Photo by Candice Woo.
Chin's9355 Kearny Mesa RoadMiramar858-536-2300
When I'm in Shanghai, jet lag usually has me up and out early in the morning, before the city's streets explode into a semi-organized chaos of people, bikes and cars. I pretend that I'm a real city dweller, walking alongside other early risers on their way to work or school—but, really, I'm just looking for breakfast. Restaurants have yet to open, but every neighborhood in this food-happy culture is dotted with food stalls or tiny sidewalk storefronts, each cooking up fresh, cheap and delicious breakfast snacks. There are baozi, fluffy buns stacked high in bamboo steamers, filled with meat or vegetables, and paper-thin pancakes, called jian bing, cooked on a griddle, coated with a thin layer of cracked egg, sprinkled with scallions, spread with bean and hot chili paste and then rolled up around a crispy fried cracker.
But the most traditional, and basic, breakfast is the one I like best. Shao bing, a rectangular pocket flatbread that's flaky and covered with sesame seeds, is stuffed with a you tiao, a savory fried donut that can be separated into two long fingers. Sesame bread gets tucked with many fillings, but this bread-in-bread combo is the one I grew up with and remains my favorite. It's the perfect portable breakfast for a community in constant motion. People walk while munching these carb sandwiches, and from the handlebars of bikes and scooters hang little plastic sacks of the snack.
When I come back to San Diego, it's these breakfasts that I miss most. The closest approximation was once Mandarin Garden in Mira Mesa, which served Northern-style Chinese food. It's where I spent a good deal of my childhood, climbing up on a barstool to order Shirley Temples and falling asleep curled up in a Naugahyde booth during long family meals. But the restaurant's original owners sold the place a few years ago, and the food has not been the same since. There's Shanghai City in Convoy, but it doesn't have all the breads and buns that I like. So, more often than not, I end up at Chin's in Miramar.
Housed in a former Marie Callendar's in a freeway-adjacent Holiday Inn, it's not the likeliest of places to find traditional Chinese food. And for most of the week, it's not—San Diego does better Cantonese food than Mandarin. But Chin's breakfast menu, only offered on weekends from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., often hits the spot.
I regularly order zha jiang mein, a kind of Chinese spaghetti with meat sauce, in which pork is sautéed with garlic and scallions, mixed with fermented bean paste and soy and ladled over wheat noodles with julienned cucumber. The resulting dish—sticky, salty and a little bit sweet—is total soul food. The sesame bread is not the best here, a bit thin and dry, but I like the fried donuts, especially dipped into a bowl of savory soybean milk flavored with pickled mustard green, sesame oil and vinegar. (There's a sugar-sweetened version of the milk, too.) Flaky pastry rounds with a salty, shredded radish filling are deliciously juicy and rich, but skip the soup dumplings, called xiao long bao (Dumpling Inn's are better). And though the sesame bread isn't great on its own, its pockets provide a fine home for slices of five-spice braised beef shank or smoked fish. And I could eat platefuls of a delicious Taiwanese lettuce-like vegetable—often called the “A vegetable”—sautéed with garlic, and Shanghai rice cakes, stir-fried with pork and cabbage.
There's a new Chin's opening soon on Convoy—but with different owners—and I can only hope that they'll see the merit in serving these breakfasts every day of the week. Write to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.