Sunday, November 25, 2012

Breakfast on the Quick: Who's the Best?

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's

I'm one of those people who could eat breakfast morning, noon and night. As a kid, my Mom would treat me to breakfast for dinner every now and then... and boy, was I a happy camper. DC is home to a number of top-notch, pricier breakfast spots; but what about folks on a budget? We took a peak at the "big three" fast food joints (Burger King, McDonald's and Chick-fil-A.) as well as sandwich offerings from Safeway and Subway. Who serves the true budget "breakfast of champions?"

Arby's: I was surprised to discover Arby's sells breakfast, albeit a limited menu. I was their only customer (around 9:00 AM) and grabbed a #1 Breakfast Combo (Sausage Biscuit, 2 small Potato Cakes and a Sunkist Orange Juice) for just $3.45 (including tax.) I was able to substitute a carton of 100% pure OJ for coffee, and was given two tasty potato cake triangles to go with my crumbly (but well-cooked) sausage biscuit. Sausage has a distinctive (not necessarily tasty) flavor; but it's hard not to like the price. No platters, but you can choose between wraps, croissants and sourdough sandwiches.

Grade: B-

Sausage Biscuit with Potato Cakes

Burger King: BK Ultimate Breakfast Platter (see below) is a poor copy of McDonald's superior Big Breakfast with Hotcakes, and costlier to boot. After forking over $5.29 ($5.82 after tax) I sat down to one of the more disappointing breakfasts in recent memory. For starters, the "scrambled" eggs are nondescript, flavorless and far from scrambled. The sausage pattie is actually pretty good (and larger than McD's) but the hash rounds are oily... really oily. Everything arrived piping hot, but the XL biscuit was undercooked (it literally broke apart in my hands: So much for buttering.)

As for butter, bring your own: Burger King provides SunGlow European style margarine in lieu of the real thing. Evidently, Burger King draws the line at 1450 calories, 84 grams of fat and 505mg of cholesterol (the caloric content of the breakfast.) Why kill you with real butter? By the time I got to the pancakes, they were cold (this is a lot of food) and not worth finishing.

I'd like to see a platter option without pancakes (I'm surprised they don't have one; McD's does.) Service was polite and quick (and why shouldn't it be? There were only three other customers inside the three level restaurant and nobody in line.) You're better off with BK's lone bite of originality, the CROISSAN’WICH... or better still... breakfast in bed (at home.)

Grade: D- (Overpriced and tasteless... at least you're full afterwards.)

BK Ultimate Breakfast Platter

McDonald's: Big Breakfast with Hotcakes (see below.) If value is your thing, then look no further than McD's surprisingly tasty platter. Normally $4.39 (almost a dollar less than Burger King) I paid just $2.99 (with a coupon) for a smörgåsbord of AM goodness. The Mazza Gallerie location is usually pretty chaotic, but that didn't stop my cashier from displaying unrivaled customer service (I wanted to bottle up her exuberance; she was actually happy to be at work. What a concept!)

After a short wait, I chowed down on my perfectly cooked breakfast. What makes McDonald's so good (at least for breakfast) is their reliability. Everything is the same, each and every time: That means no over or under cooking. The only negative was the half-sized portion of eggs (I actually like their eggs!) Other than that, I couldn't have been happier with the best breakfast value in DC.

Grade: B+ (For fast food, it's delicious. Overall, it's still pretty darn good. $3 for all this?)

Big Breakfast with Hotcakes at McDonald's

Safeway: Signature Cafe Breakfast Sandwich (see below.) I wouldn't normally think of Safeway as a fast food breakfast stop, but I earned a free sandwich courtesy of Safeway's Just 4 U program... so I decided to give it a try. Regularly $1.99, I ordered a free bacon & egg on Ciabatta bread at the 5545 Connecticut Avenue location. The deli serves these up to order between 6 and 11 AM daily, and I was impressed by the superb service allotted me.

