“The laziest man I ever met put popcorn in his pancakes so they would turn over by themselves”
– W.C. Fields
Sometimes the most absurd statements contain the most surprising truths. It wasn’t popcorn I found in my pancake. It was celery. Not ON my pancake, IN my pancake. I was probably 10 years old and my older sister surprised me by making pancakes. That alone should have tipped me off. As any child will tell you, beware of siblings bearing gifts.
When I agreed to take on an assignment that involved eating pancakes, I was unenlightened by the remarkable evolution of the humble hot cake. Today, a pancake is a culinary work of art, infused with exotic flavors and esoteric ingredients.
My sister and W.C. Fields thought they were making a joke. Maybe they were visionaries ahead of their time.
I was looking for the unusual; pancakes with built-in tastes and textures I’d never heard of, or even imagined. Even using that criteria to narrow things down, there’s still too much here for one man, no matter how hungry, to handle. So, I’ve decided to do the only practical thing; pass the buck, or at least part of it. I’d like to share my assignment with you. More about that later.
I developed a list of restaurants that have either a menu filled with pancake variations or have an especially novel signature pancake. To keep this from turning into a multi-year, multi-pound expedition I put the focus mainly on metro Denver. I know. This leaves out dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of pancake nirvanas, but that’s where you come in. Again, more about that later.
The idea was to sample the oddest sounding, strangest looking, most off-the-wall griddle cake creations I could find, trying to limit myself to one choice per restaurant. I had only one other ground rule, and I refused to waffle. These had to be pancakes in the standard North American use of the term. No crepes or blintzes, no French toast or waffles.
DJ’s Berkeley Café
What some people would call “lazy,” I prefer to think of as “efficient.” Really, why go to the extra work of ordering eggs with a side of bacon and a short stack when you can just say DJ’s Toad in a Hole? At DJ’s Berkeley Café, that’s what they call their self-contained, gooey house specialty pancake. I call it a wonderful secret to be zealously guarded and forever kept from busybody doctors and overprotective loved ones. Are you ready? Two pancakes the size of dinner plates, studded with huge chunks of bacon and an egg “over easy” cooked into the middle of each pancake. Looks like I picked the wrong week to have my cholesterol checked. I pierced the yolk and runny goodness oozed and fused with the rest of the ingredients. The only thing this pancake was missing was hash browns. I wonder if they take suggestions.
On this day, I brought along my research assistant so she could sample another of DJ’s pancake entrees, and perhaps give me a bite so I could write authoritatively about her selection. That turned out to be harder than I thought because she didn’t want to share her chocolate chip and macadamia nut pancakes. That’s what happens when you have a 4-year-old research assistant.
The first thing I noticed at Jelly, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, was that I seemed to be one of the few people not sporting body art. The place was buzzing with a young, urban crowd that exuded energy and fun. The next thing I noticed was that, demographic differences aside, I didn’t feel a bit out of place.
They take breakfast seriously at Jelly. The walls are decorated with cereal boxes featuring an eclectic mix of cover personalities. John Elway, meet Barbie. Mr. T, that’s Mr. Spock. Surrounded by cereal superstars, my pancake choice seemed only logical. I told my server I wanted the frosted flakes and banana pancakes. “Good choice,” she said, “They taste like banana bread.” They did, with the added crunch of sugary corn flakes. Surprisingly, Tony the Tiger was not one of the cereal cover boys gracing the walls of Jelly, but it looked to me like Elway was smiling down from his Wheaties box. In this town, you can’t do better than that.
The Original Pancake House
I knew I was in trouble when I went online to check out the menu at the Original Pancake House. It listed more than a dozen different pancake entrees, and I wanted to sample at least three of them. Ordering three meals meant risking the addition of my picture in the dictionary next to the word “glutton,” so I thought I needed a cover story. Then I realized I had something better; a family. For the first time ever, my wife and daughter eagerly agreed to help me with a work assignment. Anne ordered the fusion of buttermilk batter and crushed pineapple known as Hawaiian pancakes. Erin selected pumpkin pancakes that the menu boasted were better than pumpkin pie. I went with the coconut pancakes. They came filled and topped with toasted coconut and dusted with powdered sugar. They were all really good, but even better was the warm, citrusy explosion of flavor called “tropical syrup.” I’ve since seen numerous online requests for the ingredients. Yes, the Original Pancake House is a chain, with more than 100 locations across the country. That puts some people off. Fine. That means more for the rest of us.
