A quirky shoebox with seats, Al's is stuffed with great eats

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2007 - 3:45 PM

There's no breakfast like these breakfasts at Al's.

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Al's Breakfast co-owner Doug Grina, left, and Amelia Cohoes, right, working in the kitchen

Photo: Photo by Steve Rice,

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As griddlemaster Doug Grina's gravelly bark barreled down the length of the counter at Al's Breakfast -- and when I say length, I mean about 20 feet -- my mind wandered to the linguistics department at the nearby University of Minnesota. I wondered: Is a scholar devoting his or her career to preserving this rapid-fire shorthand -- an evaporating diner syntax in the Perkins-ization of America -- for the benefit of future generations?

Someone should be.

"Short stack, two smoky mush with ham on a round and short-short whole-wheat Wally blues," was Grina's exact cry (translation: Two buttermilk pancakes, two scrambled eggs with cheese, mushrooms and ham on a round plate and a whole-wheat blueberry walnut pancake). There was a brief pause, and Grina, who unfortunately missed a career in vaudeville by about 100 years, repeated his spiel, this time with an impatient edge to his voice. "I got it," shrieked a disembodied voice from the restaurant's back kitchen.

The unscripted theatrics are an off-the-menu side dish that's usually served up at Al's. And the main course? Pancakes. You can't find better ones anywhere. Honest. Personal preference here, but I tend to favor the slightly tangy buttermilks over the more earnest whole-wheats. They fry up hazelnut brown, thin but not delicate.

Each short stack (because you can't order just one pancake) arrives with a pat of butter lazily disappearing into their heat, a situation practically begging for a splash of syrup. When I order them laced with pert blueberries and crunchy walnuts, I truly believe I'm getting as close to heaven as this lapsed Lutheran is probably ever going to get.

Oh, and you know what? Al's crafts the best waffles in the state, big rectangular things cooked on the stovetop until they're piping hot, golden and marvelously tender yet capable of holding their own when topped with all the right accoutrements. Order one and you'll think you can't possibly eat the whole thing, but you'll be wrong.

More than pancakes

Al's excels in the non-carb arena, too. Thick, sizzling bacon is cooked until it's teasingly poised on the precipice of crispness, the edges tantalizingly blackened. When the menu boasts "perfectly poached" eggs, it's no exaggeration; the whites yielding to knife and fork just so, the yolk barely holding together, both cloaked in an ethereal vinegar sting. Omelets, big and fluffy, can be stuffed with a flurry of ingredients. The creamy scrambles follow suit.

Fair warning: Organics-focused foodies and locavores -- the breed of diner obsessed with the mileage an ingredient logs from farm to plate -- might have issues with a joint where hot chocolate means Swiss Miss, applesauce comes out of a jar, orange juice is frozen concentrate and the syrup on the counter is made in-house using water, sugar and Mapleine. But hello: You're in a diner, not Restaurant Alma.

Seasonal cooking isn't a concern, either. A "spring" special -- eggs scrambled with shards of asparagus and crowned with a pert, lemony hollandaise -- was delicious but didn't seem to fit in on a frigid February morning. A summertime scramble with basil, mozzarella and lifeless winter tomatoes felt even more out of touch, although I bet it's a dazzling wake-me-up during late-summer tomato season.

A history lesson for eaters

The Dinkytown restaurant's history is great short-story fodder. Its roots go back to 1937, when a hardware store converted a skinny alley into a storage shed. Three years later, the shed matriculated into the Hunky Dory, a pint-sized burger stand. That lasted until 1950, when Al Bergstrom bought the place. After an exhausting year of serving three squares seven days a week, Bergstrom downsized Al's Cafe into Al's Breakfast, indelibly altering the morning routines of several generations of grateful Minnesotans, 14 diners at a time.

Bergstrom retired in 1973, and Grina and co-owner Jim Brandes took the helm in 1979. Bergstrom died in 2003 at age 97; his pancake, waffle and Hollandaise recipes live on at the restaurant that bears his name.

Brandes and Grina share cooking duties. Every morning at 10 a.m. the two swap jobs like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, with one manning the cramped griddle area in the front window and the other taking charge of the similarly tiny kitchen in the back ("We call it the seamless segue," joked Grina).

Half the fun of visiting Al's is angling for a griddle-side seat and watching these two short-order titans as they finesse a small haystack of shredded potatoes into sublime hash browns, or gauge flapjack batter while it blossoms into peak-performance breakfasts, timing the exact moment when their spatula should slide along the well-seasoned griddle and give each cake a nonchalant flip of the wrist.

First-timers who closely guard their personal space, listen up. This 10-foot-wide shoebox with seats necessitates an elbow-to-elbow proximity that can transform a task as mundane as buttering one's rye toast into a semi-intimate act. Space becomes a real premium during busy periods, when a standing-room-only crowd queues up behind those wobbly stools, waiting for a spot to open up. They always do. Al's isn't the kind of place where one lingers over a third cup of coffee. You can get it to go, thank you very much.

The past few months haven't been business-as-usual at Al's. A Minneapolis Health Department-mandated cleanup and renovation is underway to bring the quirky premises up to code. Most of the regulars I encountered seem to shrug off the hullabaloo.

"I've been eating here since 1966, and I've never had a problem," mumbled the guy to my left as he sipped his coffee and read about the restaurant's problems in a story splashed across the front page of the campus newspaper, a real talker among that morning's eggs Benedict crowd.

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  • AL'S BREAKFAST

    3½ out of 4 stars

    Location: 413 14th Av. SE., Minneapolis, 612-331-9991.

    Hours: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.

    Atmosphere: Cramped, cluttered, poorly ventilated (you'll wear Eau de Al's all day) and utterly charming.

    Service: Friendly and fleet.

    Sound level: Appropriately mellow, punctuated by the occasional short-order verbal outburst.

    Recommended dishes: Pancakes (especially the blueberry-walnut), waffles, hash browns, Spring Scramble, poached eggs, bacon.

    Price range: Nothing over $8.10; most prices well under $6. No credit cards.

    ****EXCEPTIONAL ***HIGHLY RECOMMENDED **RECOMMENDED *SATISFACTORY -UNSATISFACTORY

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