Monster Hash


By Jane and Michael Stern

Originally Published 2006 Gourmet Magazine

We’ve never met a cooked potato we didn’t like. Baked with butter, salt-boiled, fire-roasted, puréed with cream, au gratin, dauphinois, frittered, and french fried—all are surefire transformations of the homely starch into supertuber. But shallow-fried on a grill or in a skillet is the pinnacle of spudly pleasure. Here are ten of America’s best griddle-fried ecstasies and the establishments behind them.

DINER HASH BROWNS Sit at the counter facing the Laurel Diner’s pint-size grill for a spellbinding view of two cooks frying, scrambling, and flipping eggs, folding omelets, buttering toast, pouring pancakes, and squishing down patties of legendary corned-beef hash—a vision of seamless time-space management. Though they regularly scrape debris into the grill’s gutter, their touch is light enough that the flavors of bacon, ham, sausage, and hash linger, ready to be sucked into heaps of shredded potatoes piled on the hot surface. A broad cake of three or four servings is flattened and remains untouched until the underside turns golden, then the still-soft top is crowned with a scoop of butter. As the butter melts, the potatoes are flipped and worried so that by the time they are plated, they have become mostly crunchy, but with enough tender white tips to sop up at least two sunny-side-up yolks. 544 Main St. S., Southbury, CT

HASH BROWN CASSEROLE Fans of the celebrated Loveless Cafe in Nashville will have déjà vu when they open the menu at the Beacon Light Tea Room. It is the same as the Loveless’s used to be before the Nashville breakfast landmark was reborn two years ago (better than ever, in our opinion). That’s because the Beacon Light was owned for years by Lon Loveless. Fried chicken and country ham are still the only entrées to consider, and among essential sides is the sumptuously rich mid-century home-ec triumph, hash brown casserole. Potato shreds are mixed with cheese, sour cream, and—you guessed it—a can of chicken soup, then baked until bubbly with a crust on top. 6276 Highway 100, Lyles, TN 

HAYSTACKS A destination supper club serving world-class steaks and also the most delicious deluxe hamburger anywhere (freshly ground from a blend of prime beef and dry-aged lamb), The Pine Club calls its fried potatoes Lyonnaise. There is logic to the moniker because onions are mixed in, but these are not soft, buttery potato disks. They are crunchy, plate-wide pancakes of shredded ’taters woven with veins of sautéed onion. Years ago, traveling through the southern farmlands of Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, we used to see this configuration listed on menus as a “haystack,” although it looks more like hay flake. Primarily a suppertime side for steaks and pork chops, but also a welcome companion to morning eggs (where the breakfast meat of choice may well be a steak or a pork chop), a haystack is arrayed on the grill as a single unit and flipped in one piece—no messing or rearranging allowed. 1926 Brown St., Dayton, OH 

HOME FRIES Anyone who loves griddle-fried potatoes sooner or later must confront the issue: How do hash browns differ from home fries, and what about cottage fries? Most short-order cooks agree that cottage fries are sliced and cooked in so much oil that they tend to verge on deep fried, like Saratoga chips, whereas hash browns are shredded or finely chopped and home fries are chunked or sliced. That leads us directly to the griddle at Marcy’s Diner, where the Platonic ideal of hash-house home fries are sizzling in a pile and perfuming the air with Eau de Spud. Because potatoes are a Down East crop, Mainers tend to pay them serious attention. “Sometimes our potatoes are from Canada,” proprietor Joely Sparks confesses. “But the Maine ones are best. We cook them in a butter-margarine mix. No oil.” As they cook, they are pushed around, stacked, and restacked. A few pieces stick to the griddle and get brittle, some chunks develop a leathery skin over creamy insides, and still others are as squishy as white bread. 47 Oak St., Portland, ME 

HOPPEL POPPEL Throughout the Upper Midwest, there are different versions of hoppel poppel (sometimes called hoffel poffel). Potatoes and eggs are what they all have in common. The general idea is to gather a mess of chopped-up potatoes on the grill, fry them, and fancy them up. Eggs are scrambled into the potatoes, as are bite-size chunks of some sort of meat, often pork sausage or kosher salami. Benji’s Deli uses the latter and the result is a sweeping mix of chewy salami, tender nuggets of potato, and creamy eggs. “Super Hoppel Poppel” supplements the one-two-three formula with peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese of your choice. (While on the subject of fried breakfast, we need to recommend Benji’s matzo brei, which is also available with salami mixed in.) 4156 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood, WI 

