In the Beginning...
The International House of Pancakes seemed like the obvious choice for breakfast. I had friends in town -- non-foodie friends who couldn't pick a head of endive out of a lineup even if I spotted them three food groups -- and the IHOP was walking distance from their hotel. We could meet there in the morning, grab a little something to eat and a whole lot of coffee, then be on our way with no fuss. Simple.
I'd never been to an IHOP before, and yes, I know how weird that sounds -- like saying I've never heard of Florida or asking what's this thing called television that everyone's always talking about. Still, this was my first time, and after one visit, I'm never going back.
It's hard to say what pissed me off the most. The watery coffee? Our shuffling server with the Thorazine smile? The fact that, as an adult, I should never be required to utter the words "rooty-tooty fresh and fruity breakfast" just to get some friggin' apple pancakes? The applesauce was sour, the bacon burned, the potato pancakes tasted like skinny hockey pucks woven from hay and dried onion flakes, and the scrambled eggs were so miserly portioned and overcooked and ugly and brown that they were barely recognizable as food. This breakfast was so bad that the only thing that got me through was the knowledge that living in a free society means no one can ever make me eat at a place like the International House of Pancakes twice against my will.
Breakfast -- and I'm talking an American breakfast here -- should be easy. Its assembly -- similar, though not identical, to an English breakfast, only without so many kidneys and blood sausage, and second only to the French breakfast of three espressos and a half a pack of Gitanes on my list of worldly favorites -- is a lot like putting together one of those sectional bookcases from Kmart. It's workmanlike, plain and done without flourish, within the constraints of limited resources. There's not much innovation in the breakfast field, very little in the way of wild experimentation. That's because in the kitchen, the breakfast (or brunch) line is punishment detail -- a culinary purgatory. Once you find yourself there, odds are you're not going to be leaving anytime soon. If cooking were boxing, the breakfast shift would be the speed bag and the jump rope -- where a new guy goes to get his timing down. If cooking were football, breakfast would be coaching -- where your go-to guy goes when he can no longer hit as hard or run as fast as he used to. There he can lord his veteran status over the line, show the rookies the ropes, scout fresh talent for dinner and age with some measure of grace.
But as your mom always told you, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In three-a-day kitchens, breakfast is offered mostly because a case of eggs -- thirty dozen, that's 360 individual huevos -- can be gotten for less than twenty bucks. Figure two over-easy to a plate at 36 cents, a nickel's worth of hashbrowns and two pieces of bacon that'll run you maybe a quarter each, then do the math. Bacon and eggs almost anywhere will cost the diner $5.99 minimum -- at a food cost of, what, ninety cents? That's not counting wrap and labor or any of that, but still, that kind of raw per-plate profit would make any chef grin with unabashed pecuniary glee. A good exec is like Snoop: He's got his mind on his money and his money on his mind. And that dull breakfast his kitchen serves is what's covering the debt the dinner crew racks up with all that foie gras and lobster. It's simple economics, and the last thing a chef wants is some culinary Michelangelo on the brunch line trying to stick arugula and truffles in everything and messing up his P&Ls.
So that's why most American restaurant breakfasts are the way they are, why the International House of Pancakes can boast something on the order of 13 zillion locations while still being a big black hole of suck, and why -- as a former chef and current critic -- I generally shy away from reviewing breakfasts. But there are exceptions to every rule, and the Original Pancake House is that exception.
From the outside, the Original Pancake House on Belleview Avenue in the Denver Tech Center seems all wrong. For starters, it's part of a chain with a second location here in Greenwood Village, ninety outposts in 23 states, and one of those "find a location" maps on its website that looks like a Republican Party battle plan: states already conquered marked in red, those not yet turned just outlines waiting to be filled by the inexorable tide of pancake imperialism.
Worse, at first glance it appears to be a half-cutesy chain with an open-plan dining room packed with tables and a decorating style that's like Midwestern-homespun Marie Callender's-lite. There's inoffensive and eminently forgettable art on the walls, a small-town Saturday Evening Post vibe cut to fit the suburban pre-fab space, and a whiff of gingham about everything. The silver is electroplated and strangely heavy -- made to look and feel antique, but giving me the strange impression of eating in someone's doll house. And the servers and front-house staff are always uncomfortably happy. They wear smiles pinned back to their earlobes, like every morning at the Original Pancake House is the best morning of their lives -- and frankly, I find this sort of happiness disturbing. It makes me wonder what goes on in the back, out of sight of the customers.
The guys in the open kitchen, though -- they give me faith. The illusion of clean-and-shiny sublime morning joy ends in the area separating the dining room from the back of the house, where a narrow trench of a service area is packed with soda machines, hot and cold wells, stacks of plates, oceans of syrup. Beyond that is the kitchen, which at peak hours is absolutely crammed with cooks in white jackets, stubble, scowls. Their abused and solid batterie de cuisine is arrayed around them, and though architectural pains have obviously been taken to keep these fellows from the hurly-burly rush of the breakfast crowd -- to insulate diners in a shell of smiles and saccharine cute while still giving the impression of an open kitchen -- they're still there. You can hear them if you listen, yelling for pick-ups, cursing, making cook's music, banging pans on burners and plates to the rail. And what they're able to do with breakfast -- that singular obsession of the Original Pancake House empire -- puts to shame those pale and lazy and uninspired egg plates knocked out every day by other breakfast shifts at other restaurants across the fruited plain.
