There's almost nothing in the world I love as much as a plate of pancakes. My wife, a good book, that first cigarette in the morning, and driving fast on desert highways with no cops in sight -- they all edge out pancakes, but not by much. Pancakes are definitely in my top five.
And why not? A tall stack of flapjacks is basically an American excuse to eat cake for breakfast. As a kid, I'd get a furtive thrill whenever my folks took me to the diner in the morning and told me to order whatever I wanted. I'd ask for pancakes, of course -- beautiful, warm, perfectly round pancakes, lacy and crisp at the edges, slathered in butter and drizzled with warm syrup from a sticky jug -- and eat them quickly, shoveling them down like I was getting away with something, like at any moment my dad might glance up from his coffee, look at me, then at my mom and ask, "Cindy, what are we doing letting the boy eat cake for breakfast?"
They say that the memories we make when we're young are the most affecting, and that food memories -- with the way they involve all the senses and better humors -- are the most powerful of all. And now that I am (ostensibly) a grown man, my mania for pancakes has only deepened. They still seem slightly illicit, always exotic. Everywhere I go, the pancakes taste a little different. From Jewish deli latkes to sweet French crepes, from the heavy monsters I ate down South with cane syrup or black molasses to the brilliant gingerbread version served in a little hippie breakfast bar in Austin, as long as pancakes are made with care and pride, I love them all. Like bacon, barbecue, meatloaf and cassoulet, pancakes hold a special place of honor in the pantheon of my edible memories.
Because of my admittedly unhealthy and slightly absurd fascination with the humble flapjack, I have spent many years searching for the best -- always refining my definition of what "best" might mean, always on the lookout for new adaptations of a common theme. I'm not a traditionalist in this respect; I'm a slut. I'll take a pancake any way I can get it. And anytime someone comes up with a new iteration -- a new batter, a new topping, a new syrup -- I get all hot and bothered and have to try it.
My obsession extends not just to product, but to place. For as long as I have cared about food -- which, like as not, started the moment I scarfed my first short stack -- I have also been looking for the perfect environment for consuming that food. The diner, dive or breakfast bar of my dreams.
And now I'm pretty sure I've found it: Toast. In Littleton, of all places.
Toast is small, seating maybe forty on the floor, and so new it squeaks. Comfortable, brightly lit, with colorful breakfast-themed art on the walls and decorative toasters lurking in odd corners, it's cute but not too cute, hip but not too hip, striking that ideal balance of being welcoming the minute you walk through the door for the first time and completely forgettable forever after. The atmosphere could be partly nitrous oxide: a couple deep breaths and suddenly everything is Day-Glo, and an hour evaporates in five minutes. Service operates on a fast-casual model, with orders taken at the counter, a numbered plastic card issued and the plates brought to your table quickly, though never in a rush. All of the servers are efficient, occasionally confused by the constant rollover of tables and plates going this way and that, but quick to fix mistakes. Everyone smiles a lot. There's no attitude, no coffeehouse political subtext, no bistro pretension, no affectation. It's just breakfast. And at the counter, the answer to every question is yes.
On a Saturday morning, with a menu in hand and knowing exactly what I want, I walk in and change my mind about everything. I'd been thinking green tea, maybe some nice eggs and bacon or a prosciutto omelet with Havarti. But as I watch plates coming out of the kitchen, I'm swayed, tempted to follow each waitress to her table and ask its occupants if I can just have a taste of what they're having.
Laura holds me back, makes me focus. We order a crabcake Benedict; grilled, peppered chicken with queso añejo, smoked chile cream and salsa in a tortilla wrap; pancakes (of course); bacon; eggs over easy; coffee and orange juice. That's where she makes me stop, but when she isn't looking, I run back up to the counter and add a breakfast burrito to go. There isn't room on our table for all the food. I'm so happy.