Snooze, an A.M. Eatery
The motto at Snooze, just a few blocks north and east of Coors Field, is displayed on a planter in the waiting area. “Peace, love, pancakes.” Peace and love have their place, I suppose, but I don’t think they were behind the 25-minute wait for a party of two at 11 a.m. on a Monday. There is some real creative mojo on the griddle here. Pineapple upside down pancakes feature the caramelized pineapple chunks, of course, but the toppings of vanilla crème anglais and cinnamon butter had my taste buds wondering what hit them. That’s not to slight the sweet potato pancakes topped with homemade caramel, pecans and ginger butter. The eye-popper is the “coffee and donuts” pancakes. Start with a pancake with a hole cut out of the middle. Then glaze that “donut” with maple icing and spread crushed pecans across the top. But wait, there’s more! Put a small cup of espresso cream on the side for dipping. Can’t decide? You can order a “pancake flight” that gets you one of each. Try it, and that “peace, love, pancakes” stuff will suddenly attain the authority of unassailable wisdom.
After even such limited exposure to the dazzling light of hot cake haut cuisine, I was ready for something that went even further. I knew it was dangerous, but I was no longer in control. I wanted, okay I needed, something even more unorthodox, more unpredictable, more unexpected. I wasn’t sure it existed, but if it did, I had to find it. I hopped in the car and pointed it south on I-25. The wheels stopped at Wade’s Café. I desperately scanned the menu … and there it was! To me the words looked like illuminated script from some ancient, long buried scroll. “Buttermilk pancakes.” Wow. Talk about revolutionary! There were no surprise ingredients lurking beneath the top layer of batter, nothing sweet or salty, chunky or runny to make my palate go, “What the…?” This elegant simplicity would talk me down from the dizzying ledge of pancake panoply. Still, there were those 11 different toppings the menu listed. One called out in an irresistible siren song from my youth, evoking the imagination and independence of my little brother. When an 8-year-old puts peanut butter on pancakes while the rest of the family uses maple syrup, you can count on a little rebellion later on. With the conditioning toward the exotic that I’d been under, eating a “plain” pancake that was just plain good had me feeling a little rebellious myself. And a side of bacon made it even better.
My own search isn’t over just yet, and it may never be over. I still haven’t seen a menu with either celery pancakes or popcorn pancakes. But maybe you will.
Pat Woodard (pygmyowlpictures.com) is a writer, broadcaster and producer whose work has won numerous Emmy and Edward R. Murrow awards. He recently finished work on the PBS documentaryV-Day, 11.11.11, which examines what it means to serve in the military during peacetime and in war.
Steve Meadors in Denver emailed us: “If anybody is on a road trip in the mountains, they need to stop at Moose Cafe in Kremmling. “Moose Cakes,” served each day till 11 a.m., come out the size of the plate that they are served on. They do take some time to cook due to the size and the elevation, so just sit back and relax. They do not have anything crazy in them but they are fluffy and great and will fill you up.” Moose Café, 115 W. Park Ave., Kremmling, phone 970-724-9987.
Tom Damon in Colorado Springs emailed: “Our favorite pancake stop is the Hungry Bear in Woodland Park, exactly halfway between our house in the Springs and our cabin near Cripple Creek. We usually select the 2x2x2—two buttermilk pancakes, two eggs, two meats. The restaurant is filled, literally, with stuffed bears, photos of bears, stories and poems of bears, and other beary memorabilia—something to look at while you wait for your food (which usually isn’t very long even when the place is crowded.) Hungry Bear Restaurant, 111 E. Midland Ave., Woodland Park, phone 719-687-5912.
Deb Grymkoski in Beulah emailed: “Tucked away down a back alley in Crested Butte is a very colorful but tiny place called Izzy’s. Their pancake (yes, singular, as I don’t know anyone who could actually eat more than one of these things) is so huge it hangs off the edge of the plate. You could share it with several people and there would still be enough to go around. Izzy’s, 218 Maroon Ave., Crested Butte, phone 970-349-5630
Vickie Morgan in Salida emailed: “Patio Pancake Place in Salida makes delicious cheesecake pancakes, and best of all for me, they can make them gluten free. Just add strawberry or raspberry syrup and they’re sinfully wonderful.” The Patio Pancake Place, 640 E. Rainbow Blvd., Salida, phone 719-539-9905.
Rich and Cheryl Burns in Rifle emailed: “The BEST pancakes ever can be found at the Village Smithy in Carbondale. They are the Santa Fe Cakes—three cornmeal pancakes baked with bacon, green chilies and cheddar cheese. We prefer them doused with the Smithy’s homemade salsa instead of syrup. YUMMY!” Village Smithy, 6 S. 3rd Street, Carbondale, 970-963-9990.
Adrienne Alyn in Colorado Springs emailed: “I got such a chuckle out of reading about your pancake search and restaurant recommendations. I consider myself to be a true pancake maven and I have a suggestion. Hot Cakes on 18th and Humboldt in Denver is a great local stop, a big variety of plate size pancakes and all delicious. Hot Cakes Diner, 1400 E. 18th Ave., Denver, 303-832-4351.
Hal in Colorado Springs emailed: “Try the ricotta pancakes at Root Down. Great.” Root Down, 1600 W. 33rd Ave., Denver, 303-993-4200.