it was the fall of 1989, i was a freshman at the university of minnesota, and i needed a part-time job. i had a couple friends who worked at a small diner near campus in dinkytown called al’s breakfast. little did i know how this place would help affect, influence, teach, and form me into who i am today. sometimes i think the experiences i had, knowledge i gained, and friendships i made at al’s taught me more than anything i learned in college, and not the least of which was how to cook.

i worked on and off there for the next 7 years. even when i moved away and came home for holiday visits, i would go in for breakfast and they would need someone to pick up a shift. i’d take it, not for the money, but just to be apart of the al’s experience again. needless to say, every trip i make back to minnesota, i make sure i get into al’s at least once. this past weekend was no different.

al’s has one long counter with 14 stools. that’s it.

customers queue up behind those sitting at the counter and wait until a place opens up, with the first person in line to be sat first. the exception being if a ‘single’ opens up and more seats aren’t opening up soon, you are allowed to sit prior to those in front of you, but always refer to the employees behind the counter for direction. they will have no qualms telling you how things work, especially if they haven’t had their coffee yet.

there is one grill in front, and one 4-burner stove in back, with a cook at each. there is one dishwasher, and depending on the day, one or two people working the counter. there is no oven, microwave, or freezer. to say this place is small is an understatement, and storage is non-existant, so food is prepped as it used. the vegetables are fresh, which means not only are your mushrooms, peppers, onions, etc cut up in small amounts to be stored and used as needed, it also means hash browns are made from boiling potatoes and hand grating them, and the corned beef hash is made from those very same potatoes. the menu has changed very little over the years (even the prices rarely go up), and consists of the usual eggs, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, bacon and sausage. there is toast, but no bagels, muffins, or other pastry items. they keep it to the basics and do it well.

i order my usual 1/2 bacon benny with a side of corned beef hash, and coffee.

to this day, i have not found anywhere that does hollandaise as good as it is done at al’s. they make it in such big batches, so scaling down the recipe would be difficult, but i did find a recipe from tyler florence on foodnetwork.com that comes close (minus the cayenne and add more lemon juice).

if i am not completely full, i will order a short short whole wheat wally blue, which in translation is one whole wheat pancake with walnuts and blueberries. your order is written on a small pad in front of you, in an al’s shorthand of sorts, and is yelled out to the front cook. the shorthand can vary from person to person, but if the cook needs a reminder of the order, they can just take a mere glance at the pad and know what they need to make.

in 2004, al’s was given a james beard award, and it hangs proudly behind the counter, to the left of the cash register, near the plastic dinosaurs, above the condiments, and among the many pictures, foreign currency, and knick knacks accumulated throughout the years.

a few years ago they were on an episode of diners, drive-ins and dives which will give you a better feel for what it’s like inside al’s.

when i went in this past weekend, i was happy to see my old boss, one of the owners, doug grina at the front grill.

he gave me a big, wet, sloppy, salty kiss over the counter and we caught up between him barking out orders to the back room and cooking hash browns, pancakes and of course my delicious 1/2 bacon benny, and side of cbh.

i often still recognize regulars. on this day it was the cranky guy who always ordered the 3 egg israeli, and john (an old friend of the owners) who comes in the back door, pours himself some coffee, chats with customers and employees, helps out a bit delivering plates, and most likely gets a free breakfast in exchange for a nice addition to the communal tip bowl.

doug and his business partner jim have been the owners since before i started working there, well over 20 years ago. both of their sons, who i remember as just wee lads and are young adults now, happened to be working there that day too. doug’s daughter has also done some time behind the counter. as i was just about to leave, doug’s wife susan, who also worked at al’s in the era that i did, showed up with a friend. i did a double take it had been so long, but it was so nice to see her. as my friend and i slipped out the front door, i can only hope they were able to take our seats, because i didn’t notice if there was anyone in line ahead of her, and relatives and friends don’t get special privileges. they would have to wait just like everyone else.

my visits to al’s will always remind me of the many memories and friends i have there, but that day it showed me that al’s not only runs in the family, it is family. a very big family.

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