Toast offers five kinds of eggs Benny, and they're all good. The crab Benedict is luxurious, the tenderloin Benny the best way to handle a breakfast steak short of turning it into souvlaki (and even better than souvlaki when you go the extra mile and order it Oscar-style, topped with lump crabmeat and asparagus), the classic a wonderful excuse to inject more pig into your diet, substituting cured prosciutto for the traditional smoked ham.
The sandwiches are all interesting and well conceived, running toward the nouvelle and assembled with wild generosity by exec chef Robert Alfaro and his crew. The chicken wrap is coolly AmeriMex without making a big thing of it, the apple and brie a delicious mess of French classicism and American top notes, jolting the cafe standard with tart Fuji apple and a smear of cranberry-pecan aioli. Curry chicken salad cut with chèvre? Brilliant and smooth and electric. And the house-roasted turkey club on croissant with baby greens, avocado, bacon, Havarti and that cranberry-pecan aioli is stunning, the kind of sandwich that makes you rethink the place of sandwiches in your life, the kind that makes you want to eat nothing but sandwiches for a month.
Sandwiches and pancakes. If everything else on Toast's menu is great, the signature pancakes are superlative, so good as to border on dangerous -- especially since the house offers them as a flight of four, each pancake better than the last, leading to a sugar-jacked and twitchy amazement or (if you're me) a minor coma of overindulgence.
Even the standard flapjacks -- "Plain Jane Pancakes," as they're billed on the menu -- are better than the ultra-deluxe, super-specialty pancakes served almost anywhere else. Light and fluffy, yet dense, concentrically browned on the flat grill and served with nothing but whipped butter and maple syrup, they're subtly sweet, delicately starchy, tasting like cheap Mexican pastries or carnival funnel cakes or yellow angelfood, depending on your mindset at the moment. They taste like you imagine pancakes would taste when you see perfect pictures in magazines, on menus, how you might remember pancakes tasting when you were a child: a pure indulgence, dessert made into a meal.
Toast's cooks offer Fruity Pebbles pancakes on the kids' menu, but they'll also serve them to a full-grown man provided he asks nicely and pretends that a kid will be joining him later. They make pancakes crusted with crushed Oreos, touched with marshmallow fluff and topped with chocolate crème -- which sounds like it ought to be overwhelmingly nasty, but, on the one hand, is actually a rather complicated process of assembly that's a credit to the talents on the line, and on the other, is just intoxicatingly good, if not the slightest bit subtle. The strawberry-cheesecake pancakes have the texture of pie crust and are topped with warm cream-cheese sauce and a commendably fortified strawberry coulis. The lemon-blueberry pancakes are made with a buttermilk batter and lemon zest, crusted with smashed ginger snaps. An order of bananas Foster pancakes is simply an order of bananas Foster (sans the booze and fire) served across the back of a short stack topped with ice cream. If there were a MacArthur genius grant handed out in the field of pancake-making, the guy who thought of taking one of the sweetest and most overdramatic desserts in the world and pouring it on top of my breakfast would be high in the running.
Who am I kidding? He'd win it hands down.
The first morning, I eat plain pancakes. When I come back, it's for the lemon-blueberry, then again for the bananas Foster. I tell myself I'm really coming to try the French toast infused with chai tea and served with clover honey and caramelized apples, but that's not how it goes down. I also eat an entire tenderloin Benedict and a side of roasted potatoes, just so I can call the pancakes dessert. On a quiet Monday afternoon, I break down entirely and order the pancake flight -- silver-dollar portions, all lined up on a long white plate that a less dignified man might call a trough.
As my pancake flight arrives, I imagine myself in the movie version of my life, snatching the plate from the waitress, wide-eyed, gape-mouthed, tossing my fork over my shoulder in slow motion, hair flying out behind me as I bury my face in the plate and eat while Etta James sings "At Last." In reality, I'm slightly more restrained, though not much. A minute or an hour later, I still push away from the table with blueberry on my shirt, syrup on my pants and whipped cream in my hair, stuffed but not sated, wondering even as I'm throwing down my tip how long I ought to reasonably wait before returning.
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