Ask former Ritz-Carlton chef and Break of Dawn owner Dee Nguyen what he considers the best meal he's ever had, and he'll tell you it was a bowl of rice he ate with sea salt in 1984. It was the first bite of food given to the then-10-year-old refugee when his boat arrived in Hong Kong after a long, treacherous journey from Vietnam. And in more ways than one, it was the meal that would mark the beginning of the rest of his life. What the young Nguyen didn't realize was that on the same boat, eating the same meal, was a girl named Linh.
They married in 2000, after falling in love in college. Nguyen majored in biology at UC Riverside, with the hopes of someday becoming a dentist. But after realizing his dentist relatives weren't exactly the happiest of people, he studied cooking at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco while his sweetheart was in pharmacy school at UC San Francisco.
Today, Nguyen spends his mornings at Break of Dawn (24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Ste. N-6, Laguna Hills, 949-587-9418; breakofdawnrestaurant.com) and his evenings with Linh and their young son, Berlin. He opened the restaurant in 2006 so he could do exactly this. Before Break of Dawn, Nguyen held a prestigious position as the Ritz-Carlton's executive sous chef, but in 2003, he began to rethink his priorities. That year, while Berlin was undergoing surgery to repair a serious birth defect, his breathing tube was blocked, leaving him without oxygen for 10 minutes. The incident left the boy comatose for a month and permanently handicapped when he awoke. Berlin now requires constant care. This event was the impetus for Break of Dawn; Nguyen's restaurant closes by 2 p.m. so he can spend more time with his family.
Break of Dawn's first few months were rough, Nguyen says. Being close to Leisure World, his first customers didn't exactly know what to make of his Merlot poached eggs, beef tongue stew, and créme brûlée French toast with Mexican chocolate. This wasn't the Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity breakfasts they were used to. Many looked at the menu and walked out. But then came the reviews. Nguyen credits Break of Dawn's turn-around and his now-established food cred to OC's food bloggers, who rightly lauded the food as revolutionary—food that is about the furthest one can get from a bowl of rice and salt.
HIS HIGH SCORES
• Little Saigon. "It's my home base. You can get everything you want. I'm there about two times a week for cheap and delicious Vietnamese food, supplies, and to hear the voice of the Vietnamese people."
• Eva's Caribbean Kitchen. "You always feel welcome there. They have great drinks such as the Brown Suga and Rum Punch. And it's not on the menu, but there's also a key-lime-cheesecake martini that we like. The staff are generous with their pours." 31732 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-6311; www.evascaribbeankitchen.com.
• Young restaurateurs. "It's a good example of how much things have changed in OC. I like the kind of food the Crosby and Lola Gaspar serve. It's no-nonsense, not froufrou or molecular. It's real men's food." The Crosby, 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 543-3543; thisisthecrosby.com. Lola Gaspar, 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana, (714) 972-1172; lolagaspar.com.
• Farmers' markets. "Since I'm usually at the restaurant on Saturday and Sundays, I can't often go to the bigger farmers' markets, but there's one that happens on Fridays here at the Laguna Hills Mall that I use for supplying Break of Dawn. I can just walk over there!" Laguna Hills Mall Parking Lot, Interstate 5 and El Toro Road, Laguna Hills.
• John Wayne Airport. "It's there when we want to fly out of OC. Once in a while, we need to take a step away from Break of Dawn and go to San Francisco. We don't get to go any farther."
• Old-school chefs. "I really appreciate old-school chefs, such as Yvon Goetz at the Winery, who understand the basic principles of cooking: salt, pepper and acid." The Winery, 2647 Park Ave., Tustin, (714) 258-7600; www.thewineryrestaurant.net.
• Classic car show at Fuddruckers. "I love American cars! My friends call me a Vietnamese redneck." The free car show happens Tuesday nights, generally from 5 to 8 p.m. 23621 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 830-7210; www.fuddruckers.com.
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• The Beach. "I used to despise the beach. But now, we go to Salt Creek Beach a lot." Salt Creek Beach, 33333 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 923-2283.
• Movies and sushi at the Irvine Spectrum. "Since Berlin is physically handicapped, I appreciate that the movie theater there is wheelchair-accessible. He also loves sushi. The sushi there is decent and Berlin-friendly." 71 Fortune Dr., Irvine, (949) 753-5180.
• Food truck meet-up at Lake Forest Lanes. "With so many food trucks out there, we like to go to Lake Forest Lanes on Tuesday nights. I appreciate chef Joe Youkhan's Tasting Spoon." 22771 Centre Dr., Lake Forest, (949) 770-0055.
• Favorite video game: "I've been playing Mario Kart Wii a lot with Berlin. Sometimes you forget that Wii is a video-game system."