A young friend of mine is sad that the stack of pancakes with the whipped-cream smile she used to order from the IHOP at Apache and Mill is part of her past, now. The former pancake house disappeared when its host, the Twin Palms Hotel, was shuttered last year. But here's good news for both my little pal and anyone who likes inventive cuisine and isn't put off by ersatz hipster décor: Normal Diner, located in (and independent of) the new boutique hotel The Graduate Tempe, is on its way to really being something.
A long counter with chrome stools recalls chain diners of yore, while a counter with juices, coffee, and an array of to-go nibbles reflects its largely college-aged clientele. A wall installation of 8-track tapes, retro diner-ware, and bills tucked into vintage trash novels telegraphs Normal's camp, '70s-centric approach to dining. Fortunately, Normal's chef Brian Archibald is dead serious about what comes out of his kitchen.
Open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Normal offers modified diner fare and all-day breakfast dishes, many tarted up with chic ingredients from local vendors, and nearly all of them worth a whirl. Presentation is important here; nothing comes out of Normal's kitchen before being expertly styled.
I judge a breakfast place on its basic bacon-and-eggs plate, and Normal's Minimum Wage Meal didn't disappoint me. A couple of butter-cooked over-easy eggs and sweet, crispy strips of bacon (one can also order pork links) come with perfectly cooked cubed hash browns, crispy-skinned and tender, dressed up with onion and roasted poblano.
Another simple and perfectly prepared breakfast dish is the buttermilk pancakes, crispy-edged and fluffy, light and slightly bitter and served with whipped butter and warm maple syrup. Blue corn pancakes are also superb, made with flour from Hayden Flour Mills and served with pecan butter, a nice touch (and with agave nectar instead of syrup -- not a nice touch). The tasty house cheddar biscuits and gravy offers a trio of meaty belly sausage links and flaky biscuits drenched in a cheddar-rich "red eye" roux.
Normal's snappy take on the Bloody Mary is called The Redeemer, and should be served with slide plates, as its garnish is a full-sized slider and a skewer of deli meats, an olive, and a pickled onion. This Tabasco-rich meal-in-itself arrives in a sawed-off Absolut bottle filled with strong, peppery flavors and a generous jigger of vodka.
The Afterschool Special is a delight. Its grilled sandwich combines a tender hunk of barbecue-sauced brisket with melted cheddar and havarti on springy white bread. The tangy cup of smoky tomato bisque soup is rich and sharp and perfect for dunking. The Graduate burger comes cooked to order on a soft, buttery bun; its side of crisp, hot garlic fries and ramekin of house sauce (a mild, modified Russian dressing) are its best features.
The beauty of a good wedge salad is its simplicity, and Normal's aptly named Not the Normal wedge takes this now-tired starter too far afield. Spiced pecans, pepper bacon, and blue cheese compete for attention in a puddle of mundane Green Goddess dressing. The red quinoa and kale salad is more successful: a delicious blend of crisp kale tossed with grapes and cherry tomatoes, its shovelful of quinoa is sticky with a tangy vinaigrette. The TC chop salad offers a vibrant blend of textures and flavors: sweet dried corn and blueberries offset tart, pickled onion and smoked chicken drizzled with zippy avocado ranch dressing.
A Southwestern macaroni and cheese special likely won't make it onto the diner's regular menu; it's a greasy failure. Shallots and roasted peppers cling to overcooked elbow macaroni stringy with half-melted cheddar and clumped with globs of white cheese that neither I nor my server could identify.
Chicken and waffles is Archibald's sideways take on a trendy entrée. Juicy and crisp-fried boneless breasts are lightly seasoned and paired with red velvet waffles. Their batter is tinted with beet juice, rather than red food coloring or cherry wine. But aside from the slightest hint of cocoa, they're also largely flavorless.
The Gringo Burrito is robust and filling, but too many roasted potatoes and not enough chorizo make it more bland than a brunch item with this many ingredients (spinach-spiked salsa verde, guajillo chile sauce, and scrambled eggs). Served alongside it, the spicy green salsa was surprisingly bland as well. Also crazy with cubed potatoes, Normal's hash is the jewel in its diner's crown. It comes in a bowl layered with smoky, tender braised short ribs and chile sauce, topped with poached eggs.
I wish I'd saved room to polish off the ample serving of chocolate and brioche bread pudding, a salty-sweet mélange that's both crispy and moist and piled atop a hunk of crispy, fat-rich bacon. Not so the Whoopie Pie, a pretty but inedible sandwich of crumbly chocolate cookies stuffed with bourbon maple whipped cream and topped with a peanut crumble. Bleh.
Service at this ASU-campus-adjacent diner is always friendly, although on more than one visit, our starters and entrée arrived together. While management smoothes out its rough spots and Archibald tweaks his already sturdy menu, we'll return for another bowl of Normal hash.
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Normal Diner 225 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe 480-967-9431 www.thenormaldiner.com
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
House cheddar biscuits and gravy $10.50 Red quinoa and kale salad $9.95 Chicken and waffles $12.50 Chocolate and brioche bread pudding $6