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