- Glenn Russell
- Owner Jake Tran with a pork carnitas omelette at the Firebird Café
Don't tell all those people (Mom) who claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I don't usually eat breakfast.
When I go out for a morning meal, it has to be no earlier than 9:30 a.m., and the dish must be exceptional, something I would never make at home.
Firebird Café, which recently moved from its original Essex Junction location on Pearl Street to a new spot at Five Corners, is one of the few restaurants that call me to breakfast. It's like my personal siren, luring me to something deliciously indulgent.
In particular, it is the Firebird pork carnitas omelette that sings to me. I succumb only every so often, but I dream about it frequently.
Meltingly tender, perfectly seasoned pork is partnered with caramelized mushrooms and red onions, and cool slices of avocado. A judicious amount of shredded cheddar and Jack cheese pulls it all together inside a puffy egg envelope. The whole thing is anointed with a fire-roasted tomatillo-and-cilantro salsa, bringing acidic balance to each rich bite.
The crowning touches are a side of just-right, crusty home fries and fresh, housemade pico de gallo.
I do not think I am exaggerating when I call the café's chef-owner, Jake Tran, a genius for bringing carnitas to breakfast. In the U.S., the traditional Mexican slow-cooked pork shows up mostly in tacos. If you think of the half-moon of omelette as a tortilla, it isn't a huge leap, but it's still genius in my book.
Tran doesn't remember the omelette's inspiration. "I just did it," he said with a shrug, sitting at a high-top table in his new space the week after it opened. "It's like fusing breakfast and fast food."
When he launched the original Firebird in 2009, Tran had to come up with a number of omelettes, he recalled. He was influenced by the food he encountered after his family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam in the 1970s, first to Oregon and then to California. He describes his approach as California-influenced, or Cali-fusion.
The menu, which includes huevos rancheros, burritos and chorizo in various dishes, reflects Tran's experience as a young adult navigating downtown San Jose. "Everywhere you turned, there was Mexican food. Every side street had these little grocery stores. You'd go in, and the shelves would be overflowing," he said. "Up near the counter, there'd be steamers with four kinds of meat to put in tortillas. They were classic taquerias."
At Firebird, Tran starts his carnitas with pork shoulder or Boston butt "cooked in lard for a long time, until we pick it up with tongs and it falls apart. It's so tender, we don't have to shred it," he said with a smile. The meat is finished with salt and generous splashes of lime juice.
Firebird's Mexican influence is also evident in the peppers and tomatillos sprinkled throughout the menu, adding mellow heat and layers of flavor. The Benedicts all come with a poblano cream sauce, which also tops some of the omelettes; others have a chipotle or tomatillo sauce, depending on the filling. All the sauces are made from scratch in-house.
Most restaurants don't sauce omelettes, but Tran considers each aspect of his dishes carefully. Where omelettes are concerned, he said, "I always felt like something was missing. You gotta have another dimension."
The sauces are an example of the extra touches that have earned Tran a devoted following, both at Firebird and his Nest Coffee & Bakery. The coffeehouse opened on Main Street in Essex Junction in 2016, just around the corner from the new Firebird location.
Tran, 56, came to the restaurant business by "happenstance," he said. Back in 2004, he was at a life and career crossroads when he got the opportunity to operate a small sandwich café in South Burlington. He had a computer repair and website design business but was casting about for a new career.
"It wasn't something I aspired to do," Tran said, "but it came at a time when I needed to do something different."
He ran Café Demeter for five years before responding to a Craigslist ad that offered the original Firebird location for lease. Having learned the ropes of the food business, Tran was ready to develop his own style. "Firebird was my real-food restaurant," he said.
While he came to the business late, "I always appreciated good food," Tran said. "I grew up with my grandmother and mother in Vietnam. They were great cooks, and I ate a lot of great food."
As a treat, he recalled, the family would go see a Hollywood movie and then eat street food. A favorite was shredded green papaya salad topped with snipped dried beef jerky and a spicy lime fish sauce.
One style of food he will never offer at his restaurant, however, is Vietnamese. "I can't live up to their cooking," Tran said with a chuckle.
Like the Firebird menu, the warm community atmosphere that the restaurateur cultivates at both of his establishments owes something to his California years. In his twenties, Tran frequented a breakfast spot in the coastal city of Capitola.
"It was very simple," he recalled. "The owner cooked, and there was one waitress. I'd go and get breakfast and read the paper and drink my coffee. It makes me so happy to go to a place like that."
Tran joked that he needs to do something new every five years, but he's got plenty to keep him busy for a while. His Five Corners space doubles Firebird's seats to just over 30; he plans to update the menu as soon as the team members, who include his 22-year-old son, Bo, have hit their stride. In December, Tran will start offering a small-plates dinner menu three nights a week.
Over the past decade, "I've gotten to know the community really well," he said. "They bring me apples. They bring me flowers." They even bring him homegrown kaffir lime leaves, which he'll use in his Thai-style tom kha soup once the weather cools down.
At this point in our conversation, as if on cue, Alice Rutkowski arrived with a vase of white tulips arranged by her wife, Susan Herrick. The couple lives on the top floor of the building across from Firebird's new spot. "We watched the whole thing happen," Rutkowski said, referring to the renovation of the 1940s-era gas station.
They are big fans of Firebird's French toast and Blackstone Benedict with bacon, grilled tomatoes and cheese.
Unlike some people, Rutkowski said, "We love breakfast."