The sandwich on the other hand is (sorry to say) utterly forgettable. Once you unwrap it, the finished product looks rather sad and unimpressive. The egg looks and tastes microwaved, the amount of bacon far from generous, and the pair gets lost in an oversized (too thick) ciabatta square. I skipped the cheese, but the result is an overly dry sandwich. If you don't like cheese, be sure to ask for a slice of tomato or anything to jazz it up. Customer service was outstanding and the price was right, perfect, so it's hard to complain too much. Still, I can't see myself paying for one in the future.

Grade: D (It's not expensive, but miles away from tasty.)

Signature Cafe Breakfast Sandwich

Chick-fil-A: It's hard to get too excited about eating at a food court, especially breakfast; but I wasn't about to trek out to Silver Spring, Maryland for fast food breakfast (not for this site or 60 Minutes for that matter.) So food court it is... Ballston Common Mall to be exact. Aside from my depressing surroundings (think about the crowd who hangs around a food court before 10 in the morning) I was disappointed to discover that the Ballston Chick-fil-A doesn't offer its full breakfast menu, but rather only three sandwiches. That means no Sausage Platter for yours truly.

I opted for a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit (sans the cheese) with a side order of hash browns. The biscuit set me back $2.49 while the hash rounds cost another $1.09. Not bad, but you only get 10 hash rounds (definitely a small portion compared to everywhere else.) My dime bag was OK, I suppose (not oily) but the biscuit was undercooked. The egg was surprisingly fluffy... the bacon nice & crispy, but the biscuit managed to overwhelm its contents (not good, considering it wasn't cooked enough.) My biscuit crumbled like blue cheese, making for a messy scene. Service was very friendly and they offer Belly, a cool reward program that offers free stuff (free small waffle fry for just 15 points.)

Grade: C (I would have preferred a platter... maybe next time.)

Chick-fil-A's Bacon & Egg Biscuit with Hash Browns

: I (very) rarely visit the Seattle-based coffee juggernaut; but give the devil his due... Starbucks makes a darn good breakfast sandwich. It ain't cheap ($4.75, not including tax) but you'd be hard pressed to find a hotter (literally piping hot) tastier sandwich, even without the advertised cheddar cheese. Besides, when was the last time you had a round croissant? Speaking of, the bun is nice & flaky, yet doesn't break apart like most croissants. Tasty bacon (crispy, salty) although I had a hard time detecting any smokiness. Worth the price... if money is no object.

Grade: B

Starbucks' Double-Smoked Bacon, Cheddar & Egg Sandwich

Subway: Last and certainly least, Subway offers their version of breakfast... although I would beg to differ. A lunch time favorite, Subway has no business calling itself an AM hotspot. I stopped by the poorly-run 4401 Connecticut Avenue franchise for one of their breakfast sandwiches. Having dined there before, I wasn't expecting much; and true to form... they met my low expectations in typical "I don't care" fashion.

Communication differences aside (you have to speak some English, don't you?) this is no way to start a morning. I ordered an english muffin with egg whites & bacon. Subway identifies eggs as white and yellow, which is hardly encouraging. They also advertise their bacon as crispy (which could be the biggest lie in America.) I asked for my muffin to be toasted, but it came out of their oven as flimsy as it went in. A third sales associate joined the line (it was busy with construction workers ordering early lunches) and grunted at me (I'm assuming she wanted to know what I wanted to add to my sandwich.) I replied, 'one slice of tomato, please.' She pointed at onions. I said no, and pointed at the tomatoes. She then pointed at the lettuce (in fact, she grabbed some.) Nope, still one slice of tomato. Next, she went all the way over to spinach. Come on now! How do you allow someone like this to serve customers? Eventually she pointed her way to the tomato bin (success!) I handed over $3.30 and got the heck out of there. DON'T order the hash browns (99 cents for three, flat tater tots... I wish I was kidding.) I'd been burned before, so I knew better.

My sandwich was bland, undercooked (the muffin and the bacon) and not worth buying in the first place. Never again. Stick to lunch (and find another Subway... You won't find a less efficient franchise in NW DC.)

Grade: F (You weren't expecting a happy ending, were you?)

English Muffin with bacon & egg whites