The Morning Fork, which opened last summer in the space formerly occupied by midtown’s ur-greasy spoon Lucky Café, is attempting a tricky balancing act: following in its predecessor’s classic diner footsteps while also bringing the menu, interior, and prices up to date. Is the successor a greasy spoon or a hipster breakfast destination?
Early reports were wobbly; I heard an informal review from a friend saying he’d been served a dish in a puddle of grease, and I heard other assorted complaints. I accordingly steered clear for a few months, but I’m happy to report that on the whole, and despite any mild diner-identity confusion, Morning Fork has risen to the hash-slinging occasion.
That’s good news for midtown breakfast lovers, who’ve been challenged in recent years by a diner and breakfast place decline. There’s plenty of late, fancy brunch, but not so much breakfast for the early risers, as not just Lucky but also old standby Café Bernardo has vanished – though there’s always Pancake Circus. The Morning Fork opens at 7:30 a.m. daily, a nice boon for the early-rising or hungry-kid-having crowd.
What will said breakfast lovers get when they drag their bleary-eyed selves to the new place’s leaf-patterned Formica counter? Well, strong coffee, for one, served in proper, vintage-style brown diner mugs and kept hot.
There’s also a lineup of mimosas, either traditional or fancy. The latter have an inventive mix of fruit purees; on one later-morning visit, I tried the It’s Green, which has a kick of jalapeno, the tang of kiwi puree, muddled herbs, and lemongrass syrup. Not too sweet, it came together nicely in a refreshing, aromatic blend, though I didn’t really need the sour-apple salt-sugar rim. The beautiful It’s Pretty has a float of edible flowers, and there’s also a blood orange-raspberry mimosa.
Lest this all make you think we’ve veered hard into upscale brunch territory, let me reassure you that the diner feel mostly carries the day. The inside of the restaurant has been spruced up with art photos and memorabilia of Sacramento, a pattern of forks on the wall and a fork-themed mobile, and other fun touches. But booths and the classic diner layout, as well as the busy flat-top grill in the open kitchen, remain – the latter, and the busy line, gave me a chance to tell my kids about diner slang.
Alas, I didn’t hear anyone asking for Adam and Eve on a raft or a heart attack on a rack, but the diner classics are mostly available on the menu: corned beef hash (done very well), a side of biscuits and a bacon-y gravy, a two-egg breakfast, and waffles either thin or thick. There were also excellent pancakes in the thin and lacy-edged style. The omelet lineup included meat and veggie as well as one called “Spanish.” I’m not sure of the reason for the latter name, as it includes salsa, black beans, avocado, jalapeno, and sour cream, all of which sound distinctly southwestern or Cal-Mex. These come with hash browns (nicely browned and crunchy), country potatoes (thin sliced and oddly cardboard-y in texture), or fruit, plus toast.
The biggest disappointment at Morning Fork was the vegetable omelet, which had a harsh garlic flavor and a filling dominated by hard, sulfurous Brussels sprouts. I suspected going in that was a challenging vegetable as an omelet filling, but hoped they might be roasted, julienned, or even separated into individual leaves that had been sautéed. Sadly, no: they rolled out of their fluffy egg comforter, lonely and unappealing. Promised artichoke hearts were sparse, the Gruyere cheese was gluey, and the whole thing just never quite came together.
The kitchen moves fast, and if you’re by yourself there’s no better entertainment than watching the line do its thing in the bustle of a weekend rush. That’s if there aren’t any snags: On one of my visits, the couple next to me waited for half an hour or more for waffles, which the rushed server explained as a waffle machine malfunction. In compensation, the server kept pouring mimosas for the pair. The servers, while busy, are mostly friendly, even bubbly in some cases, and they keep the coffee coming.
The menu also offers plenty of updated staples that wouldn’t be out of place in any millennial-attracting brunch joint: two kinds of benedict, a double-decker breakfast burger with fried leeks, a waffle with salted marshmallow butter and rainbow sprinkles, a breakfast sandwich with avocado. The latter had potential, but was marred by scrambled eggs that were dripping yellow grease and a slice of tomato so hard and flavorless it had no business even existing in this town in September, when I sampled the sandwich. You can get better tomatoes here this time of year by the side of the freeway, thanks to all of the ones that falling off those cannery trucks.
