Health Check: Al’s Breakfast (Minneapolis, MN)

Every once in a while it’s nice for me to do a followup on old favorites, revisiting them and make sure that they are staying in form. In this case, my trip to Minneapolis gave me a good chance to stop by and check in on what remains as perhaps my favorite breakfast place ever, Al’s Breakfast. It’s best if you read over my older review, but it’s basically a small, 14-stool diner wedged in what’s literally a roofed over alleyway in Minneapolis’s “Dinkytown” neighborhood. “Narrow” is an understatement, since a limber person literally can touch both walls at points, and as you sit enjoying your breakfast (aside from special events, it is a breakfast-only joint), if it’s at all busy there’s someone hovering mere inches away waiting for your seat. And the food? The breakfasts at Al’s are fantastic, ranging from egg dishes and omelets to pancakes to house-made CBH, and it’s the ultimate in the short order experience: your order belted out by the staff, echoed back by the person running the grill (back in the days, it was almost always one of the two owners, Doug or Jim).

This time, I picked a nice time to come visit. My conference at the U was deliberately set to occur after finals, so the campus and surrounding area was relatively quiet (in fact, bordering on “dead”), and between that and my early morning arrival (I arrived after a morning jog through the campus at 6am), I was greeted by the rarest of sights: an Al’s Breakfast completely free of other customers. Yes, for a few minutes, I had the place to myself, all 14 stools of it (although by 6:15 the place was already hopping).

While on the face of things, not all that much has changed at Al’s, there have been a few changes. Most of my other visits in recent years had owner Jim Brandes working the grill, and even going literally years between visits, Jim would remember me and ask if I was having my usual order. Well, last year, Jim retired, and sold his interest to Alison Kirwin, who I remember was one of the frequent servers there during my graduate school years. A few years ago the payphone disappeared (there’s still a picture of a payphone, but honestly, that extra six inches of space is valuable!), and the jumble of coupon books is even more jumbled, and some have been stacked up in little laundry tubs (I’m pretty sure I still have a balance there, but I’d feel bad at this point making them look for it…). The prices are higher, but in all fairness, not as high as I would have expected (maybe that’s my New England pricing calibration coming into play). And they redid the front window fairly recently, but the overall appearance is the same. The neighborhood has changed a lot, too, with several high-rise buildings showing up, a miniature Target down the street, and the majority of the local businesses have changed (there’s no longer a hardware store next door, for example).

But some things haven’t changed. Heck, some of the staff is even the same. While Jim wasn’t working the grill on my visit, Mary Rose Ciatti is still working there as a server (that’s her in the picture above) as she has been for at least the 25+ years I’ve been going there… And while she didn’t remember my name, she did remember that I was a regular, that Thursday was my normal day back when I was a regular, and that I usually got the Jose. On my second visit (yes, on multi-day visits to Minneapolis, I usually go to Al’s more than once!) Doug Grina was there barking out orders from the grill (“I need a Leonard on a round!”) for their 69th anniversary. Most importantly, the food hasn’t changed one bit.

My first visit, I had to go with one of my favorite niche menu items from Al’s: the Jose. It’s a simple hash brown dish: a large order of hash browns, thoroughly crisped on the griddle, topped with salsa (locally-made “Jose’s Salsa”), cheese, and poached eggs, all melted up. It’s a bit of a heart attack on a plate, but ever so delicious. And my Jose this trip every bit as good as those I remembered from the past.

My second visit? I had to indulge my two other love of Al’s. First: their CBH. So many places make their own corned beef hash, but all too often it ends up resembling the canned stuff. That’s definitely not the case at Al’s: the two main ingredients are freshly-shredded potatoes (the exact same as their hash browns), and ome fairly large, tender chunks of corned beef. There’s a smattering of other ingredients (lots of onion, a little bit of pepper, some parsley, and even a bit of horseradish which gives it a slight zing), but it’s mostly about the potatoes and beef. And getting a seriously good, almost-burned crisp to it. I don’t always crave this style of CBH, but it’s a solid winner.

The pancakes are probably the single item Al’s is most famous for, and they are spectacular. It’s basically your a slightly more buttermilky then normal pancake recipe (they do have whole wheat, as well), but when cooked on their meticulously-maintained grill up front, they get a perfect crisping on them. Add in some blueberries and walnuts, and you’ve got their “Wally Blues”, which are my favorite pancake ever, and my pancake this trip was everything I remembered.

Overall, I’m glad Al’s is doing well. My second visit was their 69th anniversary, and I have no doubts they’ll continue on. As the neighborhood around it changes, it’s still pretty much the same place, and even with the change of ownership I expect Al’s to stay true to its history for a long time. It’s still my favorite overall breakfast, and worth multiple stops if I’m at the U.

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