Ten-inch waffles, oven-risen apple pancakes puffed like massive soufflés and glazed with cinnamon sauce. Sugar-cured, hickory-smoked ham steaks, thick-cut bacon that looks and tastes like bacon ought to -- fatty and stiff, salty, smoky, chewy and porkerific, not like charcoal, not like a brick-flattened piece of cardboard scribbled brown and drooled with grease. The cooks have their own recipe for link sausage, and it's a good one -- spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. And they make their own corned-beef hash out of shredded kosher brisket, chopped potatoes, big whacks of onion and a shot of heavy cream. A side dish of this could feed two hungry Irishmen for an entire day.
The kitchen does eggs, of course -- five-egg omelettes, ham and eggs, hash and eggs, bacon and eggs, diced ham and scrambled eggs that hit my table just this side of curded, neither seized and swimming in egg water from cooking too low and slow, nor burnt and chunky like those plunked down before me at IHOP. These are an expert's eggs, cooked by someone in the kitchen who understands that eggs are tricky. They react to temperature, humidity, pressure and heat more than any bloody hunk of meat does, and each has its own individual character. To cook them right in a house that probably squeezes in four turns a day -- 200 tables or so before the joint closes at 2 p.m. -- takes a mastery for which chain restaurants are not generally known.
But then, the Original Pancake House isn't your average chain restaurant. It's been family-owned (with that family now into its third generation) since Les Highet and Erma Hueneke opened the original Original in Portland in 1953. Highet and Hueneke were cooks. They traveled a lot. And they knew and loved pancakes, particularly some of the stranger ethnic varieties not generally offered in the greasy spoons of Portland in the early '50s. So they built their own place, made their own menu, and offered their own best versions of the foods they liked. Fifty years later, their company has ninety restaurants -- a rate of expansion that seems downright glacial compared to other country-conquering chains, but this has allowed for an emphasis on product over artifice, on not just the little things, but a kitchen full of little things that, taken together, make the difference between a decent breakfast and a great meal.
In that time, they've won a James Beard award for outstanding regional restaurant, and they deserved it. The chain has racked up more minor kudos and baubles everywhere it goes: best of this, people's choice that. Every kitchen makes its own batters, its own sauces, working off recipes with specs that demand better-quality ingredients than you'd find in some Michelin galleys -- 93 score high-fat sauté butter, unbleached wheat flour, real whipping cream, bitter Montmorency cherries in a Danish Kijafa sauce for the Kijafa crepes, fresh apricots, aged cheddar, real triple sec, brandy and sherry for flaming and tempering sauces or juicing the sour-cream filling in the Continental crepes.
The orange juice is always fresh-squeezed. Of course, these days everyone claims that everything is fresh-squeezed, fresh-cut, handmade, but you don't know from fresh-squeezed orange juice until you taste this and understand the difference between actually squeezing an orange into a glass and serving it, and squeezing a thousand oranges into a vat and freezing it. The orange juice at the Original Pancake House is thick and pulpy, bittersweet, as orange as if the glass were filled with finger paint. It's like drinking sunshine, only chunky.
Then there are the pancakes, and this place has the market cornered. They start with the plain and simple, fluffy buttermilk variety, served with whipped butter and warmed syrup. Add to that buckwheat pancakes, potato pancakes (not the greatest in the world -- but real latkes and boxty, like true thin-crust pizzas, are rare out here) and weirdly acerbic sourdough flapjacks (made from a different batter than normal pancakes, the resulting cake thinner, tougher and less spongy). Swedish pancakes that are halfway between a crepe and a flapjack, coconut pancakes, Hawaiian pancakes with bananas, a version filled with Georgia pecans. The silver-dollar pancakes come ten to a plate. The bacon pancakes (buttermilk batter and chopped-up bits of thick-cut bacon) will be the death of me someday. The kitchen even makes wheat-germ pancakes, but Christ if I can figure out why anyone would order them.
For an exec, breakfast is a sop to the cruel economics and razor-thin profit margins of dinner. For a cook, breakfast is what you do when you can't do anything else. At chain restaurants and real restaurants alike, breakfast is the least creative, most maligned, most artless sort of meal -- punishment for cooks and diners alike. That's the rule, but the Original Pancake House is the exception. It succeeds marvelously where it has every reason to fail and every excuse for doing so. Somewhere in this chain's fifty-year history, the owners figured out that breakfast in America can be different, and I'm glad they shared that lesson with us.
If for no other reason than it means I never have to set foot in IHOP again.
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