The Oily Grail

Hash Browns: Hard to make, hard to find, impossible to forget about

Admit it. Sometimes you despair, and yet you never really give up. Deep inside, there's a tiny, tender hope that someday, someone will slide you a thick white plate that has on it something you've only seen in your dreams: a golden-brown sizzling slab of perfect hash browns. You go to breakfasts, many breakfasts. You occasionally order hash browns, but mostly you've learned to do without, because you've been disappointed so many times: gray, stringy potatoes; mealy, dry potatoes; underdone and overdone; soggy and scaly; bland and greasy--there are about as many ways to screw up hash browns as there are cranky line cooks.

And yet you search on. Good hash browns: Are they just a legend? Perhaps. Others claim to have held them on their forks, but then, people exaggerate. Also, many have bad taste. What they consider "good," you might not feed to your neighbor's annoying dog. Then again...what if they're right? Even once in a while? The quest for hash browns requires both skepticism and trust. Persistence and the ability to retreat. An open mind, a strong stomach, the occasional Sunday morning, and a little bit of disposable cash.

All in all, there are worse grails to chase.

Al's co-owner Doug Grina shows off a perfect golden crust
Sean Smuda
Al's co-owner Doug Grina shows off a perfect golden crust

Location Info

Map

Tryg's

3118 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55416

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Golden Valley

1: THE ALL-AMERICAN

CALHOUN GRILL
If it's the beginning of the week, there's a good chance that out on the western edge of Minneapolis, Deacon Eells is watching a pot boil. "Monday and Tuesday I spend the whole day boiling pot after pot of potatoes," says Eells, general manager at the Calhoun Grill on West Lake Street. "Then they sit in the cooler for at least 24 hours after you boil them." Then the potatoes go through what Eells calls a grinding machine, and finally they're ready to throw on the grill, and then on a plate. He gets a head start on the process so that there's a ready supply for their hash-brown-hungry customers. "We go through about a box a day, Monday through Friday, and on weekends about four boxes each day," he says. Each box holds 50 pounds of potatoes.

A side of hash browns at the Calhoun Grill is $3.95. "It's bigger than you'd get at Perkins," Eells adds. "We give, like, too much." For 95 cents you can get onions or something else added to your browns.

Which, for all Eells's work, aren't remarkable. They're good, but they could be better. The crust isn't crusty enough, which is important in and of itself and also as it relates to the rest of the mess: If the outside isn't melded into a crispy-gold shield, then the soft, tender inside tends to get mixed up with the outside, and the whole thing is sort of half-crispy and half-soft--quite simply, not the best that a hash brown can be. CALHOUN GRILL; 3220 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.455.1250

 

THE DAY BY DAY CAFÉ
The Cathedral is up on the hill, but there's a different sort of shrine in the St. Paul lowlands along West Seventh. Regulars gather at the 30-year-old Day by Day on weekends to pay homage to breakfast. Servers who remember your name, and your kids' names, and who bring pots of coffee and giant trays loaded with French toast and early bird specials, stand in for the saints.

Day by Day is also one of the few places that cheerfully admits to using precut, partially cooked potatoes for their hash browns. And you know what? It doesn't matter that much. Precut browns can rival hand-grated; the difference is in how they're cooked, who cooks them, and a hundred smaller details. On a recent visit, three orders of hash browns came to the table that might have been prepared by as many cooks. One order was undercooked and underwhelming; the other two had a respectable crispy-outside-tender-inside thing going, although one was crispier than the other.

Not a fatal flaw, but one that reminds the hash-brown seeker just how ephemeral the prize is.

A side of hash browns is $2.50; onions are free but cheese is 80 cents extra. THE DAY BY DAY CAFÉ; 477 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651.227.0654; www.daybyday.com

 

AL'S BREAKFAST
There's breakfast, and then there's Al's Breakfast. Any discussion of hash browns in the Twin Cities would be a mockery of a sham if it failed to mention this dinky Dinkytown landmark, which has been satisfying breakfast appetites and scaring claustrophobes for more than five decades. Though there's plenty on the menu to drool over--such as The Spike, a mess of eggs with cheddar cheese, mushrooms, and garlic--none of it's really complete without a side of the legendary hash browns. A fork-skating golden brown crust covers tender, hot, soft potatoes done exactly right: These hash browns are practically magic.

According to co-owner Doug Grina, there's no mojo involved, just common sense and a lot of time. "We use red potatoes, boiled till they're barely cooked through; in fact you let 'em finish cooking off the heat."

After they're cooked, the potatoes go in the refrigerator until the next day. "You have to let them sit at least overnight," said Grina, otherwise they're too starchy. Then they're shredded and cooked in soybean oil at close to 400 degrees, about three minutes a side. Voilà.

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