I am a hopelessly boring breakfast eater: Five days a week, it’s cold cereal with fruit, and if I’m being honest, scant variation on the choice of cereal, either (the fruit, at least, changes seasonally). My lackluster breakfasts are not for lack of interest – I love breakfast – mostly for lack of time. But after the sheer joy of a recent Cong Tu Bot breakfast, it’s time to rethink.

Cong Tu Bot co-owner Vien Dobui has been rethinking, too. (He owns the restaurant with his wife and business partner Jessica Sheahan.) Pre-pandemic, Cong Tu Bot served dinner – dinner so good that in 2020 Dobui was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Northeast. But, like so much else in pandemic times, the awards were canceled. Shortly after he got that news, Dobui was philosophical. “For me, I see this whole thing as an opportunity to think about what the kernel of Cong Tu Bot is,” he told Press Herald restaurant critic Andrew Ross.

Apparently that kernel is breakfast. Lunch, too. Granted, I am being reductionist. But the restaurant reopened this August as a daytime cafe (hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) with, for now, counter service and outdoor patio eating only. You put in your order and pay for it in a vestibule that used to be the front door. When your number is called, you pick your order up at a counter in what used to be the dining room and carry it outside where you can sit under a tarp at counter seats or in wooden booths.

The verdict: Cong Tu Bot’s chao chay ($9) vs. my usual Grape-Nuts? No contest. Picture a big white bowl. In it, a crispy square of daikon-kale cake contrasting with soft (but not remotely mushy) rice gruel, scallions and cilantro contributing brightness, pickled mustard greens adding savory qualities, a cured egg (a $3 addition) lending salty funk, and a slick of chili oil supplying a pleasant, mild heat. As it happens, just three days after I stopped in for breakfast, the New York Times put Cong Tu Bot on its list of “The 50 places in America we’re most excited about right now.” As it also happens, reporter Priya Krishna had ordered the same dish: “Happiness is a bowl of Cong Tu Bot’s chao chay on a chilly Maine morning,” she wrote.

Foreground: Pandan coffeecake. Background: The banh tieu trung hap (egg sandwich in hollow fry bread). Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Happiness is also a slice of the restaurant’s pandan coffeecake ($5). When I ordered it, I was expecting the dessert that used to be served at the dinnertime Cong Tu Bot, among my favorite desserts in town. But like the restaurant, the cake had been reformulated. The toasted pound cake I remembered was now a blazingly lime-green, crumb-topped coffee cake – fragrant and floral; the texture spot-on, moist and pleasingly dense. (In an interview, Dobui gave full credit to production lead Katie Keating, who, among other things, came up with the idea of making a streusel from toasted rice flakes and coconut.)

Also wonderful: The banh tieu trung hap ($8), a breakfast sandwich with egg, soy and Chinese sausage in a fried roll, at once familiar and not, also a reminder that frying needn’t equal grease.

The menu at Cong Tu Bot these days is small, and a little confusing. More than half the items listed are crossed out. Was this a business-in-a-pandemic-is-tough statement of sorts? I asked the gal making coffee about it. The cross-outs were meant to indicate to customers what items will be on the menu eventually, she said. To me, an editor, cross-outs feel more no than yes.

But before I could indulge in any grumpiness about that, two things happened to transform my mood: First, I drank some of Cong Tu Bot’s excellent coffee. Second, that stupendous breakfast.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: