Don’t touch handrails. Embrace the scent of Purell. Accept that your very own face is off limits to you. Vote for... whomever is necessary, even if it hurts.
Being an adult in the age of COVID-19 means doing all of the above, because we have always been each other’s keepers in a way that no invisible borders can contain.
That said (not to get 1994 Winona Ryder on everyone), reality kinda bites right now. The appeal of regressing (or digressing) into a little fantasy and escapism is perennially appealing for good reason. Responsibly seizing spots of light is also important throughout life, even if it’s equally difficult as the above.
And this is why we’ve gathered here today: We want to talk to you about pancakes.
As (mostly) functioning adults, we’re not just talking any pancakes. We’d never send you to IHOP’s $4.99 all-you-can-eat deal/scam, which treats us like we don’t know that this breakfast food has a freakish ability to expand and fill your stomach quickly, no matter how much you’ve eaten. “Ten minutes in, you’re full: The pancake story.”
Rather, our modest proposal involves a visit to the reigning Queen of Flapjacks during this time of physical and spiritual peril. Her kingdom occupies a small pocket of frippery and delight on Grand Avenue in St. Paul called Thirty-Six Cafe. Their reputation exists as much for serving what is believed to be Minnesota’s only soufflé pancakes (aka edible clouds) as its ethereal ambiance that transports guests to a more relaxed state. For these reasons, we can think of no better occasion for a visit to Thirty-Six Cafe than the here-and-now.
Time in the cafe moves at a pace directly opposite to the 24-hour news cycle. Rainbows pass over your table to mark the passage of time. No, this is not egregious hyperbole; the uppermost panes of the cafe’s windows were replaced with a material that refracts light like a prism. There are actual migrating rainbows throughout the cafe.
Due in part to this atmosphere of floating, competition for tables can be stiff as a beaten egg white, especially on weekends. When Thirty-Six first opened, customers were known to wait up to two hours for the cafe’s signature pancakes. (They simply take 15 minutes minimum to make, and once the new, tiny kitchen got busy? Well.) Except unlike most restaurants, these extended waits didn’t bury the place.
Much to the surprise of Macy Lee, Thirty-Six cafe’s owner, patrons are content putting their days on hold in favor of existing in the space she’s built. Case in point: When the cafe first opened in November, Lee purchased a reserve of takeaway coffee cups she anticipated might last three weeks. As of press time, she has yet to run out.
“People were coming in and because of the atmosphere, the decor, and the cafe, people were hardly taking their drinks to go,” she says, a hint of disbelief in her voice. “Everyone’s dining in, they’re experiencing this, they’re taking pictures, they’re hanging out.”
Yeah, the soufflé pancakes are great, and wait times to get them are shorter than they once were, even though the cafe is still packed each weekend and during Peak Pancake Hours (PPH). But also: A lot of people aren’t in a hurry to rush back to reality from the respite Thirty-Six provides.
Incredibly, Lee opened her cafe with no experience in the worlds of coffee, baking, interior design, or courting social media influencers. She’d had a full career in labor law and commercial real estate until not long ago. Lee’s vision started simply enough: unite people from all walks through coffee and a comfortable atmosphere. Soufflé pancakes (and the cafe’s sleeper item, Thai honey toast) were almost an afterthought, added to give her coffee house a competitive advantage.
“I really had no confidence and didn’t think the soufflé pancakes would take off the way that they did,” says Lee. “No other cafes or coffee shops offer it, so perhaps that could be something that sets us apart.”
Before Thirty-Six opened, she’d bake through the night, tweaking her pancake recipe at 1 a.m., and pop home during the lunch break from her nine-to-five to covertly whip up a quick batch. No one knew she was dead-set on introducing Minnesota to a devilishly difficult-to-master dish that had swept both coasts’ food scenes.
“Of all the hundreds of people who tried it, only one person actually knew what I was serving them,” Lee recalls, revealing that she’d fed her test batches straight from her fridge. “I knew if people could have it warm they would love it, but if they loved it cold, they would love it even more as a warm serving.” The efficient and savvy cold pancake move helped Lee build confidence as she dialed in the recipe, while keeping her ultimate plan a secret. “No one knew they were soufflé pancakes and I never said a word.... People had never had it before so there was no benchmark. I was a little nervous.”
All that time ditching work to fold batter and feed friends amounted to a treat that’s meant to be relished, not scarfed. Towering nearly two inches high apiece, these eggy pillows come in trios, with variations like Bananas Foster, and a sweetened condensed milk and heart-strawberry adorned Classic option. They’re best enjoyed after a good jiggle and an ogle, only diving in headlong after texting a friend about them mid-third bite.
Thirty-Six opts for the opposite of today’s de rigeur coffee-shop vibe, which leans into browns and hard industrial design. There’s the oft-photographed peony wall—densely packed with hundreds of artificial blooms—plus a cascading floral chandelier. A blush booth runs the length of the cafe, strewn with pink velvet throw pillows. Lee says DIY pragmatism led to designing a space that she and her girlfriends would feel comfortable in. Given her shoestring budget and a maximum of 20 days to turn around the cafe, she simply made the most of what was at her disposal.
“I had a vision of wanting it to be a floral space, but I had no idea how it was going to turn out,” Lee says, recounting a classic small-business-owner story of making do, and laughing about what it took to build something that could easily be mistaken for a professional’s piece of work. “I went to every Michaels in town, bought every silk flower, the most expensive silk flowers to the point that I had to bicker with every store manager to say, ‘Hey, you’re taking this competitor’s coupon,’ to get them to maximize the discount.”
You’re never not a participant in this world, but visiting Thirty-Six Cafe superimposes an intentionality on your time. As prismatic light dances at your feet and fingertips, where flowers on all sides obscure the shard-y mountains of ash and grit melting at the curbs outside, participation feels different—more like a choice.
This is why I am once again asking you to eat these soufflé pancakes.
And to stop touching your face already. Now go wash your hands.
949 Grand Ave., St. Paul