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.
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.)
As for my friend's bedside apparition, the ranch burger didn't disappoint: A big, fluffy, not-overworked burger grilled to medium and served on a fluffy yellow bakery bun, it was salty, good, and layered with barbecue sauce, cheddar, and bacon ($5.10). Grilled cheese sandwiches ($4.15)--cheddar, Swiss, American, Muenster, or some combination thereof grilled on white, caraway rye, or multi-grain, molasses-laced St. John's bread--were also done to full mastery of the form, and the handmade onion rings ($1.75) were big, lumpy hoops of sweet, soft vegetable and crisp batter.
I didn't try any of the entree salads at Hamlin's: Eating a taco salad in a lunch counter that's been operating since the Coolidge administration just seemed too incongruous. (Barry Hamlin says he's found records of a sandwich spot operating in his space as far back as 1926, and he suspects there may have been one there even earlier than that.) But historical authenticity didn't prevent me from sampling the club sandwiches, and I can report that the turkey club ($5.95) is a fresh, rewarding manifestation of the form, combining still-warm bread and still-cold lettuce and tomato in gratifyingly formal triangles. However, the pastrami-salami-bacon-provolone club with mayonnaise embodies everything I was taught to fear as a little girl, so let's just forget I ever mentioned it.
Then again, sometimes when I get mentioning I can't stop, so I might as well mention that Hamlin's isn't perfect. Smoke-sensitive folks will notice that even though there's a smoking ban from 11:30 to 1 p.m., the postage-stamp sized restaurant never really loses the smell of cigarettes. There is also a little tendency for bad-church-basement cooking in Hamlin's good-church-basement heart (by the by, this is the only place downtown I know of that regularly features hotdish specials): Gravy on the hot sandwiches tastes like it started as a mix, the rolls that accompany the daily specials are tough little nuggets, and a special of "cap steak" one day was so teensy it earned the nickname "yarmulke steak." Still, if you brave the cold, cruel world of Nicollet Mall--and please note that due to office-tower construction Hamlin's is cut off from skyway access until July 2001--you, too, may find yourself rejoicing in the misfortune of my closest friends.
THE LUNDS & BYERLY'S EXPERIENCE: Look, I'm all for a powerful corporate sponsor giving strength to a smart project, but I've got to voice my concerns about the way the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience is developing. The first two years I went, the show--produced by Minnesota Monthly, as a benefit for Minnesota Public Radio--was scruffy, but interesting and fun. It was held in a ridiculously overcrowded, hot warren at the downtown Hyatt: Wherever you turned there were outstate beef princesses rubbing up against French champagne wizards, and every table boasted novel wines, interesting cheeses, heretofore-unknown beers, fine chocolates, and weird, strange things like vineyard-themed nose warmers.
Last year the show, billed as "The #1 Food & Wine Event in the Midwest," gained Byerly's and Lunds as sponsors and moved to the Convention Center, where it filled the echoing, cavernous space with what seemed like nothing but catering options displayed around a colorful central Lunds/Byerly's pavillion full of prepared Lunds/Byerly's foods like turkey-cheese-sun-dried-tomato-tortilla pinwheels. I duly checked it out and saw people going nuts over the grazing possibilities, but not once, not even for a minute, did I shake the feeling that I was anywhere except at Lunds on a Saturday afternoon.
Now I've gotten the brochure for the sixth annual Experience, scheduled for March 24-26 at the Convention Center with advance registration for seminars March 10, and I am deeply troubled. Classes this year include an artisan bread class led by Lunds and Byerly's artisan bakers; a demonstration on garnishing by a "Deli Department Kitchen Manager" at Byerly's; a seminar on Southern French wines by a Byerly's manager; and "Cooking with Wine" taught by Dave Barber, "chef for the meat and seafood departments of Lund Food Holdings, Inc.", and Paul Supplee, "executive pastry chef at Byerly's Corporate in Edina and Byerly's in Minnetonka."
Now, I have nothing against Lunds or Byerly's, but this is supposed to be an event at which the trend-making people who really care about food and wine find each other, not a pay-to-play game where Lunds and Byerly's prove--once again--that they own this town. I mean, isn't this suspiciously cozy? Where are the classes led by employees of any other grocery store? Whole Foods? Lakewinds Co-op? The Wedge? I'm not saying that the whole event has lost its credibility by kowtowing to a significant sponsor--I've certainly got my fax machine working overtime as I try to get into some of the winetasting seminars, because these $30 classes remain invaluable. However, after seeing how last year's event went off, I no longer feel like I can honestly recommend the exhibition itself (tickets are $40 in advance, or $45 after March 15), and I'd like to issue one eater's plea for a return to an Experience of less finesse and more credibility.