The Oily Grail
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.
1: THE ALL-AMERICAN
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
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.
Each week some 300 pounds of potatoes, 95 percent of them in the form of hash browns, disappear into the gullets of Al's diners. And those diners have carried the word far and wide: Last year Grina and partner Jim Brandes won the James Beard award for Classic American Restaurant.
With so much tradition to uphold, Grina could be forgiven for citing chapter and verse on what makes a proper hash brown. Instead, he's pretty loose--he even allows hash to share the definition with his masterpiece. And in fact, Webster's agrees: Hash browns are grated or chopped potatoes. What madness is this? We had to investigate. AL'S BREAKFAST; 413 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis; 612.331.9991
2: HASH IS BACK
Hash is no longer another word for mystery meat. It's no longer the embarrassed leftovers, fried hard to get rid of the not-so-fresh flavor. Well, in some kitchens it is, but in others hash has become a classy retro food, tricked out with long-simmered pork and toasted ciabatta. It's got chopped potatoes, yes, but instead of being grilled, they're tossed in a rich sofrito with onions, peppers, and tomato and crowned with a couple of gently poached eggs, which are dusted with just exactly the right amount of oregano. Thus has Jay's Café, a classy little lunch spot on Raymond in St. Paul (where Chet's Taverna used to be), reinvented your grandpa's hash.
Why hash? Why now? Owner and head chef Jay Randolph says his eureka moment happened when two things just sort of melded together one day--a last-minute dish he'd made for himself and something he'd been reading about Cuban cooking. He put pork hash on the menu about three months ago, and it's become one of his best sellers, for both lunch and breakfast.
Perhaps because Randolph started out as a breakfast cook, he views hash and hash browns as two separate entities. Hash browns are "griddle-cooked shredded potatoes"--no more, no less. Hash, on the other hand, is...not as easily defined. "A goulash, an amalgamation of a bunch of stuff," explains Randolph. He does know what it's not: a recent encounter with fingerling hash at another restaurant filled him with dismay. "I was like, 'You're kidding me, right?' It was fingerling potatoes, cut in half, sautéed with a couple other things. I see hash as a looser conglomeration, not overly potato and not distinctly large chopped potatoes with two other things in it. They didn't strike me as hash-y."
That said, Randolph does have empathy for those who cringe when they hear the word hash, and he enjoys proving them wrong. At one place he worked, there was always leftover prime rib, and he started making hash out of that, dicing it fine and adding potatoes, onions, peppers, and rosemary. "People would go, 'I hate hash,'" he recalls. But he'd ask them to try it and see, "and then it never comes back." JAY'S CAFÉ; 791 Raymond Ave., St Paul; 651.641.1446
When Philip Dorwart, head chef at Tryg's, was drawing up a brunch menu that spotlights hash, he knew he had some cultural taboos to overcome. "This is how we think of hash: cleaning out the fridge," he admitted. "My wife's father did that all the time: He'd take out the hand meat grinder and he'd sort of empty out the fridge and grind it and fry it up."
As customers read Tryg's menu, though, they encounter lists of ingredients like roasted peppers, celery root, chèvre, and dried cranberry, and pretty quickly understand that they're facing a new interpretation. "We were going for American Classic, so that's the way we spun it," said Dorwart. "People realize we're not just cleaning out the cooler."
These days, Dorwart's offering five different hashes ($9-$11) at Sunday brunch: prime rib, smoked salmon, cinnamon chicken, wild mushroom, and roasted duck. All follow the same basic template: Par-steamed potatoes, diced finely and sautéed in clarified butter, form the core of each dish, and each is topped with eggs--fried, scrambled, poached, or otherwise made to order.
Unlike Randolph, Dorwart does believe that hash browns and hash are related. He envisions hash being the ancestor of hash browns--someone took the kitchen-sink approach, he thinks, and refined it to include only potatoes, and then only shredded potatoes.
The final product reflects this philosophy. Dorwart's hash is a closer relative of hash browns than is Jay's. It's basically a fancied-up plate of fried potatoes, as opposed to being a few steps away from pork stew; because of this, unfortunately, it's got one foot in the chewy-and-greasy camp. On a recent visit, the prime rib and the smoked salmon hashes both tasted a little old, and neither was completely redeemed by inventive supporting ingredients (a chive-chèvre scramble served atop the salmon hash was sweet and rich). The house-made sausage ($4), on the other hand, was delicious; maybe it will find its way into a hash someday. TRYG'S; 3118 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.927.5781; www.trygs.com
3. DIY BROWNS
One of the reasons good hash browns are hard to find is they take a hell of a long time to make. It's one thing to boil, refrigerate overnight, and shred and grill potatoes for 200 customers, and it's quite another to do it for your little family unit. There's just no economy of scale when the number of hungry mouths is less than 10 or so, hence the popularity of frozen hash browns from the grocery store.
But be warned: If you think it's hard to get a handle on browns while dining out, you're going to get a grim surprise when you investigate the supermarket's frozen tater section. Basically, there are no rules. Anybody can say anything is hash browns. Everything from McDonald's copycats (think long, flat tater tots that you heat in the toaster) to Byerly's "Company Hash Browns" (think cheese soup) is fair game. In the freezer at Cub you find both Southern-style (chopped) and country-style (shredded) hash browns, as well as potatoes O'Brien, which look much like Southern-style--and that's just the Ore-Ida brand.
One rule that does hold as true at home as at any fine-dining establishment: The hash brown is as good as the cook. Someone who knows what they're doing can turn icy shreds of potato into a respectable breakfast. It's probably not going to be the best hash brown you've ever eaten; then again, it might be, depending on how seriously you've fallen for the cook and how hungry you are.
Though the road is convoluted and at times scary, true seekers of the perfect hash brown never give up. The most dedicated do, however, usually purchase a family-sized bottle of Tums to give themselves aid and comfort during the darkest days of the quest.
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