Pancake World

Caffé Solo
123 N. Third St., Mpls., (612) 332-7108
Breakfast: Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.

Nicollet Island Inn Restaurant
95 Merriam St., Mpls.; (612) 331-3035
Breakfast: Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m.; Saturday 8:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m.; Sunday prix-fixe buffet brunch 9:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m.

Ruby's Café
1614 Harmon Pl., Mpls.; (612) 338-2089
Breakfast and lunch: Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. (breakfast only).

Al's Breakfast
413 14th Ave. SE, Mpls.; (612) 331-9991
Breakfast: Monday-Saturday 6:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.

Bunky, there are hidden secrets, buried facts, lost legends all around you. Examine any corner of the world, and newly unveiled stories crash down on you like rock-hard candies out of a piñata.

Take the pancake. It doesn't look so tough. In fact, it looks sort of fey and nondescript. But pick up a couple of books, and the next thing you know: pancakes, the basis for life as we know it. Stronger than a speeding locomotive. More culturally significant than NASA, Sharon Sayles Belton, and the Romance Channel rolled into one.

Pancakes appeared half a million years ago as humankind's first bread, cooked on humankind's first griddle--fire-heated rocks. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs showed how the dead expected to feast on pancakes in the afterlife. Plato ate pancakes. Apicius, the world's first famous gourmet, had his pancakes with honey and pepper, and then killed himself because he ran out of feast funds. Ancient Slavonic tribes had religious ceremonies all about pancakes--the round cake stood in as a symbol for their sun god. Then pancakes became the great pre-Lenten celebration food.

All those "cakes" they mention in the Bible? Well, those weren't Lady Baltimores and Double Fudge cakes--they were all pancakes. Seen Macbeth lately? Well, when ancient Scots went to battle, they were provisioned with iron plates and sacks of oats--for field meals of oat pancakes. All those stories about the Native Americans teaching settlers how to grow corn? Well, those weren't for corn-on-the-cob boils, but for cornmeal pancakes, which were often eaten three times a day.

Then pancakes went and settled the entire Eastern seaboard: oat pancakes fed the lumberjacks, buckwheat pancakes nourished the hardscrabble family farmers in the northeast, corn pancakes were cooked in the fields of the agricultural South. We built this city on pancakes! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. (Fact blizzard courtesy of Pancakes: From Flapjacks to Crêpes by Dorian Leigh Parker and The Pancake Handbook by Stephen Siegelman, Sue Conley, and Bette Kroening.)

The power of the pancake still resonates. Take this as evidence: I ate at eight local restaurants that offer pancakes, and, in an unsurpassed achievement--at least as far as survey-style, roundup eating goes--only encountered one bad pancake. Only one! Frankly, with odds like that you don't even need a food critic. (But too bad, you're stuck.)

Caffé Solo was my surprise favorite--surprise because I went into this endeavor assuming that the little hole-in-the-walls would have the best pancakes. But no, this big, airy Warehouse District spot wowed me with ten-inch whoppers that are pretty and caramel-toned outside, morning-sunlight yellow in the middle, and translucent in crumb. They taste rich and buttery, almost as if they had sour cream or cream cheese in the batter--a taste achieved, as Solo owner Dave King freely admits, by doctoring a buttermilk pancake mix.

One of the nicest things about the Solo cakes is that they're not overpowered with that acrid baking powder bite that so many cakes have. How come? "It's got to be fresh batter every morning," King says. And taking the cake seriously helps: "I know from talking to pancake people that you have to do them right from the get-go. It's a make-or-break thing--a lousy pancake will ruin a pancake fan's day." He also told me that Solo's multigrain pancake, a nicely wheaty and toasty matter, is vegan, which I wouldn't have suspected. My sole Solo quibble? It would be nice to have the option to pay for real maple syrup. (Solo's pancakes run from $3.25 for a single to $5.25 for a full stack with fruit.)

Another shock was how much I like the Nicollet Island Inn's pancakes. They are sweet, crisp, and rich, like flat waffles; management says the key is leavening with whipped egg whites. They arrive with a pitcher of real maple syrup and a big ramekin full of decadent cinnamon whipped butter. There are two options--plain ones, which arrive on a plate scattered with fresh raspberries ($5.95), or banana-and-pecan filled hotcakes ($6.50). Both kinds shine, particularly next to a mimosa. I think these are the pancakes the Slavic sun-worshipers would have liked most; sweet, bright, definitely sunny.

