Where the Skyway Ends

Hamlin's Coffee Shop
512 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; (612) 333-3876 Hours: Monday-Friday 6 a.m.-2 p.m.

"Ranch," rasped a voice on the line. "Ranch burger." It was a familiar voice, but failing, crumbling. "Can't talk. E-mail!" The phone clattered into its cradle, sending me rushing for my computer. There I learned that one of my closest friends had just undergone a culinary near-death experience: Infected tonsils having wrenched him from the world of solid foods, he had lain in the hospital focusing his hopes and dreams on visions of a better place.

Namely, Hamlin's Coffee Shop. I promised him we would go as soon as he could walk. Then I thanked the Fates. See, Hamlin's is a little diner tucked into the back of an office building on Nicollet Mall, across the street from Neiman Marcus, and I consistently forget it exists. Then I remember. Then I forget. Then someone gets really sick, and my memory gets jarred again. Now I think of Hamlin's as my cash-in-the-closet restaurant: You know how sometimes you pull a jacket out of the closet and suddenly there's cash in the pocket? And then, six months or a year later, there it is again, another bill in another pocket? Every year or two I remember Hamlin's, and I want to jump up and down screaming: Eureka! There's a restaurant in the middle of downtown that serves real fries, real malts, and real turkey melts! And then I promptly forget all about it.

Daniel Corrigan

As soon as my friend became ambulatory, we ambled down to the plain, bright cafe, and I had a series of the most warmly pleasing lunches I can remember. Caramel-toned French fries. Plump burgers on golden bakery buns. Crisp and creamy grilled cheeses. Frothy malts and fresh-baked pies.

Speaking of pies: The first thing you should do when you sit down in one of Hamlin's gray-and-black booths is order a slice ($2), because if you wait you just might be out of luck. Especially on Thursdays, known to Hamlin's as Banana Cream Pie Day. Fresh chunks of banana and yellow, homemade custard are tucked into a flaky, buttery crust, the whole thing topped with sweet whipped cream. If you miss the banana cream, there's always the strawberry-raspberry-rhubarb--firm pieces of fruit united by a tart corn-starch filling and held together by a sweet, eggy pastry--or the butterscotch chiffon, nice and airy and candy-sweet. And what of the butterscotch coconut? Well, we didn't try that because it just sounded too weird.

Owner Barry Hamlin doesn't care if anyone tries his butterscotch coconut pie. "We make a couple pies a day, depending on what we feel like," he shrugs. "We" is his staff, some of whom have been at Hamlin's for a dozen years. "We play, we try things out. Sometimes I make ones that I know won't sell at all, but I make them anyway. I collect ladies' auxiliary cookbooks from various towns, church cookbooks, that kind of thing, and look through them and get goofy ideas. We always do the recipes the first time and after that, the sky's the limit. I've got a root-beer-float pie still in the works. I thought I nailed it once, but it didn't hold up well." So watch out.

To fortify yourself in the meantime I can't recommend the turkey melt highly enough; if there's a better one around town I haven't seen it. Perfectly grilled caraway rye is filled with thick slices of smoked turkey and melted Muenster cheese ($5.10).

The sandwich comes with slices of crisp pickle and a pile of chips, but an extra $1.25 gets you Hamlin's pièce de résistance--handcut, skin-on fries with that golden, caramelized color that tells of the perfect union between sweet, expertly chosen frying potatoes and hot, hot oil. I asked Barry Hamlin why fewer and fewer places are making their own fries these days--what's so hard about cutting potatoes and throwing them in oil? I might as well have asked a cheesemaker what's the big deal with spoiled milk: "There's secrets in our fries," he scoffed. "If it was just about slicing potatoes and putting them in oil, everyone would do it.

"First of all," Hamlin explained, "you've got to use a special kind of potatoes--for example, you can't use Wisconsin russets because there's too much moisture in there. You'd blow up your deep fryer." In addition, he said, good fries must be sliced, then blanched, then dried, then fried, and don't you forget it.

Hash browns here are also meticulously attended to: Big Idahos are baked off the day before, chilled, then grated into shreds that form an interlocking web, finally cooked on a grill until they assume the color of maple syrup. Pair those taters with toast, a couple of perfectly cooked eggs, and some thick sliced bacon ($5.40), and you've got a downtown breakfast to beat the band. Hamlin's offers a full breakfast menu, including plenty of versions of hash browns, buttermilk pancakes (only available before 11:00 a.m.), and the like; they also serve three other breakfast-all-day options, including a ham and cheese omelette for $5.65, and huevos rancheros with salsa, green onions, and cheese for $5.20.)

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