The American pancake is ubiquitous but rarely transcendent. Restaurants take them for granted. People have warm feelings about pancakes, so if a restaurant puts pancakes on the menu, it's almost a guaranteed sale.
Anyone can make pancakes, but what does it take to make great ones? You need a point of view, and you have to experiment enough to leave your imprimatur on the griddle while keeping the dish recognizable as pancakes. When someone has a paradigm in their head and achieves it—that is pancake greatness.
I have a very specific set of criteria for great pancakes, which is why it's rare that I take a chance on ordering them. I have to know going in that a place does them well. There aren't many clues you can read ahead of time—a restaurant may say they make theirs from scratch, which helps, but more often they'll say they use a "proprietary mix," which could mean anything from a secret recipe to Bisquick. Here, though, are my measures of pancake success.
Crisp Edges, Light Centers
Great pancakes need crisp edges that crackle with a lacy crunch. I want some contrast to chew on. But they also need to be light and tender; that's essential. Good pancakes have a hole structure almost like good bread, more consistent than a baguette, but with some lift. What you don't want is a leaden middle layer that hasn't cooked through. It's the same problem with some pizza—that gooey bit of crust under the cheese that's too doughy.
"I'll admit that butter has the power to make decent pancakes truly memorable if it's properly softened or, even better, molten."
If a pancake is made really well it doesn't need butter. Part of that is because it should be cooked with butter on the griddle, or at least a butter-oil combination. Though I'll admit that butter has the power to make decent pancakes truly memorable if it's properly softened or, even better, molten. On a recent trip to LA with Kenji, we stopped in for pancakes at pancake-famed Du-par's. Kenji was amazed by the pitchers of drawn butter they leave on the table. He thinks it's genius—it makes pancakes like eating lobster—and you know, it is genius. He asked me, "Why doesn't everyone serve their pancakes this way?"
The smaller the pancake, the better. They don't need to be silver dollar sized, but I don't want my pancakes to cover the whole plate. Those hubcab-sized pancakes are like mondo slices of pizza—you know the place is covering up for the fact that they can't make a good pancake.
Maple vs. Sugar
A pancake itself doesn't have to be very sweet. A truly great pancake deserves equally great maple syrup, so if a pancake isn't sweet on its own, the maple takes care of it. The thing about maple syrup is there isn't a person alive who can't tell the difference between real maple and phony pancake syrup. I'm okay with getting charged a dollar for the little glass bottle. Rarely is it an option, but when it is, I'm happy to pay it.
Don't Mess With the Flour
"Whole grain pancakes are an affectation to me."
There's a generic taste to pancake mix pancakes. I can't quite say what it is, but you taste it and you know, they didn't make this here. So make your pancakes from scratch, though there are some decent mixes; I use Fairway's when I'm feeling lazy. Don't, however, get cute with the flour. I can't ever remember a time I've been excited about buckwheat pancakes. Whole grain pancakes are an affectation to me.
Leave the Chocolate Out
I love blueberry pancakes. Think about the blueberry—it's little, so it cooks well, and it's sweet and tart. It just goes so well with pancakes. Bananas do too, but for a different reason—they blend nicely into the batter. And I like the tartness buttermilk adds, though it's not a requirement for me.
But I don't believe in chocolate chip pancakes. The chocolate strikes me as too much; it takes away from the pancake's essence. Save it for dessert.
My New York Pancake Picks
When Mitchel London was the chef at the Fairway Cafe, the pancakes there were the gold standard: small with crisp edges, buttery and delicious. You could eat a lot of them. But when Mitchel left, everything changed. I was just there last week and the pancakes just aren't the same. These I'm a fan of the Lexington Candy Shop's pancakes, which also nail the crisp edges, and in a pinch I'll get the solid ones, also with crisp edges, from Landmark Pancake House.
At Maialino they do incredible lemon-ricotta pancakes, which are so light and porous they drink in maple syrup. If there's not enough ricotta in the batter for you, they heap even more on top.
And I like Kenny Shopsin's pancakes at Shopsins, of course, but if you asked for a plain pancake he'd probably throw you out. He has dozens of pancake options, like peanut butter- and pumpkin-laden slutty cakes , or silver dollar pancakes stuffed with mac and cheese. The latter idea sounds better than it tastes, not that it's bad—it's a pancake plus mac and cheese, so how could it be bad? But Kenny is one of those people who knows what something like a pancake is supposed to taste like. It's like his sliders and egg cream; there's something so right about them. He has a sixth sense for what's delicious.