Grim times have befallen the pancake. In days of yore they were as much of a morning staple as a black cup of coffee. But lately, chain diners have sullied the pancake's reputation, serving up homogenous, thin, tasteless, soggy concoctions merely meant to absorb imitation syrup so sweet one can barely taste anything beyond sugar after the first two bites. Worse, because of these lowered standards, we fear the creation of a generation of home cooks who aspire to nothing more ambitious than Bisquick and water. Sacrilege!
Fret not, sweet-tooth indulgers, there's still hope! What follows are some of the noble diners, restaurants, and greasy spoons out there still serving pancakes and waffles as they should be: made with fresh batter (ahem), real ingredients (fresh fruit, fresh whipped cream, powdered sugar), and toothsome textures (from crunchy to chewy to smooth).
413 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis
A blink-and-you'll-miss it diner, Al's Breakfast is as grandly legendary as the alley-sized restaurant is tiny. This Dinkytown institution is rarely sparsely populated, but the U of M professors and students who frequent the place will tell you it's well worth the wait in the line of people stretching down the street for one of the coveted 14 stools at the yellow Formica countertop. (Meaning, perhaps, that a cozy, greasy-spoon diner can also have an air of exclusivity to it.) Once inside, diners can watch chefs make pancakes on the super-hot cast-iron grill.
Al's Breakfast doesn't take any cheap shortcuts: Their signature buttermilk pancakes are actually made with real buttermilk, and not buttermilk powder. And it's the buttermilk, mixed into a batter that has to be made almost hourly to meet popular demand, that gives these cakes their subtly tangy/sour taste. As a bonus, thanks to the super-hot griddle, they are served up golden brown with a protective crunchy exterior, rendering them strong enough to hold their own against the maple syrup, berries, or sour cream diners slather on them. The blueberry and walnut cakes are particularly popular.
As its name suggests, Al's Breakfast is a morning-only joint, open from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Sunday.
1113 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
For the pancake connoisseur, Maria's cachapas venezolanas, or corn pancakes, are the summit for which one makes the pilgrimage from the 'burbs to the city. With a deserved cult following for many years, these plate-sized, cheerful, yellow corn cakes are slightly sweeter than their mundane wheat-flour cousins, studded with tiny bursts of corn crunchiness. They're also moister than the typical pancake, and are topped with a generous scoop of butter and bits of a Parmesan-like Latin cheese that is tasty without being disconcertingly salty or grainy.
The great pancake bonanza doesn't stop there, either: Although the corn cakes are part of the required dining experience at Maria's, Colombian-born Maria Hoyos also does a smashing job with fruit pancakes. Plump and chunky, they're filled and topped with your choice of fruit: banana, raspberry, pineapple, blueberry, strawberry, or the ever-unique mango (a dessertlike dish drizzled with sweet mango sauce; since breakfast is served all day, in theory they could be a dessert). Also on the menu are the Minnesota-friendly wild-rice pancakes and raisin-and-walnut pancakes. Served up with coffee (Colombian, of course), all of these meal-sized cakes are reasonably priced--$2.75 for one or, for those about to have a growth spurt, two for $5.25.
Maria's is open from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
771 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul
Highland Grill, with its retro-yet-modern decor, is almost like a diner from the future. There's track lighting, and bright green walls playfully coexist with vinyl booths, plastic cafeteria-style glasses, and terrycloth napkins. There are pancakes, of course, and good ones: buckwheat cakes made from organically milled Minnesota flour and served up with powdered sugar and strawberry-rum butter, or, as the Jack Stack, a buckwheat short stack topped with every breakfast condiment/topping/spread imaginable (blueberries, honey, house-made granola, peanut butter, bananas, and raisins).
But those jonesin' for a satisfying sugar fix can order Andrew's Killer Banana Waffle, a hearty, fluffy, vaguely cinnamony Belgian waffle topped with caramelized bananas, hot maple syrup, and whipped cream--a perfect triumvirate of fruity sweet, creamy sweet, and syrupy sweet. It's the breakfast of champions for those that are hummingbirds at heart. (Too much for you? There's griddle-fried sourdough French toast, too: a super-battered, crunchy-chewy confection topped with butter and a squeeze of lemon.) Also keep an eye out for yummy weekly specials.
Highland Grill serves breakfast all day and is open from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
Bryant-Lake Bowl is truly the great multitasker of Uptown. It's a bar! It's a bowling alley! It's a performance space! And it's a restaurant that serves up affordable and healthy breakfast fare; many items on the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus are vegetarian- or vegan-friendly. Be sure to check out the tasty granola pancakes, an entrée that actually manages to multitask as much as the restaurant that serves them. They're made fresh to order with homemade granola in the batter, and somehow they manage to magically vary with each mouthful (crunchy one bite, sunflowery/nutty/oats-y the next, and still chewy-sweet with craisins the next). These texturally adventurous pancakes are served up with organic maple syrup, and at a frugal $1.25 each you can afford them on any budget.
Other sweet breakfast items include French toast made with baguettes and classic silver dollar pancakes. It's a great way to start the day of before a shopping expedition through Uptown, bowling with the kiddies, or an early movie screening.
Breakfast is served daily from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.
BAND BOX DINER
729 S. 10th St., Minneapolis
With six counter seats and four small tables, the Band Box Diner is a cozy, historical haunt located in Minneapolis's Elliott Park neighborhood. Although it has gone through some shifts and shuffles throughout the years, both owner- and quality-wise, recent years have been great, and right now the diner serves up food the old-fashioned way: affordable, filling, and straight-up good. In spectacular diner tradition, Band Box Diner's pancakes are made griddle hot and served golden with the perfect crunchy/chewy/salty give-and-take.
These are pancakes that can stand alone--no need to drown them in maple syrup. The wonderfully crisp strawberry short stack is two plate-sized cakes topped with fresh, sliced fruit, powdered sugar, and a generous dollop of homemade whipped cream.
Band Box Diner is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
1818 Grand Ave., St. Paul
Thanks to a varied clientele--hungover college students, senior citizens, and after-church brunching families, this diner is always hopping on weekends. Pancakes, made fresh daily from scratch, are of plate-smothering proportions. They're served up light and fluffy, with blueberry or maple syrup. And, although one or two should be plenty for the average-size stomach, the genuinely famished can order up to three.
All waffles, French toast, and pancakes can be served Zydeco style--topped with blueberries, walnuts, fresh bananas, and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Another popular sweet dish is the sourdough French toast--three thick slices dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
Breakfast is served from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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