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Maria's vs. Victor's: Clash of the corn cakes

How do you refuel when you roll out of bed on a crisp weekend morning a bit worse for wear after closing down the Red Dragon the night before? If you instinctively grope for gooey chocolate croissants or glazed donuts and iced coffee, your morning will perk up quickly -- before ending suddenly in a drooling, sugary coma on the couch or the bed or the chair or the bus stop. This is no way to live. Yet, a high protein breakfast of granola and Greek yogurt sweetened with agave nectar is too healthy, adult, and boring at any age. Corn pancakes for breakfast might be the ideal compromise you didn't know you were looking for.

See also: Al's vs. Fat Nat's: Dueling Diner Pancakes

The writing's on the wall for Victor's fans.
The writing's on the wall for Victor's fans.
Amy Dahlin

The Venue: This week pits the Cuban corn cakes from Victor's 1959 Cafe against the Colombian ones from Maria's Cafe. Which corn cake offers the best combination of sweet and savory for those of us who dream of a Princely snack as Saturday night drifts into Sunday morning?

The Weigh-in: Victor's is a charming little south Minneapolis shack whose graffiti-covered walls are heavy on testimonials from its loyal clientele. The menu at Victor's offers a wide variety of Cuban dishes; the vintage-vinyl-colored black beans and crispy tostones definitely caught our eyes when they were delivered to a nearby table. Maria's is both more spacious and more conventional. Its three different rooms provide lots of available seating but very little ambiance. (N.B.: Legit breakfast places apparently come in only two sizes -- "Slovakian root cellar" or "Bavarian beer hall.") However, Maria's had interesting yet unobtrusive live music that let us hold a conversation with each other without raising our voices, even though we were seated only a few feet away from the guitarist.

Round 1: The corn Both cakes have whole kernels of corn, but they differ in amount and consistency. The Victor's version contains enough corn to give the cake an almost meaty heft. Unfortunately, these kernels are also a bit chewy, as if they were taken from cobs left a bit too long before shucking. The Maria's cake has fewer of these tidbits, but they are more delicate and toothsome.

 

Maria's corn cake sprinkled with cotija cheese.
Maria's corn cake sprinkled with cotija cheese.
Amy Dahlin

Round 2: The cake Creamy and dense, Victor's cake will juice you up enough to power through a morning of snow-shoveling or cross-country skiing. There might be creamed corn added to their typical pancake batter, giving it that great earthy taste not found in wholly flour-based batters. Maria's cake is lighter and more crumbly -- could corn meal be in the batter? -- and settles softly in the gut.

Victor's corn cake with a side of chorizo.
Victor's corn cake with a side of chorizo.
Amy Dahlin

Round 3: The sides We ordered a side of chorizo links to go along with Victor's corn cake. They were a great, salty complement to the creamy sweetness of the cake. Unfortunately the scoop of butter on the cake was so cold that it was tough to evenly spread before it cooled off. Maria's cake is served plain, but it should be ordered with a side of cotija cheese as a garnish. The saltiness of the cheese mixes beautifully with easily spreadable butter already melting into that corn-y goodness. The winner is... Maria's Cafe. The décor is as forgettable as any VFW outpost, and the rest of the menu is basic diner fare; Victor's offers far more diverse and tasty breakfast/brunch options. But Maria's corn cake shines. We'll be returning to enjoy this ethereal, sweet and savory option whenever we wish to remember those wasted days and wasted nights.

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