Some of the best days of my childhood started with pancakes. If I stumbled out of bed to the clang and clatter of Mom mixing batter in the kitchen, I knew she had a rare day off. I knew she'd be spending time at home, with me. And I knew she loved me, maybe as much as I loved her pancakes.

The flapjacks served every morning at the Children's Hospital cafeteria, 1056 18th Avenue, aren't quite as heavenly as my ma's. But they're mighty good, as large as your face -- almost as big as a mother's heart. And they cost a buck. In a place where comfort is especially prized, they're the ultimate comfort food.

"I'll have two of them," a hungry diner says to Paul Artis, the man behind the hospital's pancake-therapy program. A second later, as she watches Artis ladle a skillet-sized pool of batter onto his Imperial griddle, she corrects her order. "Make that one," she says.


Children's Hospital cafeteria

"I hear that pretty often," Artis says. "One's about all most people can eat."

A baker in Denver for a dozen years, Artis has been at Children's for three, overseeing the morning shift. Each day he heads a two-person short-order team that serves up budget-priced, flavorful breakfasts -- including monstrous burritos, French toast, made-to-order egg-and-side-meat platters and the cafeteria's morning buffet -- to hospital staffers, patients' families, even in-the-know neighbors. Today Tom Baker is taking orders, filling them with a smile and trading jabs with Artis. (Prentis Sykes is Artis's regular sidekick.) The cafeteria serves lunch and dinner, too, with an evening menu filled with ambitious dishes you'd never expect to find in a hospital mess hall; a recent specials roster included sherried chicken breasts, spinach ravioli in an Asiago cheese sauce, Korean beef over sesame noodles, and a tomato-and-fennel beef stew.

"But the pancakes are the thing the people want," Artis reports. "I got regulars, man -- staff members, people from the neighborhood -- that come in an get 'em. All kinds of folks."

Artis makes his one-dollar wonders from five-pound bags of Krusteaz buttermilk mix ("It's top-flight, man," he notes) cut with three quarts of water. "It's all in the wrist," he says, while whipping up a thick whirlpool of the ingredients in a stockpot. Once the batter is as smooth as good paint, he loads up a six-ounce ladle and then tips it out onto his sizzling workspace. At times there are as many as a half-dozen cakes on the griddle, backed by a sizzling six square feet of hashbrowns at the rear of the cooktop. As bubbles rise through the batter, Artis greets customers and continues taking orders, flipping cakes all the while with the nonchalant expertise of the skilled short-order veteran.

"You want whipped cream and strawberries on those pancakes?" he asks a mother and daughter before customizing a pair. Possible pancake accessories -- each extra costs a quarter -- include other fruits as well as chocolate chips that spell out special messages for patients.

But the pancakes here may help more employees and family members than patients. "A lot of people, they tell me, 'I need that pancake to get through the day,'" Artis says. "They need something to calm 'em down and relax 'em."

Each completed hotcake -- a finger thick, with a gloriously mottled skin and fluffy interior -- is split in half and served stacked, the twin layers filling up a Styrofoam plate with a perfect half-circle of rise-and-shine sustenance and just a hint of glutinous, stick-to-your-soul texture. Artis says the kitchen will blow through a couple of bags of Krusteaz today, making for about 160 of these monstrous, melt-in-your-middle wonders.

"Oh, my gosh," gushes April Patzer, a nurse in Children's surgery unit, "I get them as often as I can, at least once a week. They're so big and yummy and buttery." Three weeks from delivering her own child, she says the flapjacks are good for up-and-comers as well. "The baby loves them," she adds, patting her extended belly.

And it works both ways. "Pancakes," says Baker, "remind me of Mama."

For those of us miles from our mother's pancakes and hungry for home cooking, that's one hefty payoff. And for the staff at Children's, recently ranked the nation's fifth-best children's hospital, Artis's over-the-counter treatments are as important as any medicine.

"When you start your day with pancakes," Patzer points out, "good things are going to happen."

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