Dawn King

The Eclectic Café does breakfast royally.

As a small child I spent a good deal of time sustaining a world of legend and myth. Because I was a notorious early riser, breakfast was always eagerly awaited. Luckily, I had a grandfather who shared my love of the wee hours. And he reveled in creating mythic breakfasts. He would rise and gather mushrooms in the gray light of pre-dawn. By the time the rest of the family gathered around the table, he had cooked skillets of eggs, platters of home fries, plates of tenderly sautéed field mushrooms, stacks of buttered toast, rashers of bacon, steak to go with the even more eggs. His breakfasts could stretch right out until lunchtime, when the whole routine would resume again with another onslaught of dishes and platters piled high with his favorite concoctions.

Breakfast held a particular appeal. This could be because it was the one meal of the day everyone was too tired to squabble at. This was, after all, a man who had punched out a horse, eaten whole peeled onions like apples, brushed his teeth with a towel and still had every cavity-free tooth in his head. He loved to tell stories, and it was from him that I learned legendary heroes started the day right.

Paul Bunyan and his blue ox were impressive with buttons as big as wagon wheels and iron shoes that left ponds in their wake, but my heart went out to Sourdough Sam, the camp cook. He knew how to boil a lake to make bean soup. He got 50 men to strap on pork rinds and skate across a griddle just to grease it. And he owned an iron griddle so large that when it heated up you couldn't see across it for the smoke.

Now that was someone who understood breakfast.

While one must give up a certain sense of mythos as life wears on, I still find that on some level I'm always on the lookout for a decent place to have a good breakfast. For some reason, Tucson's best breakfast places are carefully concealed or zealously protected by their patrons.

For 21 years, the Eclectic Café has kept its doors open, and those who know it love it. Perhaps it is my own breakfast bias, but breakfast is what the Eclectic does best.

Someone here knows and loves eggs. Eight different types of omelets are offered, from simple to robust. One feature about the Eclectic that I've always appreciated is the simple and consistent quality of the ingredients. The fresh asparagus and Havarti omelet ($8.50) could only succeed with fresh ingredients, and we weren't disappointed. The asparagus had been lightly steamed and still held a delicate crunch. The classic combination with Havarti in a properly cooked omelet made a lovely brunch. As each breakfast comes with a choice of potatoes, chilaquiles, sliced tomatoes, refried beans or biscuit or toast, you can be sure that the plate is hearty.

Don't miss the chilaquiles, a comfort food that is a signature dish here. Tortilla rajas are baked into a creamy casserole consistency with a hint of red chile. Be warned: These are habit-forming.

Other standouts include the scrambled eggs tossed with tortilla rajas, lox, onions and salsa ($7.75) and the Breakfast Burrito, stuffed full with chorizo, eggs, beans, potatoes and cheese ($8). These are breakfasts of serious stature, and word has spread. Mornings find the Eclectic packed, and often there is a line at the door.

Not surprisingly, service often feels stretched, particularly during a rush. Individual servers seem more occupied with getting the order to the table and rushing off than ensuring a meal is advancing properly. When things slow down, however, I've found charming and personable waiters who are attentive and able to do their job once the joint isn't jumping. These are small, personal trade-offs that customers can easily accommodate by timing their visits to suit their own tastes.

A recent lunch, however, yielded a few pitfalls. To avoid stressed service, we visited at the end of the rush. We were rewarded with warm and friendly service, but the menu items themselves weren't as consistent as what we've experienced at breakfast.

For example, the cream cheese, avocado, black olive, walnut and sprout sandwich ($5.75) could be a knockout. What we received was bread spread with some fresh avocado, a few sunflower sprouts, a couple of pieces of walnut, a few chunks of canned black olive, and a thin spread of cream cheese. Arguably, this was exactly what the list of ingredients promised it would be--and this was what the sandwich tasted like, a list of ingredients. There was no sense of unity, seasoning or concept. An interesting spread could be made from combining any of these ingredients, but instead they all stubbornly sat on the bread, a creamy bunch of textures that didn't really pull together to make this anything I'd want to order again.

Some of the specialty items were worth noting. The grilled portobello, roasted red pepper, eggplant and artichoke sauté on penne pasta ($9) was a rewarding find. Deeply creamed and served with a heavy serving of parmesan, this was a rich dish whose description belied the savory flavors.

While the Eclectic favors fresh ingredients, be careful what salads you choose. I've had delightful light salads at the Eclectic and the house-made dressings are always a solid find. But while warm salads are always an interesting twist, the Hacienda Salad ($8) is a clear miss. A layer of warm beans felt misplaced beneath a bed of chilled and wilting greens. The addition of warm chicken and salsa, then a topping of chips entombed in melted cheese, didn't really provide us with a satisfying combination of either textures or flavors. Better to stick with the Eclectic's strong points, which are simple, fresh ingredients prepared without any particular challenges.

Desserts are available at the Eclectic, but this doesn't necessarily seem like a dessert destination restaurant. The house-made cheesecake ($3.25) satisfies with its dense cake texture and simple lemon flavors. The Triple Chocolate Cake ($4) is not made in-house; it was airy and light, but tasted slightly of the box it probably had been sitting in.

The Eclectic has earned its reputation as a solid neighborhood café where you can obtain a reliable meal. You won't need a legendary appetite to enjoy the simple pleasures found at the table, just a bit of patience as you wait in the line at the door.

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