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Al's vs. Fat Nat's: Dueling Diner Pancakes

One of the most interesting things about diner pancakes -- which, at their worst, are as flat as Kansas and taste like blanket -- is that humans have been making them forever, potentially as far back as the Stone Age.

Yet this ubiquitous breakfast dish elicits strong personal associations -- being a kid and getting hopped up on sugar, late night trips to the diner with college friends -- strong enough to evoke carefully camouflaged longing even in this modern era of carb-counting. The Midwestern Madeleine, a good pancake offers a kind of satisfaction not easily found in other foods.

See also: The Kenwood's pancakes with black walnut butter: 50 Favorite Dishes, no. 27

The diminutive, but powerful, Al's Breakfast.
The diminutive, but powerful, Al's Breakfast.
Courtesy Al's Breakfast Facebook page.

The Venue: Our food fight this week pits the blueberry pancakes at Fat Nat's Eggs against the pancakes at Al's Breakfast, the James Beard Award-winning standard-bearer in Dinkytown. Can this suburban challenger go a few rounds with the perennial champ?

The Weigh In: Fat Nat's is a roomy, friendly place where old men meet for weekly coffee klatches, young families happily herd in their kids, and everyone else fills in the empty spots. It's loud, spacious, and well-lit. In contrast, Al's Breakfast is a small, tchotchke-filled above-ground dungeon. The place is lovely and mellow on an early weekday morning, but it can be a huge hassle on weekends, when hungry diners lurk for 30 to 45 minutes behind the happy customers sitting at its 14 stools, waiting for them to finish eating and vacate a seat.

Round 1 - The Batter/Cake: Fat Nat's: Covering an 8-inch plate, these pancakes come with crispy edges. We found ourselves eating around the edges first and leaving the meatier middle for later. The crumb gives the cake a nice heft without being too chewy and stands up to the berries. There is just a hint of sweetness to the batter that suggests a bit of vanilla. Al's Breakfast: These pancakes are a bit smaller than the ones at Nat's. More elastic and tangy than its competitor, we suspect these may be buttermilk pancakes even if the menu makes a distinction. While that's a draw for some, for us they were just a bit too chewy.

 

Al's pancake.
Al's pancake.
Amy Dahlin

Round 2 - Condiments: Fat Nat's: These pancakes arrive naked and immediately soak up the whipped butter we had to pry from those tiny plastic packages stacked on the table. The syrup is corn-based and kept in little squeeze bottles. While they are convenient and allow everyone to add as much or as little extra flavor as they wish, ultimately we found both the butter and syrup packages annoying and unsatisfying. Al's Breakfast: This cake comes adorned with a hasty swipe of butter that is tough to evenly distribute -- but this is not the type of place to be the annoyingly health-conscious one who asks for something "on the side." Al's serves real maple syrup in ceramic carafes, which are perfect for showing off a brazen, theatrical Muscle Beach power-pour if that's your thing.

Fat Nat's pancake
Fat Nat's pancake
Amy Dahlin

Round 3 - Berries: Fat Nat's: The berries here are too big to be wild and too juicy to be canned. (Perhaps they are fresh-frozen?) Berry distribution is a bit erratic, but most orders come with a satisfying amount of these slightly tangy bits that balance the sweetness of the syrup. Al's Breakfast: While the pancakes here have more blueberries, they are the bloodless, undernourished cousins of the ones at Nat's. For better or worse, neither place has an equal amount of blueberries in each pancake. The winner is... Fat Nat's. While the undeniable appeal of Al's location, décor, and history gave it the advantage going in -- and while its hash browns and egg dishes are indeed well worth the wait -- ultimately it was the quality of the pancake batter that gave Fat Nat's the win. This, paired with the blueberries, makes for a pancake worth a trip.

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