At first, an upscale breakfast/brunch was a tough sell in the suburbs. “It was crazy,” Dee says. “You’re going from the Ritz, where our breakfast dishes were $25. And I’m here begging people to eat a plate for $8.50. And they’re saying, ‘Where’s my Rooty Tooty $2.99 breakfast special?’ ”
But Dee kept experimenting, pushing the boundaries of his clientele’s expectations. Perennial favorites on the current menu include the crème brûlée French toast (with a crisp, sweet crust encasing delicate, custardy chocolate); an anise-infused “Vietnamese-style” meatloaf served with two perfect sunny-side-up eggs and an espresso gravy; and pulled pork topped with a pair of tempura poached eggs.
“I love that egg,” declares Gretchen Kurz, contributing editor and dining critic for Orange Coast magazine and longtime local editor for the Zagat Survey. “His menu spans the gamut from adventurous to completely comfort, feel-good food.” Even the tame stuff, she says, showcases his skills and imagination. “The cinnamon roll, the pancakes — he elevates them so they come alive.” She’s not alone in her admiration: OC Weekly declared Break of Dawn to be the best restaurant in the county in 2010.
But Dee admits that he does feel that, creatively, he’s a bit of a victim of his own success: “Now, if I take anything off the menu, people will complain.”
When Linh’s aunt and uncle moved to California from the East Coast and came to live with the Nguyens, Dee came up with the pop-up idea. After the first service, Linh saw the effect on her husband of breaking the fetters on his culinary expression.
“It was like a 20-hour day for him,” Linh says with a smile, “and he came home looking so happy, like a kid.”
Both the February and March services went well, but then Dee announced that a June service would be the last pop-up for the foreseeable future. Linh’s aunt and uncle had to move back east; without those extra hands, it will be too difficult for Dee and Linh to incorporate the demands of the dinner service into their regular work and caring-for-Berlin schedules.
“I’m disappointed,” Dee allows, “but I stopped [doing dinner] for a reason. At the end of the day, if my son calls, Daddy’s gonna come.”