ISLAND POTATO CASSEROLE As a rule, creamy grits are the luxury starch of the Lowcountry, and the Bookstore Café serves some doozies. But no potato lover can ignore the kitchen’s chippers, which look to us like cottage fries: circular potato slices thick enough to be fried crisp but still bend rather than break. You can have chippers alongside any breakfast, or use them as the foundation for one of the Island Casseroles, each of which is a great pile of good things to eat named after a local barrier island. The chippers are topped with sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms, and eggs; you select from among such choices as sausage gravy and melted Cheddar cheese (Kiawah Island); grilled shrimp, sausage, and Creole sauce (Edisto Island); or black beans, banana peppers, sour cream, and cheese (Palms Island). 1239 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Unit 12, Mt. Pleasant, SC (permanently closed)

KITCHEN SINK Here is a menu that honors potatoes. No mere side dish, Ramona Cafe’s glistening chunks of home-fried potato are the underpinnings of whole breakfasts piled into ceramic skillets. Design your own, selecting four toppings from a list that includes ham, bacon, spiced ground beef, chorizo sausage, four kinds of cheese, crushed garlic, and jalapeños. Or choose the Kitchen Sink, which is a panful of hunky home fries loaded with some of almost everything, including sausage gravy and a couple of eggs, sided by an immense biscuit. By the way, we were clued into this place many years ago by singing cowboy Roy Rogers, who used to stop regularly for burgers and milkshakes on his way out to the backcountry. Rogers told us how much he enjoyed dunking hot home fries into the yolks of over-easy eggs. 628 Main St., Ramona, CA 

PANCAKE HOUSE HASH BROWNS We suffer from anxiety at the Pancake Pantry. First we worry about getting in. For years, Nashvillians have stood in line for a precious seat in this singular restaurant that transcends generic pancake-house dining. Warm maple syrup, anyone? Caribbean buttermilk pancakes? Just looking at the menu induces paroxysms of indecision. If we order sweet-potato pancakes that are so good drizzled with cinnamon cream, then it doesn’t make sense also to eat onion-laced potato pancakes. And if we get stacks of pancakes, how much appetite can possibly remain to enjoy what are surely the best hash browns in the South? We don’t know if they’re cooked on the same griddle as the pancakes, or if it’s just pancake scent in the air, but Pancake Pantry potatoes are as buttercream-fluffy as the best flapjack. Fried to a golden crisp, they are the perfect way to balance the salty punch of a brick-red slab of griddled country ham. 1796 21st Ave. S., Nashville 

RÖSTI POTATOES Rösti potatoes are Swiss hash browns: coarsely grated potatoes sautéed as a thick cake in a heavily buttered pan. But Rösti potatoes as dished out by the protean Hell’s Kitchen of Minneapolis are an enhanced form of the generic dish. Chef Mitch Omer cooks them with shreds of Nueske’s brand smoked bacon (the best), onions, and garlic in enough sweet butter that they shimmer. Other breakfast revelations in this urbane café include mahnomin porridge (wild rice, hazelnuts, maple syrup, and cream), toasted bison-sausage bread, house-made peanut butter, and lemon-ricotta hotcakes. 89 S. 10th St., Minneapolis 

STEAKHOUSE HASH BROWNS A New York City steakhouse meal demands hash browns. We love them laced with caramelized threads of onion and bits of pepper at Ben Benson’s, but the archetypal potato plate is at the Palm. We mean the original Second Avenue Palm, for we’ve had mediocre potatoes at Palms in other cities. They come as a Frisbee-size mesa that is a neat impression of the skillet in which it was fried. The crust is dark and crunchy and below it is a soft-chunk potato pillow that is astonishingly grease-free. No onion, no pepper, no garlic in this cake of pure, intense potato flavor. When we ask our waiter what goes into the recipe to make them so good, his answer is as simple as the hash browns themselves: “Potatoes, butter, and salt.” 837 Second Ave., New York City (permanently closed)

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