MINNEAPOLIS -- "Eggs benny, dark rye," shouts the counterman. It's 1950 again, as it is every day of the week at Al's Breakfast shop. The 14 stools are filled, and twice that many people are crowded behind them waiting for a table in the biggest little restaurant in the Midwest.
Steve Hollick adds another eggs benedict and dark rye to his juggling act of poaching, grilling and scrambling eggs in the front window. One of three owners, Hollick, like his partners, started with Al's as a dishwasher during college and bought the place after Al Bergstrom retired. They serve as many as 200 people a day during the seven hours Al's is open for breakfast (four hours on Sundays). And they do it all from one small stove with two beat-up aluminum pots for poaching eggs, one cast iron wafflemaker, and a small grill so old that, "Minnesota Gas Co. worked on again and again, but they are running out of parts," Hollick says.
Customers lucky enough to find a seat pull a newspaper from the shelf under the counter, and tuck into buttermilk or whole-wheat flapjacks, big puffy ones, studded with blueberries, walnuts, whole kernel corn or a combination of them. Or they might tackle the light, crisp Belgian waffles chock full of walnuts or bacon bits. If eggs are on their mind, they have three pages of options to mull over: scrambled with cream and butter and a choice of four cheeses, mushrooms, ham, salami and onion, green and hot peppers, sausage and tomato or whatever combination they can think up from a list of such "personal additions" as capers, black olives, cream cheese or shrimp. This kind of thinking put the "Spike" on the menu: two scrambled eggs with cheddar, mushrooms and garlic. A guy named Spike used to order it all the time, so eventually it was immortalized in print.
The omelets include a "Hawaiian" with chopped sausage, swiss cheese, sour cream and pineapple; or the "New Orleans" with shrimp, slivered almonds, capers and garlic hollandaise. An employe named Suzie teamed a mushroom-onion omelet with sour cream and strawberries. It is called the "West Bank."
One of the biggest sellers at Al's Breakfast shop, in Dinkeytown near the University, is the eggs benedict, which makes Al's sound like a yuppie place. But that's way off the mark. Sure, the eggs benedict are made with perfectly poached eggs (careful timing and 4.5 percent acidity to the vinegar in the poaching water -- not the usual 5 percent -- is the secret, says Hollick). And any French chef would be proud of the hollandaise (more lemony than most, and made by hand, explains Hollick). What's more, the ham is juicy and thick-cut rather than chewy dry Canadian bacon, and the English muffin is well toasted. These eggs benedict are better than at many a plush champagne brunch. But they cost only $2.95 ($3.95 for two), which ought to give you the hint that this is not an upscale brunch spot. This is a breakfast joint, no frills to speak of, just a lot of old-fashioned virtues.
The potatoes for the hash browns are fresh, parboiled and refrigerated overnight. The eggs are extra-large, delivered twice a week from a farm. The scrambled eggs are thinned with half-and-half and cooked in fresh butter, the coffee is a wholesaler's special blend but with some espresso added by Al's. Hollick and his partners, Doug Grina and James Brandes, all cook and all personally shop at a local grocery store rather than order from a wholesaler. So they can keep an eye on quality. "We make all of our pancake batters from scratch," boasts Hollick. "We use real ingredients: real milk and real buttermilk."
You won't find a croissant, and though the menu mentions yogurt, you aren't likely to meet a light eater at Al's counter. A more typical breakfast is two or three eggs, hash browns, toast and a couple of pancakes. It is a place people return to again and again for their morning ritual, as you can tell from the shelves stacked with coupon books, their owners' names in bold marking pens. It's the kind of place where a young man orders both blueberry pancakes and corned beef hash with poached eggs, then cuts the pancakes into precise squares before drenching them with syrup, so he can read and eat undisturbed and without ever looking up.
The shop itself has rituals. "We got a meter monitor outside," calls out the counter man in between his motormouth orders. "Plug your meters." Suddenly, several stools are vacated. Nobody worries that his place will be usurped.
Next door, an Italian coffee shop, so fancy that Cafe is spelled Caffe, is nearly empty late on a Monday morning. At Al's the line only grows longer.
Tabletalk A decade ago you probably couldn't find half a dozen nationally known woman chefs. Now a dozen of them are joining Aug. 22 to prepare a feast, sponsored by several California wineries and the American Institute of Wine and Food, at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley. The celebration of 12 Great Women Chefs is a benefit to launch the AIWF's computer-based gastronomic library. Reservations are $200; for information call Beringer (707) 963-7115, ext. 126.
It was once said that the bathtub was the most dangerous place in the house. I'd add to that blackened redfish as the most dangerous recipe in the house. Heating a pan to white hot requires careful handling and a good ventilation system. That point was reinforced in a San Fernando Valley, Calif., shopping mall when a smoking frying pan containing hot red pepper sent off fumes, reported to be similar to tear gas, so strong that more than a dozen people were treated for injuries. Poached salmon is much safer.
Speaking of safety, 21 consumer and environmental organizations are jointly asking the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to require warning labels for all fresh poultry and meat. Increased bacteria levels are being found -- particularly salmonella in chicken and hamburger -- due to speedy new processing machines and insufficient inspection. It is suggested that labels caution consumers to cook meats thoroughly, and wash hands, dishes and implements with soap and water after contact with raw product. SPIKE'S EGGS (1 serving)
1 tablespoon half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons butter, approximately
3 large mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/4 cup grated chedder cheese
Beat eggs with half-and-half, garlic, salt and pepper. In a small skillet melt 1 teaspoon butter over high heat and saute' mushrooms for about 5 minutes, just until they are browned. Remove from pan. Melt another teaspoon of butter and scramble eggs just until they are set. Sprinkle cheese over eggs and flip so that cheese is on the bottom; as soon as it melts, flip eggs onto a plate, cheese side up, and top with mushrooms.