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Slinging the Hash in Minneapolis

By Jerry Haines
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 31, 1999; Page E04

"First time here?" says the waitress as she wipes the stained counter. "Had your shots?"

Reverence is not an attribute usually associated with Al's, the cramped little breakfast spot in Minneapolis's Dinkytown neighborhood. Though not on the menu, the main course here is Assorted Insults--often poached, usually over easy and definitely fresh.

It has been that way since 1950, when Al Bergstrom opened his eatery at the north edge of the University of Minnesota's main campus. That was back even before the owner of the coffeehouse across the street began periodically throwing Bob Dylan out for trying to play guitar. And way back before Garrison Keillor identified Minnesota as a state full of charming eccentrics. (We aren't, but, being Minnesotans, we felt we should oblige.)

Al has retired now and, at age 92, spends his time relaxing by the lake. The new grillmeister, Doug, spends his spare moments wondering aloud why people who were born in Minnesota still haven't learned to close the door. To be fair, it's hard to close it, because there always are people in the doorway.

The place has only 14 stools. There is just enough room behind them for 14 more people who wait to pounce on the first opening. Frequently, a large section of the client- ele will be ordered to shift so that two newcomers can sit together. On Sunday mornings the line will extend out the door, down the sidewalk, past the hardware store.

Al's serves only breakfast and makes the definitive blueberry pancake. Al's also offers a hearty corned beef hash and is the only place on earth that can consistently make poached eggs to the liking of my finicky wife. Fancier egg dishes are prepared in the omelette kitchen, which is out of sight somewhere beyond the fourteenth stool.

Al's customers are an ad hoc mixture of musicians, permanent graduate students, neighborhood residents and visiting politicians. Gourmet magazine once featured it (and The Post's Phyllis Richman once reviewed it). My wife, Janice, and I have been eating at Al's since grad school days in 1969. Janice loved it enough to eat there even during the depths of morning sickness. (If someone were to test the DNA origins of our son, the conclusion likely would be one-third Janice, one-third me, one-third bacon waffle.)

At last check, Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura had not yet made an official appearance at Al's. Which is just as well, since, even without his bodyguards, he'd probably use up one-seventh of the seating capacity.

Al's Breakfast, Dinkytown branch (ahem, there is no other branch--there never has been another branch), 413 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis, 612-331-9991. A typical breakfast runs about eight bucks, with tip. ("Tipping is not a city in Russia," reads a sign behind the counter.)

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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