Slavic cloud-worshipers, on the other hand, would go for Ruby's Café. The Brobdingnagian cakes at this Loring Park spot are so light and buoyant that I wasn't put off at all by one Sunday morning's frank warning: "We've got a 30-minute cake-wait on our hands." With coffee and the only walnut-topped sticky bun I've ever had, the minutes flew by, and when the cakes arrived they were splendiferous--nearly a foot across, fully an inch and a half high in the middle and light as angels. (The baking-powder aftertaste left by the amount of baking powder needed to achieve this volume ceased to matter once I graced the puff with some real maple syrup.) One of these is enough for one person, two are nearly impossible to finish, and three--well, three are basically the size of an entire Lady Baltimore, without the icing. "No one can ever eat three cakes," says Ray Goettle, Ruby's owner (since October), manager, host, muffin maker, biscuit baker, and occasional chef. "I've bet people right at the table that they couldn't eat the whole thing and they never can." Ruby's cakes cost $3.25 for one pancake or $3.75 filled with a varying choice of fruit, for two it's $4.55/$5.55. Three? You masochist--that's $5.75 or $7.25.)

Minneapolis's most celebrated pancake is at Al's Breakfast, the narrow Dinkytown lunch counter where people stack up as densely as commuters in a subway car for a taste of crispy hash browns and crusty pancakes. Well, maybe not crusty in the baguette sense, but they do have a unique exterior halfway between an edge and a crust. A demi-crust. A crust-ette. The cakes also are distinctly tangy, almost sour, the result of using fresh buttermilk. "A lot of people are used to buttermilk powder," explains Jim Brandes, one of the little restaurant's owners. "When you use real buttermilk, it's a bit zippier. It's an ancient Al recipe." That buttermilk batter "is seldom more than an hour old," specifies Brandes. "It's extremely fresh--we make it all day long so it doesn't run out." The secret to the near-crust is the hot, hot grill, which has been going eight days a week for twenty-odd years. (And no, it's not the very same grill that made Bob Dylan's long-ago pancakes; that one wore out. "We scraped right through it," says Brandes. "This one still has a half-inch of steel to it.")

For the rest of the pancakes I tried, let's wrap it up quickly: They were all good, though not great. Dixie's in St. Paul has some very crisp pancakes. The Day by Day Cafe makes giant, floppy, homemade buttermilk flapjacks, but the day belonged to the buckwheat cakes--thin, resilient disks, with a strong grain taste, that weren't gruff or chewy. I thought I loved the pancakes at Rick's Ol' Time Café--modest, home-style rounds that fit in well with the mock-shack environment, but after having my head turned by greater cakes...well, you can never go home again. The Seward Cafe had nice, fluffy buckwheat pancakes--served with, bless them, a frugally portioned ounce of maple syrup--and a heartwarming scene of grade-school-aged kids reading selections from the children's bookshelf to toddlers. Unfortunately, the Seward also made the only bad cake I found: the poetically named "Righteous Pancake," a sand-dense wheat-free, dairy-free creation made with organic rice, millet, and corn flour that tasted like putty.

Speaking of, did you know that the very first commercially prepared food--at least according to the Dictionary of American Food and Drink--was Aunt Jemima Self Rising Pancake Flour? Or that the annual Dutch carnivals, or kermis, revolved around pancakes? Or...oh, forget about it. I'll never be able to cover all the legend and lore. Time to face the truth: It's a pancake world, and we are merely eaters.

 

TABLEHOPPING

IRRADIATE THIS: Well, it's time for the second Consumer's Right to Know Forum, this one on irradiated food, and the whole thing depresses the hell out of me. On one side are the well-funded megacorporations, who insist that the only way their monopolistic, largely unsupervised meat operations can provide "safe" food is to kill disease-bearing microorganisms by bombarding them with radiation. They are supported by well-meaning doctors who'd rather trade in known problems (some food-borne diseases) for a host of known (vitamin destruction) and unknown ones (radiolytic products in foods, irradiation plants, irradiation waste products, accidents at irradiation plants, irradiation-resistant bacteria).

Lined up on the other underfunded, underorganized side is a ragtag band of those who distrust irradiation, some of whom are willing to battle for a democratically safe food supply, and the rest of whom are just taking their marbles and going home--or at least taking their dollars to the small, organic, expensive meat counters where a parallel, but intimately supervised meat culture is developing.

But if you are thinking that the best response to this maddening state of affairs is to crawl under your bed: don't. Steve McCargar, the co-manager of a food co-op in Decorah and the David in this public forum against our locally grown Goliath, former state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm--puts it well. "The people who think [irradiation] is a great thing are going to be there," says McCargar, and the questions generated by the audience will shape the debate. "What we need to do most is to convince people to ask good questions, and not be intimidated. At the very least stand up for the principle that every citizen has a right to have an informed opinion about these public-policy issues. And I believe an informed citizenry is going to have doubts about the wisdom of embracing this technology." The forum, sponsored by the Wedge Co-op, Mississippi Market, the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Macalester College, takes place at the Weyerhaeuser Chapel at Macalester on Thursday, April 22, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are free and can be picked up at the Wedge, Mississippi Market, and the Campus Programs Office at Mac. Call (651) 696-6203 for more information. Attendees are encouraged to bring a nonperishable food item for donation to the Joyce Food Shelf in Minneapolis, or the New Beginnings Center in St. Paul.

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