It's Saturday morning around nine-o-clock. I'm at Champion Food in Fountain Valley, sitting in a plastic chair, resting my elbows on a fold-out table, waiting for my order to be prepared.
In the corner, with a commanding view of the room, next to a rickety shelf of imported foodstuffs, two old Chinese men sat, their faces hidden behind newspapers, visible only when they took a sip of hot soy milk from a styrofoam cup and a bite from a crispy, deep fried cruller called youtiao.
Meanwhile, the owner — a middle-aged man with kind, sleepy eyes — shuffled out from the kitchen, carrying a serving tray of freshly-made Chinese onion pancakes to a group of women at another table.
Throughout the morning, customers would trickle in, though most would just grab a Chinese newspaper from a stack next to the door, walk up to the counter to plop a few coins down, then leave without saying a word.
This is the typical weekend scene for the place. During the weekday, it's just a deserted boba shop and Chinese jerky store — a walk-in, walk-out joint where you could buy a Ziplock bag of frozen dumplings but no food is served.
Come the weekend, Champion tranforms into one of the few places in Orange County to take in a traditional, starch-laden Chinese breakfast and wash it all down with soy milk — but only from 8:30 AM to 2 PM.
When my to-go order was ready, the owner handed me the stash with a polite bow. I thanked him and took the pile, which was crammed in a dusty, old cardboard box.
After I got home, I poured the still steaming soy milk ($1.25) into a cup for easier sipping, and cut the foot-long, flaky, golden crullers they called “Twist Dough” ($1.50) into segments. The soy milk, although a bit chalky, was just the thing to cleanse the palate after the oily crunch of those Chinese “donuts”. Just like their American counterpart, dunking is not just acceptable, but required.
Since it was freshly made, the onion pancake with egg ($3.50) was still warm and crisp even after the transport time. The flat discs of dough — which is essentially nothing but flour, salt, fat, and scallions rolled thin and layered over each other — was pan-fried with an egg, cracked right over the top. The result was like the Chinese version of French toast, except no vanilla or milk is involved; just the carbs and the protein.
While I'm making comparisons, I'll also say that the sesame pie with beef ($3.00) was like a shredded beef taco — but only because you eat it like one. The flavors, though, were much simpler. The gossamer-thin crust was crisp and pliant (yes, like a tortilla); the shreds of beef were savory, but not overwhelming — hit with just enough cilantro and green onions to refresh.
The BBQ pork buns ($1.25), on the other hand, could've used something to lift it out of its doldrums. The bread was too dense and the pork was not saucy enough.
Next time, I'll skip them for the best thing Champion does: the rice rolls.
What is it? Well, it's just glutinous rice rolled around some sort of mystery filling — a contrast of textures that simultaneously smacks and hugs the palate. First, you bite into the gummy and gluey chew of the rice. Then you encounter the crunchy, savory bits at the center, which feels like a bar brawl between Snap, Crackle and Pop in your mouth.
If I had to guess, the crunch component must be the hacked-up chunks from one of those deep fried crullers I spoke about earlier. But there's more to it than that, especially in their “salty” version ($2.75), in which I tasted pork. And there's a “sweet” roll ($2.50) that's got crushed peanuts and something tooth-decayingly sugary.
You wouldn't think these dull, cylindrical objects bundled in plastic could elicit a Pavlovian response. But now, knowing the treat that lies beneath the Saran Wrap — it does.
Because I didn't expect to love the suckers as much I did, I only ordered one of each. And since I was sharing the food with friends, I had to cut it up into sushi-sized pieces. Otherwise, both would've been all mine.
But now I know better. Forget “The Breakfast of Champions“. Instead, give me the rice rolls: The true breakfast…from Champion.
Champion Food Co.
17090 Magnolia St
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.