The Starling Diner's Fine French Toast
You might better know the mile-long stretch of Anaheim Street between Atlantic and Junipero in Long Beach as Cambodia Town, the center of all delicious things Khmer. But for breakfast, I'd argue there's no place quite like Belmont Heights. If city leaders ever want to officially designate the area as "Breakfast Burg," I'd vote for it. Belmont Heights has the densest concentration of breakfast joints in a city not lacking in such joints. At my count, its largely residential streets happen to boast five of Long Beach's better morning eateries (Egg Heaven, the Pot Holder Cafe, Eggs Etc., the Coffee Cup Cafe and the Starling Diner), all within a few blocks of one another.
Standing in the center of it all, the Starling Diner is Belmont Heights' first-meal fulcrum. I feature it now above the others because of one item: the French toast. The wait can be as long as the brunch line in the season finale of Portlandia if you come after a certain hour on Sundays. Everyone who arrives seems to have awakened after having dreamed of the dish. Seriously, you should see this thing: Our humble rag anointed it the Best French Toast a few years ago, but it was a category we created specifically for it—there were no other candidates.
To see it for the first time will permanently alter your definition of French toast. First, it's broiled, not fried. And it starts not from a square loaf of bread, but rather a length of baguette, which is soaked whole in a bona-fide crème Anglaise. Then its topside is slit open to receive an injection of mascarpone. That finishing touch technically distances the dish from breakfast and nudges it ever closer to dessert, but who's complaining? Two toasts come to an order, one buttery log leaning on the other under squiggles of sauce and a smattering of fresh berries, caramelized apples or cherries cooked in their own reduction.
The Starling Diner, www.starlingdiner.com. Open Tues.-Wed.
In the eating, Starling's French toast is faintly crispy on the edges and so softly malleable wherever the custard has permeated that you can scoop it up with a spoon. You eat it with a bit of whipped cream, maybe a few pieces of fruit to undercut the richness, but you look forward to the eventuality of that cheesy center—the part you save for last.
I've had the dish twice on two separate visits, violating a self-imposed rule of not ordering something I've already tried on a previous trip. I did it not to confirm its greatness, but because, as with the juicy pork dumplings at the legendary Din Tai Fung chain, Starling Diner's French toast is the dish that defines the restaurant. You can't leave without having it.
There are, of course, other reasons to come. Breakfast is served throughout the day, but all meals here taste just as good at 8 in the morning as they do at 3 in the afternoon. This is especially true of Starling's signature dishes, which include an estimable crab cake that employs more crab meat than some seafood restaurants do in theirs. It's served riding a wave of scrambled eggs cooked perfectly to a uniform yellow, every inch moist and without a speck of brown.
The potatoes are treated with the same respect paid to the eggs, roasted until their skin is taut and crisp, their insides a billowing fluff that scalds—the closest thing to bite-sized, miniature baked potatoes. They're able to migrate into lunch or dinner and pair best with the roast-beef hash, a hockey-puck patty that looks as though it were a burger, eats as though it were corned beef, but tastes nothing like either. It's a kinder, gentler way to consume cattle meat in the morning—smooth and soothing, going down as easy as oatmeal, if your oatmeal just happened to be made of shaved steak and chipped potatoes. Paradoxically, a chicken-apple sausage feels more carnivorous since it sweats fatty juice, is singed to mottled char by the griddle, and is cut at such a steep angle each piece is as long and curled as Gene Simmons' tongue.
Around you, a giant green chalkboard is scribbled with cartoons, and there are teacups and painted chairs nailed to the wall. Drinks of choice are either the free-pour-yourself coffee or the mimosas on special, but the Bloody Marys are stiff and spicy, garnished with microgreens and a snow-crab claw gripping a lemon wedge. Slightly less coveted than the French toast are the scones. They're as crumbly as a politician's credibility, but honest in their vanilla sweetness and true in their purpose as delivery devices for a house-made lemon curd and orange-honey butter. Sip some coffee and savor it as the citizens of Breakfast Burg do—slowly and while reading a newspaper.
This review appeared in print as "Breakfast Burg: Dealing with epic lines for wonderful meals at the Starling Diner."
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