In Search of the Diner Breakfast Unicorn
A Midwesterner’s lament for a decent plate of hash browns in New York
I never considered the humble hash brown, a staple of my Midwestern upbringing, to be a luxury until I moved to New York four years ago. But where the rest of the country knows full well the importance of golden, crispy hash browns at diner breakfasts, New York is somehow in the dark.
The first time a sojourner from anywhere outside the East Coast receives an order of what diners here so coyly call "breakfast potatoes,"—mealy, half-raw chunks of starch cloaking poisonous nuggets of charred bell pepper—the experience is traumatic. Lest you think I am a pathological outlier in this regard, I am joined by a coalition of Southerners, West Coasters, and of course, other Midwesterners who have aired our grievances, sharing referrals and hoping to find others with the same affliction. Those who share this "grater" loyalty are far from rare, but, with a certain poignant irony, we are perhaps too scattered (and, arguably, smothered and covered by the hegemony of home fries) to change the state of things in New York City.
Other potatoes just won't do. Any fried potato dish, particularly hash browns, succeeds or fails in the preparation stage. Draining as much moisture as possible guarantees a robust textural snap; the drier the potatoes, the more they crackle and brown on the slick griddle. These are features inherent to the hash brown far more than the chunky breakfast potato. Their superiority is indisputable. It is science.
I have organized multiple birthdays around acquiring perfect hash browns in the New York area. Earlier trips have taken me to the Waverly Diner (too mushy); now I head to Andaz (a hotel restaurant, the indignity!), or to Prune for the Swiss rosti, somehow plush in its heft yet composed of the longest, laciest strands. But plain diner hash browns remained elusive, until a chance trip to Belmar, New Jersey.
I stumbled into the diner abutting the Belmar train station tracks, at the time called Express Station, where I watched a plate of food sail down the length of the counter as if in slow-motion. There were runny-yolked eggs, butter-saturated toast, and, where there would normally have been a pale tuberous mass, instead I spotted the unicorn of East Coast breakfasts: shredded, plentiful, amber-gold hash browns.
Those potatoes needed to be in my face, pronto. I quickly placed a to-go order, my eyes lasering into the flattop while my order developed a proper crust, uninterrupted. The counter guys were the kind of greasy-spoon pros who would puncture the top of the foam container, releasing the steam and preserving the sacred crackle.
Following a recent weekend on the Jersey Shore, I returned to Express Station in Belmar, where I learned its former owner passed away last spring. The place is now named the Hooked Cafe. And the hash browns are now lumpen home fries.
The new owner, Johnny, gave me a nugget of consolation in the wake of his betrayal. “It was something we put a lot of thought into,” he said. And he at least had the decency to explain that he’d surveyed the regulars and found they actually preferred for the chunkier style (the 90’s really are back, I guess).
That those traitorous patrons had a conscious preference should have cut deeper than the usual careless nomenclature. Instead, I thought, “at least someone else around here is paying attention.”