NORTH PARK — An omelet changed Emmanuel "Manny" Mejia's life.
Well, not just an omelet. French toast. Pancakes. Skillets.
Mejia, a Mexican immigrant who moved to Chicago when he was 15, discovered he had a knack for breakfast foods as he steadily worked his way up the kitchen ranks, starting out as a prep cook for Lincolnwood-based Danziger Kosher and eventually landing the chef position at M.Henry in Andersonville.
"It's something I picked up at first to earn money," said Mejia, now 33, who originally had his sights set on becoming a doctor. "I think I'm just a natural at putting flavors together. I'm a creative person, I like to create dishes."
After lending that creativity to various restaurateurs across Chicagoland, helping to develop menus at M.Henrietta, North Center's Marmalade and Skokie's Alexander's Breakfast and Lunch, Mejia is now working for himself, the owner of the Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club, 3401 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
"Sometimes I don't believe it's mine," he said. "It's like a dream."
The Breakfast Club quietly opened in late September and immediately drew ecstatic Yelp! reviews from North Park residents, who've described the blackberry kiwi french toast as "bliss" and the breakfast burrito as "possibly the best ever."
Twists on breakfast classics include a leek and asparagus omelet; french toast stuffed with Canadian bacon, scrambled eggs, arugula and asiago cheese; and cinnamon hotcakes, which are coiled like a cinnamon bun and topped with icing.
As a nod to the community's Korean residents, Mejia also has a pajun [scallion] pancake on the menu — "If they come, I don't want them to be disappointed" — and his Mexican roots can be found in dishes like the breakfast torta and chilaquiles, which features plantains and housemade tortilla chips wrapped in a banana leaf.
"I feel like they're unique," Mejia said of his offerings.
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For the decor, which has earned equal praise from diners, Mejia turned to long-time friend Daniel Malone, owner of Roost, a home furnishings and accessories shop in Andersonville.
The two had worked together for three years at M.Henry and it was Malone who nudged Mejia to strike out on his own.
"The thing with Manny, he was perfectly suited for opening his own restaurant. He ran M.Henry as if it were his own kitchen. He was passionate about the food he was making and took ownership of his kitchen while he worked for someone else," said Malone.
"I told him, 'You're not taking a shot in the dark,'" Malone said. "Your food is good."
With Mejia focused on crafting the Breakfast Club's menu, Malone took charge of reimagining the storefront's interior, seeing potential "even though the wall was a crazy blue color and there was hideous tile on the floor."
"I felt like when I looked at the neighborhood, Manny was going to be the new life," said Malone. "The area was charming. Somebody just needed to get the ball rolling."
Malone, whose aesthetic can best be described as "refined rustic," said he aimed to create a space that would strike the area's young student crowd as "cool" and the neighborhood's families as "warm and inviting."
A communal table and plate rack in the rear corner of the Breakfast Club feel like "grandma's kitchen," while the front of the house, heavy on reclaimed wood furnishings designed by Andersonville's Square Nail, keeps the space "current and relevant," he said.
The result of their collaboration is something unlike anything else in North Park, which is precisely why Mejia chose to stake his claim to the corner of Bryn Mawr and Kimball — even knowing that the building is in the crosshairs of eminent domain proceedings initiated by Northeastern Illinois University.
"I used to live in Andersonville — there's a lot of restaurants. I don't want to go there, there's no opportunity," he said. "I'll do my best to make a good reputation. If we have to leave from here, customers can follow us."
But at the moment, Mejia is concentrating on the here and now. The Breakfast Club, he said, is very much a work in progress — he's still hiring and training staff, a system to process credit and debit cards just arrived (payment is currently cash only) and the finishing decorative touches have yet to be installed.
"Things are still coming, I'm just waiting for more money," said Mejia, who financed the restaurant with his own savings and funds borrowed from his brother.
It's a risk Mejia is taking for his children — an 11-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter — who live in Mexico with his wife.
"The idea is to provide them with a future," he said.
Breakfast, changing lives one stack of pancakes at a time.