoor seating available just a few steps from Logan Square facing the Boulevard.

You can't get a latte or a cappuccino at Dunlay's, but you can get a draft Guinness, a Bloody Mary, and ... breakfast potatoes. The potatoes don't come with every item on the brunch menu, but they should. Not quite hash brown perfection, but they're easily enjoyed by nearly every person that frequents this place. And today like most Sundays, that's a lot of people. Dunlay's was so busy when I arrived at 1:30pm that their service and quality were suffering. The sub-par service is not the point here, but I'll probably mention it a few more times... you're at Breakfist Potatoes. Focus, people. Let's talk starch.

As you can see from the photo above, these hash browns are baked and they're served in a nice portion that isn't too much. If you had to ship these potatoes they could fit in a box 3"x 3"x 2". Just enough to satisfy. The potatoes are creamy, and not "why did I eat all those?" creamy. Strong garlic and onion flavors that go well with what I'll assume is a mixture of cream cheese and sour cream?

Sometimes on a busy day like today the hash browns won't be cooked enough. This blows. Maybe these hash browns are born out of frozen hash browns and the Dunlay's cooks don't thaw them before baking the potatoes in the heat of brunch rush? I don't know and I don't care. If you like speculation and guessing listen to sports radio. The potatoes weren't fully ready for my plate or my gut. They were still edible, but they could be better. These hash b's are usually served warm to barely warm.

If you screw yourself over by not ordering them, but then realize your ordering faults while seeing them on your brunch-buddy's plate; don't touch your friend's potatoes. That's not cool. It's not their fault you lack foresight. Order your own - they will be at your table as soon as the help remembers to check on you, then relays your request through 5 other people.

Mass appeal: A-
Reliability: B-
Compared to other breakfist potatoes: B+
Side-order worthy? Yes

Breakfist recommended!


Dude, it's Sunday! Sunday is the holy day for eating breakfast potatoes. I hope all yous guys are eating breakfast potatoes. Unfortunately I will not be able to join you in person today, so munch some down for me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Fake Santa Fe Potatoes

Here's the most recent way I've been trying to cook up breakfast potatoes similar to the way I remember them from my childhood. Basically you boil the potatoes to get them nice and soft, then fry them to crispify the outsides.

• start some water boiling, enough to cover however many potatoes you're cooking

• chop up some small red potatoes, cut them now because they're too hot once you boil them. You can guess how I figured that out. Slice them or chop them multiple ways to make whatever shape you prefer.

• drop the potatoes into the boiling water and bring it back up to boiling. The smaller you chopped them the faster they will cook. 5-8 minutes probably, definitely done when they float or just poke a fork into one and check for tenderness.

• when they're just about done heat up a frying pan with some butter in it. You could use any kind of oil as well, but butter tastes good! I recommend heating the pan up first because your potatoes will be pretty soft when you transfer them and you want the outside to get crispy right away and seal the potato up before it breaks into a million bits.

• 4 or 5 minutes of frying, stirred and flipped periodically and you're done. Salt and pepper them to taste and enjoy. I often saute some onions up in the same frying pan too, because that's just a natural combination.


When I was a kid we used to go to the Santa Fe Restaurant in Glen Ellyn for breakfast. I would only ever get two things: two eggs basted with wheat toast and potatoes or later pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream.

Before they moved to bigger fancier digs, you used to be able to see into the kitchen when you sat at the counter stools. I watched those guys cook the most delicious breakfast potatoes dozens of times. They had a big flat frying surface, and as best as I can remember they did essentially nothing while cooking these potatoes except chop them up and fry them in butter for a few minutes. The results bely the simplicity of the preparation though: rich and soft with a nice crusty outside and awesome flavor.

I've never been able to reproduce the results no matter what technique I use though. Frustrating considering how simple it looked when I used to watch them. Of course this was over 20 years ago and before I had ever cooked anything, so I might be missing a step. The closest I've been able to get so far is when I boil the potatoes first to get them nice and tender before I fry them up to get the outsides crispy. Decent, but still no where near as good as the original.

This is my ultimate goal though, so stay tuned for new attempts at cracking this mystery.

Let's Get Our Breakfast On!

Breakfast potatoes: the best food you can possibly eat. Easy to make, simple ingredients, affordable, delicious, and endless varieties.

I'm going to post some recipes and techniques for cooking them on your own, and some places where I've had killer potatoes served up.

Also considering getting a dedicated domain for this. is taken, but all the alternate spellings of breakfast appear to be available. Stay tuned for that.