Better was the burger, gooey and loaded with smoked cheddar, grilled onions, an over-medium egg, and garlic mayonnaise. It’s not for the faint of appetite or the high of cholesterol, but it makes a good treat and will set you up for a post-breakfast – and possibly all-day– nap.
The classic eggs Benedict, with its thick rounds of Canadian bacon and a very nice Hollandaise sauce, was also good. I was slightly less taken with the crab and shrimp cake Benedict; it sounded great, but the “cakes” were more like piles of seafood, and it lacked the sweet freshness of the best seafood. In addition, my poached eggs were overcooked, so the yolk was solid instead of runny, but that’s an easy margin to miss.
Fried chicken, available as a regular breakfast with eggs or on a waffle, was a hit at our table, though I could perhaps nitpick about technique. The deeply browned, extremely crunchy breading was prone to falling off, especially on the underside of the juicy boneless breast piece. It tasted great, though, peppery and unusual with a hard-to-place note that my 10-year-old finally compared to falafel. I couldn’t disagree with her, and I kept eating the chicken – and, to be frank, the pieces of fried breading that had fallen off it. The accompanying waffle was eggy, crisp and tender.
Like the burger, this was an enormous portion – which is good, because the prices, while not especially high for the food quality or quantity, might give slight pause to those used to dive-style diners. They’re certainly a lot higher than Lucky Café ever was. Morning Fork also serves lunch, staying open until 2 p.m., though diner beware: there’s no lunch service on weekends, a detail I missed and that is the reason I didn’t get to try out the various salads (including a lovely-sounding three-beet salad with dill goat cheese) and sandwiches such as a chicken club.
There are still a few rough patches Morning Fork’s kitchen could stand to work out, but overall I warmed to this quirky breakfast joint in the heart of midtown. It’s far from the most ambitious place in town, but it’s the kind of homey, reliable spot that can be a boon to the neighborhood and anchor a loyal crowd of regulars.
The Morning Fork
1111 21st St. themorningfork.com
Hours: 7:30 a.m.to 2 p.m. daily.
Cuisine type: American/diner.
Price range: Breakfast dishes $9-18, lunch $7-15.
Food: Solid diner-breakfast fare, with a few standout gems, some clear misses, and some dishes that a little extra care could improve. Look to classics like corned beef hash, the thin lacy pancakes, eggs Benedict, crispy hash browns, and lavish breakfast burger; steer clear of the odd country potatoes and an over-garlicked veggie omelet with hard Brussels sprouts within. The kitchen could stand to tighten up quality control: grease leaked unappealingly out of a breakfast sandwich, and on one visit eggs were poached too hard.
Service: Fast and friendly, though can be a little harried or encounter lags during the busy weekend brunch rush. Coffee mugs get topped often.
Ambiance: The old Lucky Cafe space has been refreshed with bright paint and lots of art and kitsch to check out: forks hung in a pattern on the wall, art photos of Sacramento, a vintage plastic Lucky delivery truck toy at the host station. But it retains its diner booths and counter seating
Accessibility considerations: Midtown parking restrictions apply. Booths and especially the counter in the main dining room are tightly spaced with fixed seating and may be inaccessible or uncomfortable for many; a second dining room, however, has tables with chairs.
Noise levels: Loud when it’s busy, especially at the counter.
Drinks: Strong coffee, juice and fancy sodas, and a selection of mimosas and wine-based breakfast cocktails.
Vegetarian options: Sweets like pancakes and waffles, plus a few meatless egg dishes (veggie omelet, potato platter) make up the choices at breakfast; the lunch menu offers several salads, though some have meat. Vegans may struggle.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Anyone with an egg allergy, look out. Breakfasts are cooked diner-style on a huge griddle and the line cooks move fast, so those worried about cross-contamination with serious allergies should inquire carefully.