Al’s is heaven for those of us who spend our lives in search of great diner breakfast. It is smaller than small, wedged perpendicular to 14th Avenue among the shops of Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota. Customers waiting for one of the fourteen stools at the counter stand hovering just above and behind those who are seated and eating.
In the narrow space between the counter and the back bar, where Al’s hash slingers race to and fro with seasoned aplomb, decor consists of pictures of Elvis and Wayne Newton, foreign currency, and a sign that advises, TIPPING IS NOT A CITY IN RUSSIA (curiously, changed from an earlier sign that said TIPPING IS NOT A CITY IN CHINA). Also behind the counter is a pile of meal ticket books, each inscribed with someone’s name. Many of Al’s customers buy these books and keep them here, so they know they can come eat, using coupons instead of dollars, even when their wallet is empty.
The house specialty is pancakes, which are made with either a whole wheat or buttermilk batter, and are available studded with blueberries, walnuts or corn, kernels. We love blueberries and buttermilk — an enchanting balance of sweet fruit poised in their faintly sour medium, infused with butter. They are barely sticky, delicate-textured, and profoundly satisfying, especially when drizzled with maple syrup. Al’s flapjacks are sold as a short stack (2), regular (3), or long (4); and you can have your waitress garnish them with sour cream and/or strawberries.
The short-order chef up front spends his time poaching eggs, constructing omelets, and griddle-cooking corned beef hash and crisp hash browns. It is an old-fashioned pleasure to watch this guy work, handling about a dozen orders at a time, always snatching whatever he is frying, poaching, or grilling away from the heat at the peak of its perfection.