Monday, April 11, 2011

Tipping is not a city in Russia

I have arrived.

Who wakes up at 8 AM on a friggin' Sunday morning to do anything? As I recently found out, it's this moi, as I hauled my sleepy ass to Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown yesterday (yes, it even has it's own Wikipedia entry; boom-shaka-laka). I've been wanting to visit this place, which was given the James Beard Foundation Award for being an "American Classic," since I moved to Minneapolis. First, because it was featured on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives (I know, I'm such a gullible Food Network lemming), and second, because I have a friend who's a native and a former U of M student & swears by this place as having some of the most epic,  diner food in the city. And, really, that's all the confirmation I need to make a field trip beyond the Mississippi River to 14th Ave SE (think Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, except cleaner) to try me some Al's. 

I felt ever so smug (and horrified) waking up at 8 AM on a Sunday, thinking our group would get to Al's before it opened at 9 AM, and that we would be in front of the omnipresent line of locals, tourists, and transplants-who-take-forever-to-eat-at-Al's. How naive of me; at 8:50 AM, the line was about 20 deep, and I felt like such a jerk cutting in front of a few folks because our friends were already in line. Since I believe in food karma, I think that's why my lunch today was absolutely bland and horrible (bleh). 

The moment the doors open at 9 AM to this ten feet wide (yep, you read that right) diner, people stream in and take one of the fourteen stools, while 14 more people stand behind them. This is the intricate dance at Al's; the place is so damn narrow and small that you need to call your seat by hovering over someone else's breakfast for about 30 minutes or more. It's uncomfortable, it's hot, and it's memorable. 
The crew impatiently waiting behind the diners
I smile, but only because I was having 20 oz. of caffeine pumped into my bloodstream

The wait is part of the entire Al's experience, though. There was never a fleeting moment where I thought "why exactly am I doing this again?" Not. At. All. Much like the Mickey's Diner experience of St. Paul, this is one of those activities you just gotta do to experience the city's artery-clogging history, its greased-up food culture. And, having that waiting time allowed me to catch up with my friends, talk about life, and observe every nook and cranny of this joint, from the tchotchkes coming out of every corner, to the different denominations hanging out on the back wall of the kitchen, to the funny signs.

Denominations from all over the world...and Batman!

Prepaid cards for the regulars

The aforementioned Tipping sign

Their James Beard medal. Bow before greatness.

After about 30 minutes of waiting (and that's after several impatient people left), our group was finally seated, and luckily we got to sit close to the smoking hot flat top. The short order cook was nothing short of amazing; she seriously was the multi-tasking ninja of short order cooks. 

The griddle, frying up amazing beautiful things

It was pretty difficult deciding on what to get, especially since everything on their slightly oily, laminated menus sounded so delicious (and LDL-raising). Eventually, I chose the 2 Poached eggs on corned beef hash with a side of rye bread. I also ordered a short stack of blueberry walnut flapjacks for my group to share, since you know I couldn't pass up the chance to get a well-rounded experience. And, also, I'm not so sure when I'll be back here again. :) Our master chef whipped up our plates in very little time. It was so fun watching her crisp up a mound of hashbrowns, before putting two meticulously handled poached eggs on top, then burying the whole thing in a mound of cheddar cheese and steaming the entire food monster. When it came out of its shell, I nearly shed a tear. It was beautiful. 

Look at how that glob of melted cheddar cheese just glistens.
One more glamor shot

Really great flapjacks

I've been to food institutions where I come away going "Eh? What's so great about that place?" Sometimes, it's because I just came at an off day (like Top Dog in Berkeley...once), or maybe because the place really wasn't that special to begin with, and I feel like it's just kept alive by the hype (sorry Philippe's, I'm looking at you). And then, you have a place like Al's Breakfast, which is actually good. It's not phenomenal by any means, and I can probably make the same corned beef hash if you gave me a commercial griddle (how epic would my kitchen be?). But, taken at face value, the food is something good diners produce. It's greasy, it's rich, and it's flavorful. The flapjacks have real berries and nuts in it and (my favorite part!) has the wonderful aftertaste of the other savory stuff from the griddle that it was just on; I appreciate the co-mingling of sweet and salty. The rye bread was positively ryetastic (copyrighted by Mariel Lisud 2011), and the hash browns have the perfect crispy, burnt outsides and buttery insides.

Oh, and for the first time, my fast-eating skills that my family is painfully good at (we would SO suck being French) was actually appreciated at this diner. As I swiftly inhaled (and enjoyed; I can do both at the same time, believe it or not) my breakfast, I just think of the healthier, more productive things I could be doing with my Sunday morning.

Then I let out a lovely belch, and ceased to care.

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