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Hold on to your hats, especially the flat ones -- it's time for the First Annual Flapjack Flip-Off. Our four contestants: the Original Pancake House and the International House of Pancakes, for obvious reasons; S&S Diner, because it's the sort of landmark diner you'd expect to have great pancakes; and, to throw in a rookie factor, the spanking new Clarke's diner in the historic Coral House on South Beach. The unique aspect of this contest is that the participants have no idea they're competing -- no special treatment for me, no frayed nerves for them. The aim simply is to determine who makes the best buttermilk pancake (not buckwheat or blueberry or chocolate chip) on an everyday basis.
Another exciting angle to this griddlecake competition is that instead of relying on some overhyped blue-ribbon panel of experts, just one overhyped expert will make the judgments. That I've partaken of lots of pancakes is only part of my credentials. Another is that I once had the unenviable task of cooking Sunday room-service breakfasts for occupants of the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans. After weaving my way to work through the French Quarter at 5:00 a.m. (take my word, not a pretty sight), I would be faced with griddling up all sorts of hotcakes, including a house specialty of monstrously oversize ones with an avalanche of French meringue piped between the layers and over the top, the whole shebang then caramelized with a torch. I couldn't imagine who in the world would order such a dish so early in the morning, though in time I was tipped off by waiters that the pancakes were mostly consumed by never-say-die partiers who hadn't yet gone to sleep. I also was responsible for making buckwheat blini batter at the Russian Tea Room. Many famous people ate blinis there.
The criteria for judgment are as follows: quality of pancake -- fluffy? moist? flat? dry?; and all the subtle nuances, if there are any, in between.
21215 Biscayne Blvd.
Aventura, FL 33180
Region: Aventura/North Miami Beach
Clarke's, 900 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-672-9194.
International House of Pancakes, 4000 Alton Rd, Miami Beach (and other locations); 305-531-0404.
S&S Diner, 1757 NE 2nd Ave; 305-373-4291.
That's about it, though secondary considerations may include quality of maple syrup, since that's mostly what you taste anyway, right? (okay, maybe I'm not such a pancake connoisseur after all); and quality of service -- only counts if it's lousy enough to interfere with the pleasure of the pancake-eating experience.
And the envelopes, please ...
The Gary Bauer Award for Overall Catastrophic Pancake Performance Having Little to Do with the Pancakes: Clarke's flat, tepid, somewhat dry pancakes were mediocre, not awful, but the service here fit into the "lousy enough to interfere" category. For one thing the pancakes arrived with no butter or maple syrup; maple-flavored syrup eventually came, but the butter never did. While the four medium-size cakes constituted a decently portioned "short stack," which is what I ordered, I was charged for a large stack, which made it a not-very-generous helping at all. The manager, incidentally, wouldn't adjust the bill because he thought I should have known it was the wrong size and returned it when first served. I had a long time to dwell on his chintziness -- it took about twenty minutes to get the check.
The Pamela Anderson Award for Widest Variety of Fake Accouterments: That would be maple, strawberry, blueberry, and butter-pecan syrups, all available at IHOP, the acronymic American icon of pancake emporiums (here, the branch on Alton Road in Miami Beach). The five medium-size flapjacks, served with butter on top, were decent by all measures but lacked the requisite heft and fluffiness to be a serious contender -- even with bonus points awarded for the traditional pancake-house pot of coffee on the table.
The P. Diddy Award for Confusing Name: The Original Pancake House isn't the original pancake house; IHOP was first with its West Hollywood, California, shop in 1958. Still, the Original's (Aventura branch) pancakes were slightly superior to IHOP's -- more of a buttermilk tang, and the fake maple syrup was at least and at last served in a warmed glass pitcher. (Side note to the competition: The breakfasts at surrounding tables looked mighty inviting.) There were six hotcakes to a plate (no mistaking these for a short stack), but, once again, they were of the thin variety. Perhaps a red tin of Rumford's baking powder would be an apt consolation prize for the runners-up.
The Winner of the First Annual Flapjack Flip-Off: S&S Diner. This downtown Miami institution has had 63 years to perfect its pancake performance, and evidently it has put the time to good use. The trio of large, finally fluffy cakes was everything you could ask for: richly browned, steamy hot, tasty, and moist. Price doesn't figure into the judgment, but at $2.99 this also was the best deal (the Pancake House charged $3.99, Clarke's $4.19, and IHOP $4.99).
After a week of waking up to flapjacks, I've come to two conclusions: (1) it's tough to find real maple syrup in this town, and (2) while pancakes make for an enjoyable breakfast, they should be regarded as somewhat beyond the capacities of average digestive organs. Luckily I've got an entire year to recuperate for the Second Annual Flapjack Flip-Off. You can e-mail this column with suggestions for nominees deemed worthy of challenging for the crown. To ensure the integrity of the competition, no favoritism will be afforded advertisers or friends of this newspaper's staff (assuming they have any). To qualify a restaurant must either be breakfast-oriented with obviously sensational pancakes, or generous in sending crisp, unmarked bills to Lee Klein c/o New Times. Naturally I'm kidding about the bills -- they needn't be crisp.